What exactly is a facilitator, and why might you need one? Can’t someone on the team serve in that capacity, and perhaps you could rotate the facilitator role?
A facilitator is someone who makes taking an action or engaging in a process easier. If your leadership team is setting aside valuable time to set strategy, wrestle with a particular business problem, or do some deep thinking around developing a new product or service, a great facilitator can be worth their weight in gold.
For a meeting to be a valuable use of everyone’s time, each team member needs to be an active participant in the discussion at hand. It is very difficult for someone to remain neutral in a discussion on which they have (and should have) strong views, ask insightful and penetrating questions, draw out others’ viewpoints, deal with arising conflict in a diplomatic way, reach agreed upon conclusions and describe further action steps.
That’s where a facilitator comes in. Excellent facilitators are highly skilled in six ways:
- They deepen discussion through asking what are often deceptively simple questions, by actively listening, and by accurately reflecting what is being said. Facilitators often come from a coaching or consulting background, but facilitating is not consulting, nor yet is it coaching. Great facilitators share some skills with great coaches: they can hear what is being said beneath the surface and succinctly articulate what is actually going on. They keep track of the multilayers of understanding and highlight important aspects of the discussion. Consulting involves using industry expertise to provide advice and/or recommendations on an issue or topic, and that background might be helpful in the discussion, but the opinion should not be the facilitators, because great facilitators…
- Remain neutral and unbiased. It’s your meeting, not theirs. You are the best experts on your own organization. The facilitation process should allow your team’s ideas, creativity and insights to bubble to the surface and spark the actions that will contribute to your unique value proposition. To get true value from a team, a meeting should NOT be an exercise in collaborative window dressing for conclusions that have already been made, and a facilitator should not be engaged with a view to “bringing people around to the boss’s way of thinking”.
- Their methods tie directly to your goals. The facilitation process is most effective when there is a clear line of site between the activities in which the team is engaging and the outcomes they are seeking. Ideally, the benefit of any exercise, be it an individual, small or large group activity, should clearly be in evidence. If a confidence-building ropes course is on offer, consider how that achieves what you are looking for
- Great facilitators are comfortable with discord and controversy. They don’t get flustered when disagreements rise to the fore, and also don’t allow themselves or others to be bullied by dominant or highly outspoken members of the team. They know deep in their bones that conflict is as necessary as oxygen to truly explore all aspects of an important decision. They keep the conversation civil (if it can’t rise to cordial), and prevent the group from stonewalling into uncooperative silences or engage in mean-spirited attacks.
- Further, they are both flexible and focused. When jugular issues are on the table, or some team members have “shiny bobble syndrome”, agendas can take twists and turns. A great facilitator has the ability to assess when the discussion has veered off into a non-productive direction and get it back on track. They keep an eye on the clock, mindfully moving discussions toward a constructive conclusion. They don’t let the discussion degenerate into the well-worn path of familiar and oft-voiced complaints.
- Lastly, they know how to bottom line and articulate a focused list of next steps. We have decided A, B and C. Now, who is doing what by when? A good facilitator finishes the day with a summary of what was decided and next steps that need to be taken. They ensure the group has a realistic number of actions to be taken, i.e.: not more than five items. One of biggest complaints about retreats is “we spent the day(s) and then nothing happened. No one was sure what we were doing or who was doing it.” A good facilitator summarizes and makes these things clear.
While it is possible, even desirable, for team members to take on the role of facilitator, you may well find that that engaging a truly excellent facilitator for important organizational decisions makes everyone’s job a whole lot easier.