Facilitation

by Steve Roche

Providing a process to complete tasks

Influencing without using any authority is one of the real arts of being a great facilitator. And it is much easier to exert control through the structure you use, rather than will power.

As a facilitator you will be providing process at two different levels. At the macro level it is about the structure of the event, while at the micro level it is about small interventions to keep things running smoothly.

Providing structure

The following are some of the things a facilitator does at the macro level to provide process. There are many exercises, tools, techniques and interventions available to a facilitator: you will find more in the books mentioned in Want to know more?.

Agenda

This is the framework for the whole event, whether it is a meeting, a large workshop or a seminar. During the event you need to monitor progress through the agenda and pace group members through it. Keep one eye on the clock and the agenda time frames. When it’s time to move on, suggest that the group do so. If it is a meeting and people want or need to keep talking on a topic, then renegotiate the agenda or defer the topic for another meeting.

The outcome

Very often a group needs to decide on a goal, and then a course of action to achieve the goal.

Goal or outcome setting

You may find it helpful to refer to the questions and ideas in the page on Goal setting steps to guide the group through the process of setting the goal properly. This will help you draw out, in a structured way, such things as the benefits of the status quo and the consequences to other parties. It is a much more complete process than the commonly-used SMART goal technique.

SCORE model

Workshops take place in the context of longer-term objectives, where the SCORE model may be useful for thinking further out, beyond just this event.

Identifying symptoms and causes helps to define present state, outcomes and effects, and to shed light on the desired state. Resources are applied to move from one to the other.

Getting there

Techniques should be selected according to how helpful how they are for achieving a specific task or a particular result. Ask yourself what – considering the knowledge level and sophistication of the group – is the quickest and easiest way to help them get the result they want?

Learn the advantages and drawbacks of each technique, and how to use them. Look up more material about them in the referenced resources or research them on the internet. Then it is down to practising and getting familiar with them in real situations. Most facilitators find it more productive to focus on the essential people skills, which you can then use to apply any technique you are comfortable with.

Brainstorming

This is a good way to generate a large number of ideas from a group in a short time. It’s important that people do not feel inhibited about coming up with ideas, so the aim is to produce as many ideas as possible without pausing to evaluate them.

It can be helpful to run a warm-up session first to familiarise the group with the process. Ask them, for example, to suggest alternative uses for a paper clip, a coffee cup or some other common object.

As facilitator, you need to state the problem to be brainstormed without being too constraining, and then keep people on track to produce ideas and not to evaluate. There is more on this in the topic on Creative Thinking.

Breakout groups

The large group is split into smaller groups of maybe four or five people. These smaller groups (sometimes called ‘syndicates’) are set a task and, after a set time, report back to the whole group with their results. You may set either the same task for each breakout group or different ones. Be very specific about the task and what output is required, and then manage the feedback from each small group so that all have a fair say.

People often feel more engaged in a small breakout group than in a large workshop. They feel their ideas are being heard, whereas they may not speak out in the larger group. Typically, much more is accomplished than if the same exercise was set for the larger group.

Role play

This can be useful when your outcome is to come up with a solution to a relationship issue between two businesses. Some people are designated as Business A and others as Business B. Each group spends some time seeking to really understand the position of that business in the relationship standoff. They then get back together and role-play a negotiation to resolve the situation. This often leads to creative solutions that can then be explored in detail.

Negotiation

There are several different processes that can be used to facilitate negotiation between two parties. A simple one is to ask each party separately what they want, then ask what that will get them, and then again ask what that will get them. They will start to talk in larger, more global ideas at each successive level of ‘what will that get you’.

Generally, you will find that at a higher level of abstraction, each party actually wants the same things, so you now have a foundation for an agreement. You then need to facilitate them back down to the detail levels, while still maintaining this agreement. See the topic on Negotiation for more ideas.

AS IF scenarios

Often, a group will get stuck in its thinking because a particular problem looms large on the horizon and they cannot think beyond it. Set up a scenario where that problem has been solved and then discuss what happens next. This can get the creative thinking going. People start thinking of the future more positively again and a solution to the initial problem can surface more easily.

Issues and parking lot

Creating a list of issues (on a flipchart or whiteboard) is an effective way to handle questions and challenges that might otherwise throw the group off course. When somebody raises a point or problem that is valid, but not part of the task at hand, put it on the list to be addressed later. The list offers several benefits:

  • It keeps everything visible
  • It shows people they have been heard and keeps them involved
  • It demonstrates that contributions are valued
  • It engenders a sense of progress, while the group stays focused.

You can use another sheet headed ‘Parking Lot’ in the same way – to hold an idea or question until later. Some facilitators call this the ‘fridge’ (where issues will keep nice and fresh until later).

When you say you agree to a thing in principle, you mean that you have not the slightest intention of carrying it out in practice.

Bismark

Actions list

Create a list of ‘Actions’ at an early stage. When at any point probable actions are identified, write them on the list to avoid them being lost and keep them visible. Return to this list later in the event to review and agree actions, and to allocate owners and dates.