Mythbusting: What facilitation IS and ISN’T

So what do you do, exactly?

It’s a question all facilitators get – from friends, from family, from new connections at networking events … There’s not an easy way to describe group process facilitation – especially if someone has never worked with someone like me. But here’s a closer look of what my job is and isn’t.

What’s your organization looking for? This quick list might help get you closer.

  • For facilitators

If you’re a facilitator, I invite you to take a look and see if you find it to be true in your own experience (are there any I missed that you encounter?).

  • For prospective clients

If you’ve been told your group might benefit from facilitation, but aren’t quite familiar with the process, I’m hoping these descriptions help give a better picture of what we do, what we don’t do, and the value we can ultimately bring to your group.

A quick note

Please keep in mind, it’s never a bad thing to ask a question. So, even if you got it wrong – don’t let that stop you from asking a different one! Keep asking away.

I’m happy to share and curious to hear what you think and always happy to explain more about what I do. Here we go.

Facilitation is NOT…

Counselling

I get this question a lot. People ask me often whether I feel like an Oprah or Dr. Phil when groups are sharing difficult truths, grievances, frustrations and the like.

paolo-nicolello-1127477-unsplashAnd it’s true, many of the exercises I lead participants through can feel therapeutic, simply because it gives a space and a process for people to talk about topics or opinions that perhaps aren’t often sought – or as openly received as they are during a facilitated workshop.

Yet, here’s the big difference between my work and those professionals who offer professional counselling advice: I do not deliver feedback.

Through careful questions, I open the floor for people to speak and act as a neutral observer, repeating back what I’ve heard to make sure I’ve understood.  Sometimes I’ll ask the group to repeat back what was said to ensure the group understands.  At no point am I weighing in with my opinion or in judgement of what has been said.

In this way, facilitation is a bit more like coaching, encouraging a group to work together to arrive at their own unique solutions or end points.

Consulting

I’ve written before about the differences between what I offer and the services a consultant can bring to an organization.

Consultants are hired for their knowledge and expertise in a particular field. The consultant often goes into an organization to discover the organization’s circumstances and then offers their assessment of the situation and skills to address. Instead, I’m hired to help teams discover their own thinking.

Crowd management

If there are a few “strong personalities”, that round out a team and seem to be paralyzing progress, I’m often asked  to help bring the naysayers on-side.

jordan-300359-unsplash

Oh, dear! What a responsibility, to transform a vocal dissenter into a compliant team-player. Unfortunately, no, I cannot offer this service.

But. (Don’t worry, there is a “but.”)

Instead, I create processes that create space for everybody else. So those loud, scene-stealing, types aren’t erased or transformed, but rather, come into context, as everyone else (even the shy, quiet types) are given a time to speak, and have their chance to own the conversation.

When you create this type of situation, everybody else gets louder and the “loud voice” becomes noticeably quieter simply for lack of airtime.

Interestingly, the so called “loud voice” are often loud because they don’t feel heard.  So really demonstrating that I have heard them goes a long way as well.

Bringing a group to a pre-decided endpoint

Similar to the above point, I’m not a wrangler. Sometimes a client will approach me to let me know s/he has already made a decision and needs someone to help bring all others on-side, to bridge the understanding and pave the way for a new world.

This is awkward.  If the decision is already made and we’re pretending that it’s a participative decision, then it is better if I walk away. It goes against my ethics to run a manipulative event.

nathan-shively-57964-unsplashIf, however, the decision is not fully made and there is genuinely a role for the group in making the decision, then I create process that allows the group to participate within the defined boundaries, acting as the neutral process support to get there.

Another alternative, if the decision is made and we need to group to understand the decision, why it was made and explore implications and impacts or perhaps begin planning for implementation – then this is also a great role for a facilitator.  What we aren’t doing is “forcing compliance”.

Training

This is a bit of a fine line. Yes, you can use a facilitated process to help people discover a new topic or subject area, and there is definitely such a thing as a facilitative trainer,  but no, I myself am not an expert in a subject or here to help others learn how to perform a new task.

(Unless the topic is facilitation – in that area I am qualified as a formal trainer!).

I remain neutral on all content. If there is a subject matter expert present, who needs help leading a group through a certain type of process, I can aid in that journey, but the content will never be a facilitator’s to own or pass along.

The bottom line

Ultimately, I can help groups come to a resolution around a problem, area of tension, or difficult question. But I’m not counselling, training, executing crowd management skills or manipulating a group to do it.  Facilitation is about offering good process that taps the wisdom of the group, enables the group to discover its thinking, and lets the group itself discover that they had the answers all along. And honestly? I can’t think of a more rewarding job than that.

Leave the cliffhangers to Hollywood. Here’s how to end your meetings on a satisfying note

Catharsis, the final chapter, the end.

Whatever you call it, humans need closure. Whether it’s reading the last chapter of a good book to find out what happens, hearing the punchline of a joke, or making a decision at the end of a strategic planning or business meeting.

That’s right – even in the boardroom, the rules of human nature apply.

Enter the Decisional level of thinking, the final step to the ORID methodology.

In a sense, this is the easiest step of the process. To complete it, you and your participants don’t need to make a big “D” decision, but you do need to bring the conversation to some kind of resolve or conclusion, what I call a small ‘d’ decision. It is often as simple as planning a single next step – like scheduling a follow-up meeting to determine how to put the day’s work into action, or assigning some takeaway actions.

But as small a thing as those seem, they can be surprisingly easy to overlpencilook, especially because they often come during the final minutes of a long session!

Yet, without a final decision to close the session, you risk provoking a sense of futility, frustration or reluctance among you participants. They feel their time has been wasted, are unsatisfied and may never want to take part in another planning session again if this one doesn’t give them that all-important conclusion.

So, make sure you nail the Decisional phase, and you’ll ensure you win supporters – and generate commitment – throughout the room.

Here’s how to do it.

Leave enough time.

The clock is counting down. People have begun gathering their belongings, packing away their laptops, checking their watches and staring at the door.

Maybe the room you booked is about to be taken over by the next group. Or, perhaps you have out of town participants eager to catch their flights.

You can’t hold them back much longer … do you really need to complete this final phase?

Yes!

The Decisional phase is the conclusion to the long, fruitful hours you’ve already invested. Pay it the attention it deserves.

What to do: Take an extra few minutes if you do run over time. I, myself, won’t let my groups leave until we’ve at least created some sort of decision or next step.

Even if you just agree that the conversation isn’t finished and a follow-up discussion is needed.   Briefly summarize what you hope to achieve and you wil have brought the discussion to conclusion.

You can avoid this problem altogether by ensuring throughout your workshop or session that you are constantly checking the schedule to prevent the hours from getting away from you.

Know what you’re deciding on.

If you don’t know what you want to get out of your session, it will be hard to know what the end should look or feel like. So, ensure you carefully and thoughtfully determine the objectives for this discussion.

What to do: Work with your team to define your intention for the meeting, and what success at the end of the day will look like.  Refer back to these when planning the Decisional steps to ensure you’ve met your intention. Are you:

  • Making a decision? (What is our decision?)
  • Putting forward a recommendation? (What is our recommendation?)
  • Ensuring your group is fully informed? (What is your comfort with this topic?)
  • Seeking feedback on a topic? (What else do we need to know?)

Your objective will tell you what your decisional step needs to be.

Design your process fully.

You’ve run through your entire agenda, thought through some difficult dilemmas and agreed what’s wrong or what solutions might work. But if you haven’t included time in your agenda to make some concrete decisions, you risk your intelligence evaporating into thin air. Clues that this has happened sound like “There’s an hour of my life I’m never getting back!”

What to do: Careful planning, again, makes the difference here. Paying attention to the ORID structure (what are the facts, what are the internal/emotional responses, what are the  insights and finally, what next?) makes a tremendous difference. Intentionally planning the part of the meeting where you ask for closure, resolve, what the group has decided, or the next step matters.

This will help you solidify the idea that, after all the brainstorming, ideation and discussion, you are committed to coming away with a result (or perhaps even just a plan on how to create that move the result forward).

Flesh out each preceding stage.

If participants in the room aren’t on the same page, can’t seem to agree on facts, or are stuck in endless ideation, you may have gaps in the Objective, Reflective or Interpretive stages of the discussion.

What to do: If you find yourselves stuck when you go to make a binding decision or agree on a future step, consider returning to a previous stage to make sure you’ve completely explored it. It may be necessary to obtain additional facts, or explore past experiences more, or consider additional alternatives. A clue that this might be the case is when you hear “ I just don’t know enough to make a decision”.

Include the right people in the room.

I’ve been in a situation where groups reached the Decisional stage, and only at that point realized that no one present had actual decision-making power (or, in some cases, budget) to implement any changes.

ladder of involvement
Source: Institute of Cultural Affairs Canada

What to do: Planning, again, at the outset can prevent this problem to ensure your end state is in line with your group’s influence level. If you’ve come too far, rather than letting your work go to waste, consider creating a recommendations report that you can present to the decision-makers, with the supporting rationale. Determining which recommendations you intend to put forward is decisional-level of thinking or identifying the right people that need to be included. That clarity is also decisional level of thinking, which in this case informs your next step.

There is a theory called the “Ladder of Involvement”, which defines what kind of input a group is actually being asked to provide. Be sure at the outset that you’re honest with stakeholders which level of decision making the meeting is asking for.

 

Deciding to decide

People have committed time, ideas, efforts opinions and have worked hard to understand their fellow participants. Ensure that if you’re organizing, or moderating, a strategic planning or feedback session that you’ve included all the important ingredients, from the O to the R to the I and crucially, the D, so that everyone goes home happy. Both your group and your organization will then be able to benefit from real action – not just hours stolen from their busy schedules.

Strategic Planning got you spooked? Part 2

What’s holding you back? Here are the most common barriers to corporate road-mapping — and how to instantly banish them from your boardroom.

Part 2 – Why “10-commandments” style plans just don’t work

Bring those skeletons out of the closet, we’re going to fix them once and for all! Leave the fears behind so you can get back to work on your inspired, executable plan.

(…continued from part 1.)

Fear 5: You’re scared your plan will be a “one-hit” wonder

The problem: Who’s this strategic planning session for anyway? This is the first question your participants are going to ask themselves as they walk in the room. The answer should be: for them. Not just for senior leadership, not just for management, but for everyone who participates. Yet, this can take some convincing, and a properly designed process, to make that true.

rock star

An inclusive process that prioritizes participation is a hugely valuable tool for overcoming apathy, disinterest and a lack of buy-in. People don’t get excited about things they weren’t involved in. And they don’t love being given a ‘to do’ list without any input. (Think about how well that approach works with kids and spouses!)

The solution: Personally, I don’t like the term ‘buy-in’ as it feels vaguely manipulative. And so the answer to the problem is to create inclusive process that encourages genuine contributions and aligns input from everyone involved. To achieve this, the facilitator deploys a series of techniques that contributes to alignment, such as asking teams to contribute their ideas and connect ideas to the company strategy.

The right process will leave everyone feeling included, valued and with a stake in the planning and the outcome. When each individual has been encouraged to put their thoughts and opinions into the mix, they’re then much more likely to internalize the plan – because at that it’s their baby too, not a directive delivered from on high, nor just a list of someone else’s ideas. Even if senior leadership designs the initial strategy, including other layers of management and staff during the validation process should be the next step, to ensure this inclusiveness and investment from all teams.

Fear 6: You’re scared that the plan is un-executable

The problem: We’ve all been there. We get swept up in the excitement of a really good brainstorming session, we’re sketching out amazing cure-all strategies that will transform the world as we know it. But what good is this type of plan if it’s unattainable? How can we be sure a feel-good strategic planning session doesn’t lead to goals that seem outlandish or unrealistic once viewed on our computers in the cold light of Monday morning?

The solution: A great technique for creating a realistic plan is a healthy discussion of obstacles. Some people fear this type of approach, concerned that the conversation dwells on negatives and is inherently destructive.

In fact, a well orchestrated discussion of what holds us in place leads to plans that are grounded in reality and aimed at obstacles. Plans that focus on the desired future state, without also considering the obstacles create a ground hog day experience for the group, where they discuss the same old challenges a year later and the amazing strategies continue to be un-executable.

Another solution is to look at planning as a series of steps, rather than a single event. Once you’ve landed on concrete steps for action, take those ideas back to the organization. Go to small teams for feedback. Ask them to add their own additional insights, and don’t be afraid if new questions come up. Ask them to help you address considerations and questions such as ‘What would this mean for you?” and “How can we bring this to life?”

Once you’ve completed the plan, give control over its implementation to broader employee groups by creating a portfolio of projects. Split goals and objectives into manageable tasks and assign them to appropriate units. Invite team members from these units back to your 90-day follow up session to understand how they are progressing.

Fear 7: You’re scared that this session will produce the same old stuff

xerox 2

The problem: When you begin planning, do you find ghosts of meetings past can come back to haunt you?

Do you hear the same old arguments, barriers, knotty issues continue to rise to the surface, never to find resolution?

If your strategic road-mapping sessions have started to feel like an endless merry-go-round where you continually address the same old stale, stubborn issues, consider adding new activities into the mix.

The solution: You can’t expect something different to emerge if you keep starting with the same ol’ SWOT every time! Get rid of the familiar and try doing something different.

First, involve different people. As above, having a diversity of voices and skill-sets in the room is a powerful way to give you new, fresh and surprising perspectives. It’s a way to change the conversation – often for the better.

Other remedies could include techniques like environmental scans, historical scans, scenario discussions, , tours of unrelated , all to stimulate creativity and shed well-worn mindsets. Get off-site! Go to an unusual location. See how others are solving problems that might look different than your own, but underneath are probably quite similar.

And don’t forget to really dig deep to explore the things that hold you in place. Discovering the deep contradictions in an organization is a doorway to the future.

Fear 8: You’re scared it won’t work

trip.jpgThe problem: You’re worried that the plan, with all the hard work and optimism you invested in it, just isn’t going to move the needle in the way you’d hoped. What if you try something and it fails? Wouldn’t this be the most disappointing outcome of all?

The solution: Although there’s nothing wrong with failure (especially if you learn something from it), you can also try and prevent it in the first place.

Understand that even though your strategic plan might be approved, it still might not be perfect. The key is to check in regularly on the plan’s progress. Ask what is working and what isn’t.  Work to determine what you night need to change to succeed. This will give the sense that the plan is a living document, easily editable once you learn new information. Flexibility is important, using the plan as a strong guiding hand.

Want to learn more about how professional facilitation can transform your next strategic planning session from frightening to fruitful? Reach out to arrange a consultation.

Strategic planning got you spooked?

What’s holding you back? Here are the most common barriers to corporate road-mapping — and how to instantly banish them from your boardroom.

Part 1 – Chaos, crowds and cobwebs – oh my!

Does the thought of undertaking strategic planning give you chills? Are you worried that something might go wrong, or you’re not doing it right?

Don’t worry — you’re not alone.

In fact, I’ve been facilitating strategic planning sessions for more than 10 years and I continue to be surprised by how much hesitancy, fear and dread I encounter around this process.

It seems a poorly run or poorly organized strategic planning is like a bad horror movie that people just can’t get out of their heads.

But, when I hear about some of the sessions that my participants have been part of, this lingering bad taste in their mouth makes perfect sense. Sometimes sessions can go sideways. Sometimes they go nowhere. Or, most damaging of all, sometimes they lead to personal insult to and disengagement among stakeholders.

But that doesn’t mean the participants or the subject matter is to blame – it’s usually the process itself.

Here are a few common strategic planning bugaboos you may recognize – and some easy steps on how to fight back.

Fear 1: You’re scared to include a variety of people

The problem: I often hear from clients that they’re worried if they have a room full of participants representing multiple different business units and roles, the team will end up with too many ideas competing for limited airtime, leading to inefficient and exhausting debate.

Here’s what I say when I hear that: GREAT! The more diversity of thought, the better.

When it comes to strategic planning, thorough discussions are essential. To achieve this, you need more – not fewer – perspectives!

The solution: So how do you prevent a multitude of voices from descending into chaos? The difference is the design of the process, the way the session is run.

A properly trained facilitator (whether internal or third-party), uses consensus-driven methodologies that ensure a clear understanding emerges, that everyone stays on track, and that the outcome works for the participants – and the business.

Remember: everyone has intelligent input to offer when you ask the right questions.

Fear 2: You’re scared that, once complete, the plan will sit on the shelf, never to be referenced again.

The problem: Oftentimes, a group will complete a highly successful strategic planning dusty booksession, and emerge bursting with bright ideas, innovative solutions and ambitious commitments. Yet, when the plan is completed, it quickly gets buried under a pile of urgent paperwork, and is slowly relegated to the bottom drawer of the boss’s desk, never to see the light of day again.

So, the problems you set out to solve, the patterns you wanted to break, and the new way forward you envisioned, never gets off the ground.

There is nothing more disappointing than seeing good work go to waste. But, the good news is, you can easily prevent this frustration with just two simple clicks of your calendar.

The solution: First, choose the first initiative identified in the plan, and schedule it to be planned right away. In fact, try to schedule that kick-off meeting before you even leave the room where the planning has taken place.

Next, schedule one more meeting: a 90-day review. Include all people involved in the initial planning session. Here, ensure participants are prepared to report on what has been accomplished in the past six weeks since the planning ended. This will help reinforce that the work completed is being measured, that it’s important, and that each outcome matters.

It’s even better if this session is facilitated by the same person who led the strategic planning session, so you can bring everyone back into the same atmosphere, energy and mindset as the first.

Fear 3: You’re scared that people will just agree with whoever is leading the meeting.

ringmaster

The problem: It is very difficult to be a subject matter expert, a leader and a facilitator all at the same time.

The solution: When planning a strategic planning session, give the leaders a break. Consider hiring a third-party to take the reins of the session. This will take the pressure off internal stakeholders or meeting leader to act as neutral observers (which can often be nearly impossible!). Bringing in a neutral facilitator also removes the risk of and perception that any one person’s voice gets more weight than another’s. It also  minimizes the chance that participants feel ‘railroaded’ into supporting a certain point of view.  Plus, leaders can listen, fully participate and contribute their wisdom – rather than running the show or feeling like they’re in a room full of .

Fear 4: You’re scared that not everyone ‘gets’ the business (e.g. some people are just too junior to take part).

The problem: Sometimes highly trained or experienced people just don’t think those in other roles “get” what the discussion is about. So, they’re reluctant to bring in people who hold junior positions or have less experience. Yet even though these  different voices and viewpoints may seem unsophisticated or uninformed to one, they’re actually very much important contributors.

The solution: I firmly believe that only by collecting everyone’s wisdom can you get the wisest result.

A trained facilitator can design process which incorporates diversity to create a richer result. The benefit then becomes the enhanced perspective of the participants, the greater commitment to the results from more parts of the organization by involving more voices.

A tool that we often use is a “journey wall” which helps illuminate the history that has come before the current situation, where the group stands today, and what the ideal future state looks like. It can be really helpful to bring in a graphic illustrator to support this process; they can help create an illustration that captures this context and information in a way that’s easy to understand and actually see. As a bonus, then you have a permanent image you can use again and again.

These are just a taste of the common worries that hold people back from conducting a productive and valuable strategic planning session. Stay tuned for more tips coming soon. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a facilitator to help lead you through these, and other, thorny questions, reach out any time.