Imagine you have been invited to participate in a half-day kickoff event of a fairly long training programme. The agenda of the day is unclear, the room is too small, there are no beverages, and the oxygen is running out. You hear the same people speaking over and over again, making interminable presentations. The event lacks energy and pace. You return home frustrated 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 probably recognise some of the elements from a number of meetings, events and conferences. It may be difficult to point out why some sessions succeed and others don't – but this is what we intend to find out. We will provide you with suggestions on how to add meaning and value to the meetings and workshops you facilitate and how you can make sure that these are carried out successfully.
Facilitation of meetings, workshops and other types of processes doesn't require ten years of experience, but it requires a good knowledge of the art of facilitation and you need to be able to put it into practice. Below, we describe the facilitator’s role and provide specific methods and tools for the facilitator to use in his/her daily work.
Are you in a hurry and don't' have time to read through the article right now? Then use the links below to browse through the article or download the article in full at the top of the page.
We define facilitation as the ability to create more dynamics, ownership and results in group processes through intentional work before, during and after the specific session.
Facilitation is a word that is being used more and more frequently in relation to the holding of meetings and work - shops. ”Facilitate” derives from Latin ”facilis” and means ”to make easier”. 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 anything, 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
The main focus is being interested – not being interesting! Ib Ravn describes facilitation as the canalisation of the energy and communication of a gathered group of people in such a manner that their benefits will be much larger and better than if they were just on their own (Ravn, 2011).
Facilitation is something you can learn and it should have a purpose and contribute to creating something (results). In addition, facilitation is a tool for working with groups consisting of three or more persons (typically six or more). We have worked with groups of more than 500 persons. Competent facilitation requires more than just ”being good on stage”. It is about making the participants work and take ownership of the results they achieve. And finally, facilitation is about design, execution and follow-up.
Facilitation basically consists of two components – design of the process and the actual facilitation. You need to spend time designing a meeting or a workshop in order to ensure that the participants reach the desired outcome and so that they experience being helped safely through the process. In the actual facilitation situation, you need to be the neutral catalyst who ensures that all relevant perspectives are brought in within a clear framework.
In some cases, it is obvious that you have formally been assigned the role as a facilitator, e.g. if you have been engaged as an external or internal consultant for designing and conducting a strategy development workshop. In other cases, the role as a facilitator is less obvious, e.g. 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, e.g. if you are a manager, project manager, trainer or internal consultant.
In cases like these, 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 you can use the facilitation methods successfully in the role of manager, project manager or internal consultant. You just need 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. You could e.g. tell your employees which role you are assuming 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 specialist competences and the process with the people involved (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. Therefore, you can 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 be summarised as follows:
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.
As earlier mentioned, facilitation is used for creating desired results through intentional design before, during and after the specific involving session (see figure 2).
Designing the process means to shape and plan it with the desired outcome and purpose in mind. In order to design and facilitate the process, you need to know its purpose. As a facilitator, you own the process and must be fully aware of the sub-processes that the participants are to go through to reach the goal whereas the participants own the content of the process, i.e. what is being produced during it. In addition, designing means to acquaint yourself with the target group in advance, create the right atmosphere and environment as well as carefully consider the roles before, during and after the actual session.
As inspiration for this preparation, we recommend the design star which ensures that you consider all important elements in relation to the process before actually carrying it out. Often, we don't invest enough time in this phase, which results in insufficient deliverables at the end of the session and difficulties in the subsequent implementation. Designing, thus, means to create the most optimal setting for the process. See the section about the design star.
Facilitating means that you, during the session, help a group reach a common goal and assist them in achieving the desired results – without taking a stand or producing anything, but by being fully aware of the setting. See the section about the five characteristics.
As a facilitator, you are responsible for ensuring acceptance and implementation of the process results and the next step. This means that you help the group identify and complete the process result and documentation. The excellent facilitator will already think through the actual implementation of the results in his intentional design in the ”before process” and, thus, ensure that the group does not end up with a result for which there is no support in the organisation or which is not realistic to carry out.
As an example, a one-day strategy seminar was held at which 450 employees and managers worked with six themes related to the organisation’s strategy. The managers were summoned the subsequent morning to decide which of the themes could be carried out straight away, and which ones required more time. Later the same morning, this was communicated to the entire organisation on the intranet, by email and on monitors placed in the organisation. In this way, the result of the seminar was communicated while the participants’ memory of it was still fresh, thus signalling powerful management.
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 at its centre and corners (see figure 3).
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 sub-element in the process is the first step in being able to carry out an optimal process. An example of purpose for a process could be to increase the exchange of experience and knowledge about good case administration practices across three departments.
A visual overview of the cases in the departments, the types of cases, the persons responsible and the overlap between cases in the three departments. A code of good case administration practices embracing all types of cases in the three departments.
The participants experience getting at least three new 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 provides you with a chance to take 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?
The purpose is essential whether you are designing a conference, making a presentation or driving 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 a specific area (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. When identifying the right people, you must be able to answer the following three questions:
Once you have identified and selected the participants, it is important to know as much as possible about them in order to be able to create the right atmosphere, interaction and staging in relation to the target group.
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. 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 preference 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 (see figure 4).
Remember to create space 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 know exactly who the participants are before deciding on the design.
The form dimension is all about the 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, e.g. 4D from Appreciative Inquiry and Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology, as well as a number of idea development methods, e.g. reverse brainstorming, word associations and sorting methods (see appendix 4 in the article that you can download at the top or bottom of the page).
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.
Most importantly, you need to choose the methods that support the purpose and the goal and help the group in the process. Therefore, it is essential to have a range of methods you can use during the process to create an adequate amount of variation. You may be inspired by figure 5 outlining different involvement techniques.
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?
Most importantly, you need to 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 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 e.g. 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 6 , you could hand out energy bars, water and play some up- tempo music when the participants arrive and make sure that all working material for the meeting is ready for use (markers, coloured cards, brown paper, adhesive, flipover paper etc.). However, if the purpose of the meeting is to collect experience, evaluate and learn from e.g. 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, e.g. 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 e.g. 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 last element in the environment dimension deals with the effects you are going to use in your process/at your meeting. Is there to be any physical material for each participant and in that case what? E.g. small notebooks, descriptions of exercises in the form of handouts for the participants to paste in their notebook, printed templates for the groups to work with or posters to put on the wall with tools you will be explaining. Thoroughly considering the effects you are going to use in your process is essential to the staging of the room and to the atmosphere you wish to create for your process.
How are you going to create the best physical setting for involvement and creation of results?
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 open 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 within 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. Some managers, for good reasons, wish to speak of all the other ongoing initiatives in the organisation now that all the employees have been gathered – and this may be too long or result in a change in the atmosphere which you had created through the staging of the room and your introduction so that there is a different atmosphere the next time you are on stage. A specific and also creative method for limiting managers’ presentations (and speaking time) is Pecha Kucha. In this method, there is a limit of 20 pictures which are shown 20 seconds each. This gives a total speak - ing time of seven minutes at the maximum.
If you have invited an external speaker, it is also important to talk to this per - son 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 co-facilitators 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.
As an external consultant (and sometimes also as an internal one), you may be invited to facilitate a process which is part of a project, and the outcome of the workshop is, thus, to be used as input and basis for further work in the project. This could e.g. be facilitation of a value workshop at which the organisation is to identify the values characterising what they do. In this case, there will typically be a project team which is to continue working on the results afterwards – with or without your help. It is important to have a dialogue with this team before the actual workshop takes place and balance the expectations as to who is to have which roles during the workshop (including your own role), and how the results are to be used subsequently.
How are you going to handle the people who play an important role in your process? The external speaker, the manager, co-facilitators or stakeholders.
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.
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 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 co-facilitation, 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 6, 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.
As a facilitator, you act as the catalyst for groups (of different sizes), i.e. you help a group reach a goal. In addition to the planning tools – design star and script – there are a number of elements which you need to master when you are on stage. We have defined five elements which we believe you should master to be an excellent facilitator (see figure 7):
In the following, we will elaborate on each of the elements and provide you with some practical tips for carrying them out in practice.
Creating meaning means to very carefully consider the purpose of the process and be able to communicate it to the participants so that they clearly understand the meaning and relevance of having been invited today, i.e. you must put yourself in the participants’ place and, in advance, thoroughly consider ”what’s in it for them”, why have they been invited, and how is this process relevant to them? See the facilitator’s check list for creating meaning for the participants early in the process.
It is not only important to create meaning for the participants at the beginning of the session, but also to continuously be aware of creating a relevant link between the current process and the overall purpose of the session so that the participants are guided all the way through the different sub-processes and clearly see the relevance of them. At the same time, it is essential for the facilitator to create meaning between the individual participants’ different opinions/points of view so that the participants continuously realise new things in relation to each other and the content they work with. For instance, you may ask: What is the link between what you just said about the consultant’s role and the talk we had about the role earlier today?
As a facilitator, it is your responsibility to guide the participants to the desired outcome of your process. You are the conductor who sets the tempo and directs the orchestra (the participants) while they play. In order to create ownership of the process and the result among the participants, you must accept not being in control of the content of the process. Figure 8 illustrates how classic facilitation creates a high degree of empowerment (owner - ship) in relation to the solution and how providing expert advice and answers increases the control of the content, but it does not strengthen the ownership among the participants. It is essential that you are aware of this and let the participants own the content – you own the process.
As a facilitator, it is also your responsibility to help the group through the different sub-processes to ensure that the right decisions are being made and that everybody takes ownership of them. For this purpose, we have formulated some pieces of good advice to keep in mind on the facilitator’s role during the session.
The energy in the process is always your responsibility. You must manage the process intentionally and at the same time be conscious at a meta-level of the atmosphere and the energy among the participants as well as of any resistance you may encounter. To achieve this, you must ensure that the participants are involved in the process. Thus, it is important to work with the atmosphere and consider how it can support your purpose and set the pace that benefits the process and the result most optimally, e.g. when do you want to signal drive, create joy or time for reflection and for new learnings to sink in.
It is not merely about staging the work- shop – it is also about revising the script in relation to the atmosphere among the participants and incorporating small disturbances which affect the desired atmosphere. This does not imply that you need to conduct an extremely dynamic process from the beginning to the end – you merely need to pay attention to when the process will benefit from increasing or slowing down the pace. If the participants become drowsy at any time during the process, you must react. Typical times of day when people begin to show a lack of energy are at 10:30, 13:30 and 15:30 – so pay special attention around these hours.
Are you more than one facilitator, you can help each other sense the atmos - phere and the energy in the room. It is important ALWAYS to react to partici - pants who, in one way or another, disturb the energy of the process, e.g. by talking too much, falling silent, yawning constantly, checking emails, challenging your facilitation directly etc. These are all signs indicating that you must change your approach. This is referred to as handling of the participants. You can e.g. take one of the following preventive actions:
As a facilitator, you must have a complete toolbox of good questions which can help facilitate the process, e.g. opening questions, process-generating questions and follow-up questions. The questions may be in the nature of direct clarification, leading questions, indirect clarification, incentive questions, reflection questions, second-order questions, interpretative questions and launch of an idea (download the article for more inspiration on which questions to ask).
Asking good process-generating questions is a discipline in itself which cannot be mastered without a great deal of training. Thus, train your questioning technique as often as possible. This will provide you with an arsenal of different questions that suit your personal facilitation style and at the same time can be used for leading the group in the right direction.
As a facilitator, it is essential to be conscious of your own power and position in the process and especially in the role of a facilitator. Thus, it is extremely important that a facilitator is as objective and fair as possible. Furthermore, it is also essential to be conscious of the power constellations brought into the process by the participants in relation to either handling the very dominant and powerful or using the right persons as opinion makers. Ib Ravn says: ”No room is power-free, and as a facilitator, you must pay special attention to whose interests you promote through each and every small facilitation artifice you make, your own interests, the colleagues’, the manager’s, the companies’, the customer’s etc.” (Ravn, 2011).
Facilitation comprises elements of intentional management. Therefore, it is important to withhold own interests and opinions in relation to the result (unless asked directly, e.g. what are your thoughts about the result of our process?). Furthermore, you must be conscious of what we call the ”power of the pen”. You are the one who decides what is being written down on the flipover or in the minutes. Thus:
Good preparation is essential – the rest you just have to plunge intoNow you have gotten a number of suggestions on how to prepare and handle different types of group processes and meetings carried out in organisations today. Everybody who has conducted group processes knows that it is an art in itself to get a group to become the best version of themselves. However, when it is successful, it is a fantastic experience, both for the group and the results delivered as well as for the person helping the group in this process. Facilitation is a craft that must be learned, and it takes more than one shot. Becoming a skilled facilitator calls for training and patience.
Facilitation is not something you can learn from a textbook. The best advice is to simply plunge into it, gain experience with what works and does not work and get feedback on your role, style and methods.
Unmotivated employees - The arrow is pointing at you
Leadership for the next generation knowledge worker
Article in Danish: Using programme management in the public sector's strategic initiatives.
Implement Consulting Group