"My project is behind schedule, over budget and we’re not delivering on our key objectives!" she exclaimed. "What can I do?" As the project leader of a multi-million dollar, year-long project whose team members spanned 4 counties and multiple time zones, she was worried, stressed, and about at her wits end. She was an extremely hard working, knowledgeable, and respected employee, but her efforts to facilitate this project and her cross-functional group of professionals had been far from successful.
Many business professionals know the meaning of facilitation, but few are skilled at performing the duties of a facilitator or appreciate the true benefits of a process, project or important event that is masterfully facilitated.
Balancing diverse opinions and personalities; leveraging various talents and interests; and keeping things moving forward in a timely and effective manner are but a few of the challenges faced by a facilitator.
Let’s first review what facilitation is. By definition, to facilitate is "to make easy" or "to ease a process," and a facilitator is, not surprisingly, "one who makes things easy." The facilitator serves as a coordinator and organizer of small groups, and ensures everyone is participating and staying on task. Facilitators are adept at planning, guiding, and managing an activity, meeting, process or project to ensure that the group’s objectives are met effectively. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?
However, as with many things, many of the challenges lie in the details and with the execution. A facilitator needs to possess certain skills to increase their group’s chances for a successful outcome. For example, a great facilitator:
- Understands the big picture and how smaller pieces fit into it
- Adapts to the group make-up and dynamics
- Fosters individual and group creativity
- Has an ability to ask good questions
- Is a skilled listener
- Is objective, neutral, unbiased
- Is mindful of the process, timing, environment, and very importantly…
- Keeps the group focused on its goals and objectives
Not everyone possesses these talents and abilities but each can be learned and developed.
Not every project or event is the same, of course, so not every one of them can be approached in the exact same manner from a facilitation standpoint. There are many factors that impact the correct approach to facilitating, such as:
- The number and location of the participants
- The nature of the topics under discussion
- The type and duration of involvement the participants need to have
- The background and positions of the participants
- How well they know the subject matter and each other
- The time you as facilitator have available
- Your relationship with the participants
Just as there are many ways to par a hole in golf, there are many ways for a facilitator to be effective. Here are some ways to help in achieving a successful outcome:
- Set the ground rules and seek agreement
- Set the scene: objectives, schedule/flow, roles
- Keep up the momentum, energy, and focus
- Listen intently and observe body language and group dynamics
- Engage and involve everyone…but keep control
- Monitor progress against milestones
- Provide regular updates to the project’s "champions"
And just as there are things to do to be an effective facilitator, here are some suggestions of what not to do:
- Impose a solution on the group
- Downplay people’s ideas
- Push personal agendas and opinions as the "right" answer
- Dominate the group
- Allow people to bully others in the group
- Take a stance with one section of the group
I worked recently with a group of project managers and facilitators at a large provider of automated healthcare solutions. With the large number of product development and customer support projects that they have underway, the company is focused on the training and development of the people who are leading these efforts. They understand what’s at stake with these projects, including the financial implications and the impact on their customers, and are working hard to ensure that their people are mastering facilitation.