So you've been asked to facilitate a meeting. What does that mean exactly?
Do you just ensure everyone's introduced, and maybe kick off with a quick ice breaker exercise? Is your main role simply to stand by the flip chart and note down all the ideas? What preparation do you need to do? How do you manage the event, and how exactly do you pull the whole thing together?
In many types of group situation, and particularly in complex discussions or those where people have different views and interests, good facilitation can make the difference between success and failure.
As a facilitator, you may need to call on a wide range of skills and tools, from problem solving and decision making, to team management and communications.
The definition of facilitate is "to make easy" or "ease a process." What a facilitator does is plan, guide and manage a group event to ensure that the group's objectives are met effectively, with clear thinking, good participation and full buy-in from everyone who is involved.
To facilitate effectively, you must be objective. This doesn't mean you have to come from outside the organization or team, though. It simply means that, for the purposes of this group process, you will take a neutral stance. You step back from the detailed content and from your own personal views, and focus purely on the group process. (The "group process" is the approach used to manage discussions, get the best from all members, and bring the event through to a successful conclusion. How you design this depends on many factors, and we'll explore this in a little more detail later in the article. The secret of great facilitation is a group process that flows – and with it will flow the group's ideas, solutions, and decisions too.)
Your key responsibility as a facilitator is to create this group process and an environment in which it can flourish, and so help the group reach a successful decision, solution or conclusion.
Facilitation can take a lot of mental effort, meaning that it can be difficult to think about and contribute content while facilitating. Neutrality is also important. So if you have an interest in the outcome, or have skills, experience, information or authority which is important for a successful outcome, then consider bringing in an external facilitator.
To facilitate an event well, you must first understand the group's desired outcome, and the background and context of the meeting or event. The bulk of your responsibility is then to:
We look in more detail at most important of these areas below.
With the group's objective firmly in mind, preparation for the meeting or event is all-important. Your job is to choose and design the right group process(es), and develop an effective agenda for the occasion.
Whether you're planning a straight-forward meeting, or a complex event over several sessions or days, it's important to always keep in mind the outcome – and how you are helping the group reach it.
If the event spans multiple sessions and topics, make sure that you are clear about both the desired outcome and process for each one. And make sure that you know how the outcome of each session or topic contributes to the outcome of the event overall.
If you've been asked to facilitate an event by someone else, make sure that you consult him or her carefully as to the final "shape" of the event. Even if they haven't been explicit about what they want, they probably have an idea of what they want, and will be unpleasantly surprised if this isn't delivered.
Two key aspects of the design and planning are choosing the right group process, and designing a realistic agenda.
There are as many ways to design a group process as there are events to facilitate: It's quite an art! Group process design is also a huge topic in its own right, and something that professional facilitators learn through experience and training.
Here we consider some of the basic options and principle. And there are many tools and techniques here at Mind Tools that will help you facilitate effectively (see the "Facilitators' Toolbox" below for more details). There are also many wonderful books and guides on the subject – we recommend that you consult some of these if you're new to facilitation, or if you're facing the challenge of facilitating a particularly difficult event.
Here are just some of the factors and options to consider:
An open discussion, well facilitated, may be the simplest option for your group process. But ask yourself whether you will be able to achieve the participation you need, and manage the discussion with the number of participants involved with this format. Can you cover the variety of topics needed? Can you generate enough ideas and solutions? And can you involve everyone, and get their buy-in?
If you need to accommodate participation from a large group, consider smaller "break-out" groups. Are you concerned about getting enough participation? Then give people time in the agenda to think about and write down the things they want to contribute. If you want to get ideas flowing, then consider including a brainstorming session. More information about different structured processes can be found in the Facilitators' Toolbox below.
You won't be able to change some constraints. However, you may be able to change others to optimize your process and agenda. As part of this, consider:
Remember, whatever group process you define, it's a question of keeping your focus on outcomes. Find the best way to achieve the objectives of the overall event.
Here are just some of the tools and techniques at Mind Tools that can help make a great meeting or event:
As well as these, several sections are packed with useful tools and techniques:
Designing the agenda goes hand in hand with designing the group process. As you iterate between designing the process and designing the agenda, the event starts to take shape. Among the factors to consider when planning the agenda are:
By the end of the design and planning stage, you should have a solid agenda, which focuses on outcomes, and provides a good flow and structure for the event.
In addition to process and agenda, you should also consider the following:
With the agenda and group process in place, it's time to think about how you'll guide and control the proceedings. There's still some preparation to do for this, and then there's whole business of guiding and controlling the event itself.
The final stage of preparation is to think about how you'll guide and control the meeting. This is where you prepare the ground rules for the event, polish your facilitation skills, and also consider some what-if scenarios: What if there is major disagreement? What if a solution does not emerge? and so on.
At the meeting itself, as facilitator, you'll set the scene and ensure that participants are clear about the desired outcome, the agenda, the ground rules and expectations for the event. By doing this, you help everyone focus on the task at hand. At the start of the meeting, and throughout, your role is to use to ensure the meeting keeps progressing towards a successful outcome.
To guide and control the meeting, you will need to:
As a facilitator, there are many situations in which you may need to intervene. Rehearse when and how you'll do this. Keep the lightest of touch. And bear in mind the need to remain objective, keep focus on the desired outcomes, and generally maintain a positive flow.
The most difficult types of intervention are those involving conflict, anger and disagreement. Remembering your role, it's important to focus on the needs of the group, whilst considering the feelings and position of both parties involved in any disagreement.
To keep the event flowing and positive:
Last but not least among the responsibilities of a facilitator is the recording of outputs, and of bringing these together, sharing them, and making sure they are actioned.
The key to successful recording of outputs from an event is to be clear about what will be recorded, how and by whom. Make sure that people's responsibilities are 100 percent clear, whether they are yours or others' involved.
When we think of a facilitator, it's the recording function part of their role that most often comes to mind. We see a person standing in front of an easel that is packed with paper, with felt pen in hand, and ready to write furiously when the ideas start flowing.
While this is an important function, remember that, for the ideas to flow, the planning, and guiding and controlling functions must be attended to first. You can have all the paper in the world but if your meeting is not well planned, guided, and controlled, you could be facing an empty piece of paper at the end of the event.
When you are recording and actioning, here are some things to remember:
To be an effective facilitator you must know when to take a leadership role, and when to be neutral and take a back seat. This is a difficult balance to maintain! The key to being proficient in the role is to plan and guide the proceedings effectively, and remain focused on the group process and outcomes, rather than specific content and opinions involved.
Facilitation is an interesting, rewarding and important role to take on. When facilitating, take time to think about the process and agenda, and learn the skills you need to take the event through to a successful conclusion. Take pride in the role of facilitation, and enjoy watching the ideas, solutions and successful outcomes flow!
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