Many a jobbing OD consultant will tell you that there are three strands to what they offer: OD or change consulting, coaching and facilitation. Today, I will explore facilitation: what it is and isn’t, a simple checklist of things to consider when facilitating and the tricky question of managing your own and others’ anxiety.
What is facilitation?
Webster’s (1913) dictionary defines to facilitate as:
“To make easy or less difficult; to free from difficulty or impediment; to lessen the labour of; as, to facilitate the execution of a task.”
I like this definition because it implies facilitation is helpful when there is difficulty in executing a task. Clearly this will always involve following some sort of process, and there needs to be a task (content) and difficulty in completing it. If tasks are not difficult to complete, then surely managers would complete them without needing a facilitator?
The facilitator’s role
So far, so good. We have identified the need for process, content and management. Facilitators can choose their role to control combinations of these three aspects; however, it is clear to me that they must control process. I also find it useful to separate content from management, so the facilitator avoids taking on the role of the manager. Unless of course, he is the manager. In which case, I’d urge caution.
That said, the facilitator has a choice of three roles:
- Process only – and the opportunity to provide observation and commentary on group dynamics
- Content & Process– a typical role for hired experts who have something to offer on content. Paradoxically, it is oftentimes easier to facilitate when you do not know much about the content. This I because you are uninhibited from becoming drawn into technical discussions
- Management & Process – IMHO, best reserved for internal OD practitioners, or managers.
The process of facilitation
Let’s keep this simple. (1) Make sure you understand the exam question; (2) Get the right people together; (3) Control everything you possibly can before you start – plan your process, timings, agenda, breaks, materials, refreshments, meeting space, whatever else you can think of; (4) Let go of control on everything you possibly can once you start!
The process of facilitation is quite simple to describe; however, it is not so easy to do. Your job is to facilitate the process. Control that. Control yourself. Do no try to control other people. Work with them as you find them. Give them control, do not infantilise them by stepping in or taking over. Do less yourself, so that they do more work.
The facilitator’s role ‘in the room’ is to encourage participants to follow the process, and to intervene as little as possible. This is so that the participants do as much of the work as possible. She will hold the space on behalf of the group, so they can focus on helping each other to answer the exam question. She will ensure ground rules are observed and she will manage the processual flow of the session.
Arguably, she is totally irrelevant to the group, who are quite capable of being responsible for themselves. Equally, she is essential… her presence will create the right conditions for the group to maximise their chance of finding a solution. She will surface her observations of how the group is working and what might be holding it back. Not only does facilitation help solve the immediate problem, but it also helps to build capability to solve similar problems in the future. She does this by role modelling process.
To succeed, the facilitator must pay attention to what’s going on in the meeting and be reflectively aware of her responses to it, whilst remaining relatively objective. She will feel anxious and will pick up on others’ anxiety. That is natural and inevitable.
She must be utterly dependable. That means, when the inevitable anxiety is projected onto her, she must be able to take it.
If she does her job well, they will hardly notice her, they will feel confident they could have run the session themselves, and then her continued presence may well become be totally irrelevant…
She will, however, know her presence was totally essential.
I believe that better facilitative outcomes come from managing the conditions under which people interact. Content should come primarily from the participants and the only behaviour the facilitator should seek to manage is his own.
As organisational issues become more complex, the players become highly specialised in what they do, and yet the whole organisational system – when working effectively – can produce more than the sum of its parts. Our job as facilitators is to structure meetings so that people can accept their differences and find common ground by harnessing their capabilities for the greater good. Facilitation is a core organisational development skill.
OD Thought Leader: Wendell L. French (1923 – 2009)
We have focused on the practice of OD is this blog series, so let us not forget that OD is an academic discipline. French, and co-author Cecil Bell, are two of the godfathers of the study of organisation development.
They define OD as the “applied behavioural science discipline that seeks to improve organisations through planned, systematic, long range efforts focused on the organisation’s culture and its human and social process.”
First published in 1972, their classic text is a superb, if a little dated, academic discourse on the history, founding principles and practice of OD. You can trace many contemporary OD authors’ work back to what French & Bell outlined all those years ago, with a little twist here and there to suit niches or to apply in certain situations.
If you are serious about studying OD, this is a great place to start. And it is not all impenetrable academia, for example they neatly reframe their definition of OD: “organisation development is really about people helping each other to unleash the human spirit and human capability in the workplace.” Sounds like a good idea to me, and as relevant today as it was nearly 50 years ago.
Recommended reading: Wendell French and Cecil Bell (2000) Organization Development: Behavioral Science Interventions for Organization Improvement 6th Ed. London, Pearson.
Next time: G is for Growth Mindset
 Follow the RACI principle and determine who: Is Responsible (or has the Resources needed under their control) for completing the task? Is Accountable for completing the task? Can provide Consultative input (i.e. the specialist subject matter (content) experts)? Can provide the Information you will need and who needs to be Informed of the outcome?