This article was written by Stuart Wigham, Content Manager and Consultant at ON THE MARK.
Last week, I wrote an article about my frustration at the methodology used in a panel discussion I attended related to diversity and inclusion. The sum total of my frustration was the lack of attention that was paid to the set up of the event and style of facilitation as much as the content of what was being presented and discussed.
The discussion got me thinking about my own style as a group facilitator and bias related to facilitation of events.
Next week I will be hosting a webinar on my PhD research, which will require both presentation and facilitation skills (albeit virtually rather than physically). I’ve therefore been revising ON THE MARK’s materials related to facilitation skills in an effort to remind myself of information learnt earlier in my career that I have long since forgotten. In doing so, it seems like a worthwhile subject to write about. The saying goes that the best way to learn something is to teach it.
Below I highlight the basics of facilitation and the key to being an effective group facilitator.
The ABCs of Facilitation
The content I have been reading dates back twenty years (and probably has its origins earlier still), but it is just as relevant today as it was back then. The beginning highlights the role of the facilitator being to “help the group increase its effectiveness by improving its process”. Following this, there is a delineation between process and task.
Process is how the group relates, solves problems, handles conflict, makes decisions and participates in the activities.
Task involves what the group is either discussing, working on or doing in order to achieve the end goal.
Some essential facilitation frameworks to keep in mind include:
- Being content agnostic
- Not have decision making rights in the group(s)
- Intervening to help the group problem-solve for themselves and make decisions
In addition, the facilitator should be aiming to get the group members to use the same approach at the same time on the same issues and keep the group engaged in doing so until they have accomplished what they set out to do or need to change direction.
Setting the group facilitator role’s context
It’s worth noting that not everyone understands what the role of a facilitator is. This is particularly so if you are used to formal meetings with a chair taking the lead and having decision rights.
A facilitator, on the other hand, has a very different role. Here is what a facilitator should not do:
- Make decisions or contribute to the content of the group’s decisions
- Run errands and do clerical work
- Supervise with managerial responsibilities over the group
- Take sides or judge
- Liaison between the group and the wider organisation
Highlighting these distinctions is important. I’ve often been in situations whereby the role of a chair or manager has been conflated with that of a facilitator. In doing so, the group is set up to fail. Before long the individual that was the facilitator has taken over as arbitrator of the decisions. This action leads to withdrawal of group members as they figure that it matters little what they say–the decision will be made by someone else anyway.
At the beginning of facilitation, you should highlight the role that you are playing and how this helps the group achieve their goals.
The facilitator is essentially bound by a set of parameters or ethics, these are:
- The primary customer is the group and organisation
- Any actions or interventions should be in service to the group
- Decisions and the decision making authority should not be influenced by the facilitator
- The facilitator should avoid any display of preferences
- The role of facilitator is to uphold and guard the group process
- No harm should be caused by the facilitator
- Protected space. Information derived by the facilitator during the process should not be used to influence decisions outside the facilitated space.
Who should step into the facilitator role?
There is much, much more to the facilitation process.
Missing from this piece are issues about what constitutes an effective group, including how trust manifests itself, as well as the way a facilitator creates engagement within the space to help with behavioural dynamics. For me, going through our material was useful to remind myself about the boundaries between participation and the role of the facilitator as servant to the group but not of the group.
It is difficult to facilitate if you are from the same organisation. Our own internal bias is difficult to keep in check. Facilitating from within your own organisation is like being a politician on a committee trying to appear neutral. Even if your behaviour is beyond reproach, the perspective of those affected is the important thing to note. It would seem to me to be near impossible to present as neutral if you are part of the very organisation in question. This is particularly so in issues of change like Organisation Design. The above are usually highly contentious issues with high stakes for the individuals. The appearance of neutrality is as important as the act itself.
I am left wondering: is it possible to facilitate a group from an organsiation that you are a member of successfully? If so, what are the conditions that allow for this? For example, distance relative to the group, working in very large organisation whereby the facilitator comes from an area completely removed from the group? Does this still give the appearance of neutrality as much as using an external source?
Stuart Wigham is a Content Manager and Consultant at ON THE MARK. OTM’s experience and passion for collaborative business transformation that’s supported by pragmatism, systems thinking, and a belief in people is unparalleled. OTM has been in business for 29 years and is a leading organization design consulting firm.