“The facilitator’s main task is to help the group increase effectiveness by improving its process and structure.” Roger Schwarz, The Skilled Facilitator
In an age of knowledge work, the role of facilitation — both hard and soft skill sets — is the elixir, the glue, the grease, needed to get diverse craftspeople to collaborate and make magic happen.
Facilitation needs to have a direction in order to shape the new world, to nudge, enlighten and encourage people to move forward. For this, the Facilitator needs to have influence, founded in integrity, experience and an understanding of what is best for the overall system in play.
It started early, naturally for me. In my 2nd entrepreneurial venture, a small software company in Calgary, which came out of my previous venture’s smoldering ashes, I was playing an Operations role. My nickname was Switzerland. Between the various Executives I just ended up in a central space trying to move them all collectively towards a better state.
In almost any group setting, be it a family event or a conference, I literally can’t help myself but to step in and help orchestrate the situation.
The proper notion of Facilitation was finally crystallized when I read Roger Schwarz’s seminal book, ‘The Skilled Facilitator.’ From there it was a deep dive into a range of topics from David Sibbet’s , The Grove Consultancy, to Sam Kaner’s “Groan Zone,” and beyond. Finally, I had a set of codified models to hang all my experience off.
The continued rise of knowledge work has commensurately driven a higher level of cross functional team-based organizational structures focused on more ethereal, complex and creative tasks with no single linear solution.
To effectively maximize these mixed skill sets and contexts (ie. cultures), a well-facilitated process lubricates the social & process interactions driving more value out of a group and keeping it targeted to the organizational outcome.
And as a facilitator of change, I consider two different planes to operate within:
Tactical activity, typically in a group setting, whereby a facilitator is guiding conversations and activities to move the group forward
>> As an agent of change, I facilitated a workshop with a group of stakeholders to develop a vision and change backlog
A longer cycle activity whereby someone is orchestrating a series of activities at a high-level to shape thinking, align concerns and drive results
>> As an agent of change, I orchestrated a series of workshops building towards a systematic inflexion point in the organization
While working as a facilitator certainly requires a healthy dose of planning, understanding the context and preparing materials, at some point, it’s about running the show in real-time. If there were no risk, then there would be very little opportunity to create something new or change the way people work. And in any situation with a diverse group of people, there will be unforeseen events or surprises – and it’s then up the Facilitator to suggest, nudge, ask, clarify, re-prioritize, shutdown, or simply get out of the way, to keep the energy of the group moving.
A workshop without risks is a presentation. For those, you don’t need a facilitator – you need a timekeeper
It’s a constant juggling act to balance the ambitious objectives of a workshop, with the practicalities of post-lunch fatigue, or someone’s need to check their email every 93 seconds. To counteract these and other obstacles:
- Over prepare and communicate objectives
- Visualize the day’s activities
- Keep things on time with a velvet glove
- Reflect inferences constantly
- Summarize the output immediately afterwards
While all these tools and techniques are helpful to navigate any workshop or group session, what is more crucial, is a facilitator with a servant-leader posture working for the group’s best interests. Keeping the focus on what serves the group most overrides any models, agenda or processes. And being able to make those decisions on the fly is a sign that you’re able to stand in the fire as a facilitator.
- The Skilled Facilitator, Roger Schwarz
- Visual Meetings, David Sibbet
- Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making, Sam Kaner
- Standing In The Fire, Larry Dressler