Bad acts of facilitation

In the last few weeks I have spoken with several people who have shared recent experiences working with a facilitator. In all cases they have said “the facilitator was not very good”. That catches my attention – what are they referring to?  What is happening when the facilitator isn’t very good? 

Complaint #1:  The facilitator had their own agenda. 

The group believed that the facilitator had an agenda and was maneuvering the group towards an already determined outcome. They felt manipulated, that their input was being selectively considered to match a previously determined outcome.

An essential rule – the facilitator must be neutral. The facilitator can not have a pre-defined ‘answer’. The facilitator may speculate on where the group will go for design purposes, but does not know ‘the answer’. Otherwise, the facilitator is perceived to be in collusion with the organizer and the group will not support the result.

Complaint #2:  We didn’t get anything done.

Two days of gruelling meetings coming to a conclusion with no substantive result. The group’s frustration is boiling over due to the inconsiderate waste of their time.

A facilitator must clearly define the outcome for the meeting. To be clear, it is an outcome such as a decision (we will select an option), not a description of the decision to be made (we will decide if option b is right). Facilitators are responsible for getting crystal clear on the desired outcome for the  meeting. This means detailed discovery discussions with the client. Poor discovery leads to poorly defined outcomes and dissatisfied participants.

Complain #3:  The facilitator talked too much.

The facilitator engaged with the discussion, shared opinions and took space away from participants. Participants were frustrated by the inability of the facilitator to ‘stay out of it’.

This is a common complaint when a subject matter expert is asked to lead a meeting. They have expertise, they want to share. A facilitator is content neutral. They do not have a role in content. Their role is to create the conditions for the people in the room to share their wisdom. Instead of hiring the subject matter expert to facilitate, invite them to participate and hire a content neutral facilitator.

Complaint #4:  The process was convoluted.

The facilitator didn’t have a process that was clear or well understood. Participants didn’t know where they were headed, the discussion seemed random.

This might be the most telling indicator of a non-facilitator. Good process is based on an understanding of group dynamics and how people think. The most involved part of event preparation is planning the appropriate group process. A good facilitator designs conversations to keep a group on track and to avoid random acts of dialogue.

Complaint #5: The facilitator was winging it.

The facilitator seemed to be adjusting their plan on the fly and didn’t really seem to know what was to be accomplished.

A good facilitation has iceberg qualities. Only about 10% of the effort it takes to create a good facilitated event is visible. The ‘submerged’ part of the event is the time taken to discover needs and prepare the right process for the group. It is not to say that a facilitator never changes plans mid-event, because that does happen. When course change is needed, a good facilitator discusses the situation with the group and makes change with the input and the consent of the group.

Remember that a facilitator, as defined by Roger Schwarz the leading academic on the subject, is  “a person who is acceptable to all members of the group, substantively neutral and has no decision-making authority, intervenes to help a group improve the way it defines and solves problems in order to increase the group’s effectiveness.”

I feel physical pain when I hear such complaints. To be an excellent facilitator is to embrace the mindset of a facilitator, to deeply understand the role, to have invested in training, to be expert in core methods and to constantly hone skills. Some people have natural talent for facilitation. All talented facilitators have invested in their skills.

_______________________________

Are you engaging in acts of bad facilitation?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may be guilty of bad facilitation:

  1. Weigh in on content
  2. Offer your opinion on the result
  3. Drive a group towards a specific answer
  4. Love being the centre of attention
  5. Wing it (process, schmocess!)
  6. Can’t explain the underlying methods that you’re using

Are you a thoughtful facilitator?

If you answer yes to these questions, you may be a thoughtful facilitator:

  1. Deep respect for the wisdom of the group
  2. Conscientiously neutral and ensuring there is space for all opinions in the room
  3. Keeper and driver of process
  4. Concerned with achieving desired outcomes
  5. Can discuss with you the details of their process and rationale behind them
  6. Have discuss client needs, group dynamics, needed outputs and event objectives, at length

Need to hire a facilitator?

If you’re hiring one for the first time, look for the following:

  1. Professional certification (through IAF, INIFAC or other)
  2. Have formal training  (Technology of Participation, The Art of Hosting, The Skilled Facilitator, Leadership Strategies)
  3. Adhere to professional ethics (see IAF’s code of ethics)
  4. Engage in continuous professional development

 

Meeting organizer: book facilitator first!

I would like meeting organizers to call facilitators before they book venues and dates for meetings.

In the past several months, I have done a dozen facilitations for as many groups, and in virtually all situations, the date was booked, the agenda partially defined and the meeting room decided BEFORE talking with the facilitator.

While this sounds like a rational approach, if you’re the facilitator it is completely backwards.

A professional facilitator starts every client engagement with a thorough needs assessment. We need to understand what is to be accomplished, what has happened so far, the challenges and the dynamics of the group and who will carry out the work that emerges from the work shop. We are curious about the relative strengths and weaknesses of a group; the history of the group and its promise.

Once we understand these factors, we can address the client’s uniqueness and design an appropriate agenda and meeting process. Until the process is defined, the room needs are less clear (beyond something BIG).

So, I’ve crafted a list of things that I’d like meeting organizers to know:

  1. Give your facilitator SUFFICIENT LEAD time. Good facilitation needs preparation time. The call on Monday for a Thursday facilitation is thoughtless at best and a recipe for disaster at worst. Leave booking your facilitator to the last minute and it is likely that the good ones will not be available.
  2. Make time for the facilitator to conduct a thorough NEEDS ASSESSMENT  interview with you. If there isn’t time for that conversation, consider changing the meeting date. Without a good discovery conversation, you may not get what you want from your meeting.
  3. Consult with the facilitator BEFORE you finalize dates and rooms. Your facilitator will know what their room needs are when they’ve considered the processes to be used and the number of participants involved.
  4. Do NOT hand a professional facilitator an already baked agenda. The value in hiring a facilitator is their expertise at designing an effective agenda that will accomplish your meeting goals. If you’ve already decided agenda and process, hire a time keeper.
  5. TRUST your facilitator. Facilitators have spent lots of time with lots of groups and  have learned through trial and error what works and what does not work.
  6. Book a room with LOTS OF WALL SPACE. Natural light is awesome and we love it too, unless it means that there are NO WALLS for posting the efforts of the day. Golf courses seem like a good idea until you realize that there isn’t any uninterrupted wall space.
  7. Book a BIG, FLEXIBLE room. We want two or three times more space than ‘maximum occupancy’ dictates. People NEED to move around during a long meeting.
  8. Avoid rooms with a FIXED BOARDROOM table in the middle of a long narrow room. These rooms aren’t comfortable or particularly functional and you will certainly feel like you’ve been held hostage by the end of the day.
  9. PUT AWAY DEVICES. You are making this investment and taking people out of their jobs for a period of time for good reason. Give yourself the gift of focus and implement a no device rule for the day.
  10. SEPARATE lunch space from work space. Move lunch to a different room. Food is messy and so are work spaces. Participants need a physical break during full day meetings.

Successful meetings are a result of good discovery, good process design and good physical environment. The role of a facilitator is to ensure all  three elements are well addressed. So start your meeting organizing with a call to the facilitator!