Imagine that you have been invited to participate in a three-hour long meeting. The agenda of the day is not very clear, the room is too small, there are no beverages, and the oxygen is running out. You hear the same people speak over and over again, making interminable presentations. The event lacks energy and ideation, involvement and pace. You go home frustrated and uncommitted with a feeling of having wasted your time – and you are probably not the only one. Luckily, most sessions are not that extreme. However, you will probably be able to recognise some of the above elements from, for example, meetings, events and conferences you have attended.
It may be difficult to point out why some sessions succeed, and others do not, but this is what we intend to find out. With this article, we will provide some suggestions for what you can do to add more meaning and value to the meetings and workshops you facilitate. The purpose of the article is hence to increase focus on how to create successful meetings and workshops.
Facilitation of meetings, workshops and other types of processes does not require ten years of experience, but it requires you to have a good knowledge of the art of facilitation and be able to put it into practice. In this article, we will describe the facilitator’s role and provide specific methods and tools for the facilitator to use in his/ her daily work. The article is useful to people working as chairpersons of meetings, project managers, consultants and managers who all have in common that they sometimes are to gather different groups of people who are to be involved and take ownership of different tasks and results.
Facilitation is about leading meetings, workshops, seminars and other processes where a group of people is aiming to reach a shared objective. The word facilitation comes from the Latin word facilis and means “to make something easier” or “move freely”.
As a facilitator, you help a particular group of people towards a shared objective by keeping an eye on the framework and the ultimate goal of the process, but without taking a position or contributing yourself. As facilitators, we guide the process in terms of form and goals, but not in terms of content as this quotation from Hunter emphasises:
“Your main focus as a facilitator is therefore to be interested – not the interesting one. In essence, you do not take centre stage or express an opinion on any given topic. On the contrary, you are there to help the group, to ensure that it achieves the desired result, and that the route to this goal is as easy and constructive as possible.
The concept of facilitation is thus about helping a group reach a shared goal and assisting them in achieving the desired results, without taking a stand or producing the content yourself, but by being fully aware of the setting and the dialogue. It is thus about managing the form and goals rather than the content. Very simply put:”
“Facilitation is about process – how you do something – rather than content – what you do.”
Facilitation is about creating results and ownership through involvement. As a facilitator, you are a catalyst, ensuring that all the relevant perspectives are considered within certain clear bounds, without taking a position or contributing yourself.
The International Association of Facilitators describes facilitation simply as helping groups do better. In other words, the facilitator is a person who could help a group of people to perform better, to achieve better results, to come up with more innovative ideas or to reach more sound decisions. When the process within the group is completed, they will naturally be in a different and more productive place than where they started.
When applying the concept of facilitation in this article, we regard it as the ability to create more dynamics, ownership and results in group processes through intentional work before, during and after the specific session. 1
In addition, we find it important to emphasise the following:
In some cases, it is obvious that you have formally been assigned the role of a facilitator, for example, if you have been engaged as an external or internal consultant to design and conduct a strategy development workshop or have been asked to facilitate an idea development process or a steering committee meeting. In other cases, the role of a facilitator is less obvious, for example, if you are at a large information meeting and suddenly end up in some teamwork and ”have to” assume the facilitator’s role, or if you, as a project participant, have to manage elements of a project meeting without having the formal role of project manager. If you are a manager or otherwise an expert on the content, it may be challenging for you to practise classic facilitation without taking a stand.
There will often be situations where it is even expected of you to have an opinion about the content or the decision and to actually take a stand, for example, if you are a manager, project manager, trainer or internal consultant. In these cases, we are not dealing with facilitation in the pure, ”neutral/ power-free” form that the external consultant is able to exercise to a much larger extent. However, we would like to emphasise that the facilitation methods may also be used successfully in the role of manager, project manager or internal consultant. But this requires you to be aware of when in the process you are assuming the facilitator’s role, and when you are acting as the manager and expressing your views on the subject or decision. You could, for example, be explicit about your role and intentions in order for them to know what is expected of them – are we to listen now, or are we to provide input, and what is to be discussed when?
As a manager, project manager or consultant, you will always, to a varying degree, have to assume different roles and either act as an adviser or a trainer at different times. The relationship between the three roles of adviser, trainer and facilitator is basically the relationship between focus on specialist competences and focus on the process with the people involved, which appears from figure 1.
The facilitator’s role is characterised by primarily focusing on the process rather than on specialist competences, i.e. expert knowledge of the very content. You may thus facilitate an IT strategy development workshop without necessarily being an IT expert and knowing all IT processes in the organisation. However, it is an advantage for you and the organisation if you have some basic knowledge of the organisation and its challenges. The roles of trainer and adviser will not be described in more detail in this article, but can, however, be summarised as follows:
Analyst: to be a technical specialist in an area and provide expert answers and analysis produced “at the desk”. This means that in the role of Analyst you do not need process expertise or any great interaction in your work.
Adviser: giving advice, typically related to expert knowledge, that helps the customer understand and make decisions.
Trainer: training someone in something by changing his/her knowledge, opinions, skills and behaviour.
Often the facilitator will juggle with the different roles in his/her daily work, depending on the purpose of the session that is to be facilitated. 3
Stager: to design and plan a process from start to finish, but not to get down and implement it yourself. Like the Analyst, this role works “at the desk” and focuses on creating the best possible conditions for involvement, ownership, learning and results in any given process.
If we are to deliver results in change processes, it is not enough to think about meetings, workshops and events as isolated activities decoupled from the context that the change is part of, and which it influences and is influenced by. Facilitation is often part of a larger change activity which requires facilitators, project leaders, managers or consultants to master a number of different priority areas in order to get good results from their workshops (see figure 2).
A competent facilitator should not only focus on “the moment” and on facilitating a fruitful session with a defined purpose and a clear deliverable where the actual interaction on the day works well. The facilitator should also keep in mind how the specific day relates to the process that the “day” may be part of, even where they have only been engaged for that one day. As a facilitator, one needs to focus both on the business/organisation and on the people dimension – all within the same process. The two dimensions – the day/process and the business/people – form the basis for the model, which illustrates the four focal areas that the competent facilitator has to focus on when he/she is to drive through successful changes.
There is no doubt that involvement and co-creation have become buzzwords when we talk about change processes. However, involvement without forethought carries a risk. There are many examples of “pseudo-processes” where a group of people are brought together to co-design a series of project proposals or draw up a new set of core values, after which it turns out that the facilitator or the group behind the session had no real mandate to implement the input. This could be because the extent to which the participants can influence the process and content has not been properly clarified with the stakeholders. The co-workers’ precious time and input should be used in a meaningful way, and they naturally expect feedback and information after the event on what is to be done with their input and how it will be applied in real life.
If we have inadvertently involved them in a “closed” process where there is no real possibility of influence, we can forget all about ownership and trust in us as facilitators, both now and the next time they are invited to take part in a similar process. Figure 3 is a great tool to define what is up for discussion and involvement (the playing field) and what is not up for discussion in the workshop (the corner flags).
Facilitation is basically made up of four components: aligning expectations (context), design of the process (before), the actual facilitation (during) and implementing and influencing behaviour (after) in a short and long perspective.
Context – setup of the process: This “phase” is about aligning expectations with the client as to the framework for the process. This is where you establish the needs and the context that the process is to fit into. The facilitator’s dance floor and the playing field figure are a good basis on which to talk to the client. Here, you will quickly be able to gain an overview of what the process is meant to contribute to and how complex it is.
Conscious design (before): Designing means shaping and planning the process with the desired results and purpose in mind. In order to design the process and carry out the facilitation, we have to know the purpose of the process. As inspiration for this preparatory work, we recommend the “design star”, which will ensure that you have thought through the entire process before you implement it. Our experience is that people often invest too little time in this phase, which produces poor results on the day and difficulties with the subsequent implementation.
Facilitation (during): This is where your design (programme and script) is put to the test. “Does it work in practice?”, “Is it too complex?”, “What about the time?” and “What do I do with the unforeseen things that always crop up in processes where people are assembled?”. Even if you have produced a good programme and script, you should realise that you must always expect to adjust your script on the day.
Follow-up (after): We often spend most of our energy on the “during” phase. After all, this is where we have to be present, perform and deliver a good day or some few intensive hours. That is what is visible to the participants and to your “customer”. However, it is not enough just to deliver a good day where your attendees go away happy from the meeting or workshop. In the long run, success depends very much on the “after” phase, and how you have designed it. A really skilled facilitator will already have considered the implementation of the results in his conscious design of the “before” phase and ensured that the group is not left with a result that lacks support from the rest of the organisation, or which proves unrealistic in practice.
Changing behaviour and seeing the effect (after-after): This is the longterm perspective that your process is often part of. Here again, the facilitator’s dance floor may help to highlight how you can foster change and real effect in the long run – in relation to the people and to the business.
An important success factor prior to the facilitation of any process is preparation. For this purpose, the design star is a useful practical tool which helps you think through the central elements before the actual meeting, workshop or process takes place.
We will now take a close look at each dimension of the star and elaborate on the elements (see figure 6).
When designing any process, you should start by taking a close look at the assignment, including the overall purpose – what you are to end up with when the process has been completed (deliverable) and the success criteria in relation to achieving the purpose. Not until then should you make any specific choice of design. Thinking through the overall purpose as well as the purpose of each individual subelement in the process is the first step in being able to carry out an optimal process. An example of purpose of a process could be to increase the exchange of experience and knowledge about good case administration practices across three departments.
What is the outcome of the meeting or workshop? A deliverable is the concrete proof of the meeting’s achievements. Are you standing with an Excel sheet, some ideas on Post-It Notes, a visual project plan or a prioritised list of ideas that everyone has signed off?
The participants’ experience with getting at least three ideas/input for their own assignment work, they experience the process as meaningful, they get an overview of who is handling which cases and know who to ask for help with cases. It is clear to the participants what good case administration practice is. If the process is to have further effect on the ”after” phase, examples of success criteria could be: Three months after the process, the participants experience increased knowledge sharing and to a larger extent make use of each other’s help across departments.
The purpose also gives occasion for taking an honest look at one’s own abilities: Am I the right person to solve this assignment? Do I have the right profile or the right competences to make this process reach the desired outcome? Or would it be more constructive to involve one of my colleagues who has faced this type of challenge before and has more knowledge of the participants’ challenges?
The purpose is essential whether you are to design a conference, make a presentation or run a meeting. A clear purpose does not only help you in the design phase, but also helps you create meaning for the participants during the actual session. If the purpose is not clearly defined and accepted by all people involved, the process easily tends to sidetrack and become unproductive and thus does not form a basis for making the right decisions. In our experience, far too little time is often spent on this phase, resulting in unspecific deliverables which are not implemented or on which measurable follow-up is not possible.
This element of the design star is about ensuring participation of the ”right” people in order to provide the largest possible knowledge base, decision- making power and quality within the specific area the process deals with (cf. you being the expert on the process, the participants on the content). If the right people are not present to make a decision or qualify the input, there is a significant risk of the process being a wasted effort as the necessary ownership of further implementation or the required organisational support is not created. To identify which people are to be engaged in a group process, the facilitator must be able to answer the following four questions:
As human beings, we learn in different ways, and it is highly individual what stimulates our creativity, commitment, efficiency and desire to contribute to the process. 4 For instance, some people have a preference for rational thinking and thus for making decisions on the basis of facts, specific data and valid information. The rational preferorence tends to ask the question ”what”. What is the reason for us meeting here today? What is the purpose of the workshop? In what way is it beneficial to me or the organisation? In what way does it contribute to the bottom line? Others have a more practical preference and focus on the system, organising, reliable methods and the practical implementation. Often, they ask the question ”how”. How do we carry out our plan? How are we to meet the challenge? Others again have a relational preference and focus on emotions, atmosphere and interpersonal relations. These people often ask the question ”who”. Who will be influenced by the decision? Who will be involved in the process? Who is to be part of my team? And finally, there are people with a more experimental preference. The experimental preference is characterised by being occupied with the big picture, visions and ideas. Often, they ask the question ”why”. Why do we do this in this way, or rather why do we not do it in this way?
Each of the four preferences above invites different ways of facilitating in order to create motivation and enthusiasm for the individual participant. The point is to prepare your process design in such a manner that the process appeals to all of the four preferences (figure 6).
Remember that there should be room for different preferences and learning styles and that this should thus be thought into your design. As a general rule, more than one preference will always be present in your sessions, so in order to achieve the most optimal effect, it is essential for you to think about all preferences when you are deciding on the design.
The environment dimension is about the setting in which your meeting or workshop is to take place and the atmosphere you wish to create. Of course, what is most optimal is that you, as the facilitator, have an influence on where the event is to be held. Is it to take place in an internal meeting room, at a traditional conference centre, in a concrete silo, a former aeroplane hangar, a concert hall or maybe outdoors?
What is most important is that you choose the location with care and in accordance with the purpose of the workshop. Sometimes this dimension of the star is ”locked”, i.e. for some good reason, it has been decided that your workshop is to be held in a (gloomy) meeting room next to the canteen. Some organisations have special price agreements with specific (more or less inspiring) conference centres which determines the location. However, never despair, because even though the star is locked in this dimension, there is still much you can do to stage the room to support the purpose of the workshop.
We have borrowed the word ”staging” from the world of theatre where the creation of the right stage design for a play is a special art and profession. The point is that whether we wish to stage or not, we cannot help doing it. What we do or do not do in a room has an influence on the participant’s experience of the meeting. For instance, imagine a play on an empty stage (without any scenography). This is also a way of staging which has an effect and signals something. Similarly, an impersonal meeting room may signal that this process/meeting is just another one in the row.
If the purpose of the meeting is, for example, a working session during which some specific deliverables are to be produced in a short time, you should stage the meeting room in accordance with this. You could design the session as a stand-up meeting without the classic meeting table, you could hand out energy bars and water and play some up-tempo music when the participants arrive and make sure that all relevant material for the meeting is ready for use (markers, coloured cards, brown paper, adhesive, flipover paper etc.). 5 However, if the purpose of the meeting is to collect experience, evaluate and learn from, for example, a project, you could dim the sharp ceiling light and invite the participants into a room with comfortable furniture and soft music, thus signalling focus on reflection and learning.
All types of meetings can (and should) be staged by the facilitator – also the weekly departmental meeting, which is often not very inspiring in its nature. Some simple effects for making a meeting more motivating could be:
1) The participants feel welcome in general (they are welcomed, and food/ beverages are provided), 2) The purpose and the agenda of the meeting are visible, 3) The meeting is started up in a positive manner, for example, by letting the participants explain for one minute about an assignment with which they succeeded and 4) The participants can prioritise the most important items on the agenda. This will make a difference and may be the ”small disturbance” that helps the group reach an optimal result. The point being, staging is worth the effort, and you can win some easy points here.
A very central element when designing your environment is to always check up on the location. If you have never been in the room, then go and see it before the session. If you, for example, are to facilitate a process with 40 participants who are to work on brown paper in small groups in the room during the process, you simply have to take a look at the room with your own eyes to see whether it will be possible in practice, i.e. whether the wall surfaces are large enough, and whether chairs and tables can be removed easily and fast to make room for the groups.
You should also make sure that the room is available at least one hour before the process starts, so that you have time to stage it according to your purpose and are ready to welcome the participants. The staging of the room may take some time if you have to rearrange tables and chairs, write welcome flipovers, distribute material for the participants and check the audio-visual equipment. Remember that visual elements in a room may contribute to making an otherwise gloomy room a little more welcoming and inspiring, and that it is all right if the room disturbs and creates curiosity.
The form dimension is concerned with which methods you are going to use in your process to reach the goal and create involvement and meaning for the participants. The range of methods is wide and covers both individual reflection and conceptualised methods, for example, 4D from Appreciative Inquiry and Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology, as well as a number of idea development methods and sorting methods (see appendix). This is the dimension in which your programme will later turn into a script. The key thing is to choose the methods that support the objectives and goals, and which help the group in the process.
In our opinion, these methods are very useful, because they all have an overall framework which you can use more or less rigorously and adapt to the specific process. As a facilitator, you decide already when preparing your script which methods you are going to use during the process.
What is most important is for you to choose the methods that support the purpose and the goal and help the group in the process. It is thus essential to have a range of methods which you may use during the process to create an adequate amount of variation in order to keep the participants engaged during the entire process. 6
You may be inspired by figure 9 that outlines different involvement techniques you can use to vary your form.
Spend time on balancing the expectations of the roles and always take time to manage expectations of roles during the process.
In many cases, it will be a good idea that you are not the only one to be ”on stage”. In some processes, it is an obvious possibility to have the managing director or the head of department opening the meeting or process to create importance around it. This may also be done by external speakers invited to inspire the participants or explain about the latest trends or knowledge in the area. In our experience, it is sometimes difficult to handle managers. We recommend – very clearly and in advance – balancing the expectations as to the purpose of the manager’s role and what he/she is going to speak of and what will be appropriate to speak of in relation to the rest of the process.
If you have invited an external speaker, it is also important to talk to this person in advance about what he/she is going to present, the length of the presentation, which process there is going to be during and after the presentation, and whether you are to chair a Q&A session, if any, or the speaker is going to do it himself/herself. This requires a great deal of time to be spent on balancing the expectations prior to the process, but it is often worthwhile in order to keep the right pace during the process.
Maybe you are not going to be alone ”in the field” but are bringing along a colleague or one of the client’s employees together with whom you are to facilitate the process. In this case, it is also important that you match each other’s expectations of the roles and how each of you prefer working when facilitating. What do you feel good about doing when you are on stage? Is it OK to make supplementary comments when the other one is on stage? Is one of you going to be the main facilitator? And how do you help each other appear in the best possible manner?
In the case of large processes with more than 30 participants, it is often necessary to have a number of cofacilitators assist in making the smaller processes in the room run most optimally and in reaching the goal. Here, you may use co-facilitators in the form of ”chairmen of the tables” whom you have trained in advance to drive the smaller processes.
When you have considered all five elements of the star thoroughly, it is time for the ”does it hold water” test. This is a final quality check on whether it will be possible to achieve the purpose, deliverables and success criteria by means of the participating people in the chosen environment with the chosen form and method and with the roles you have decided.
The “before” phase is time-consuming, but the time is well spent as a properly thought-through process will produce a stronger sense of ownership among the participants and better results as well as more reliable performance and greater confidence in your own role.
A key lesson from the participants in our facilitation projects is that preparation has a far greater bearing on the value of the results than they thought when they initiated the process. How long you should spend in the “before” phase depends on several elements: the complexity of your process, the stakeholders and participants, the place, the materials, the importance of achieving specific success criteria, and how many facilitators are involved. Even a oneoff meeting can take days to design if many stakeholders are to be involved, or there are particular issues in play. It is therefore impossible to give an exact estimate of how much time you should spend on planning and designing the meeting, but usually more than you think – at least 1:1. This means that for a one-hour meeting you should schedule one hour’s preparation, and for a oneday workshop about a day’s preparation.
The design star is the first part of a three-step “before” process, also called the design phase, which includes:
When you have considered all elements of the design star, it is time to take a look at what is going to happen at a more detailed level in the process.
A typical step from the design star towards the detailed script is to prepare a rough outline of a programme in order to get an impression of the overall session on the basis of the design considerations.
After having created the idea of how the overall session is going to be and how much time is available, the next step is to design the individual sessions of the programme at a more detailed level – a script.
The purpose of preparing a script is thus that you consider how to achieve the purpose, the distribution of roles and responsibilities, how you are going to manage the process as well as the length and number of breaks, the atmosphere and the materials you want to use as well as the time. The script thus helps you to consider all aspects of the process and provides a schedule for your facilitation with exact times.
If the script is detailed enough, it will also be possible for your co-facilitators to gain an insight into your script or take over the session. In case of cofacilitation, we always work with a shared script which is optimally prepared jointly, so that all exercises and purposes are discussed, and both facilitators know the whole script and not only their own part. In this manner, you can most optimally help each other and the participants in their learning. In addition, a shared script provides a good basis for giving your co-facilitator feedback afterwards and for developing and improving your common practice the next time you are going to be on stage together. This feedback and the learning regarding the individual aspects (time, what worked etc.) are even more important if you are to facilitate the same workshop several times.
Preparing the script may be a time-consuming process, but it is worth the effort, because when you are on stage, you have considered the purpose, meaning and processes, and it will thus be easier for you to improvise and know when the time schedule may be exceeded if you change the order of items on the agenda or the length of the plenum discussion.
As can be seen in figure 10, the script also contains a description of ”before”, ”during” and ”after” activities.
We have now examined the facilitator’s toolbox for planning and designing the process. The design star and the script are part of the ”before” elements which a facilitator should always use in his/ her planning to ensure successful results of the process.
The script is prepared before the process and is also an important management tool during the actual session. However, successful results are not only achieved by means of good planning. As a facilitator, you also have to be able to manage the process and navigate on the spot when the process is initiated, which is ensured by the script (see script template in the appendix).
This section is structured around three essential elements that can all influence a good process (figure 11):
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