Are your meetings more frustrating than fruitful? Are you aware of the warning signals? Priorities careen out of control, work groups find that nothing ever happens in meetings, a decision or project is so complex that your team can't seem to get started on it. You've lost track of the overall goals. It's time to bring in a trained facilitator. A facilitator can bring an intensified focus that increases the energy of the group, an outside perspective that can help to re-instill effective group dynamics, and focused techniques that can overcome complex obstacles or information overload.

With hectic schedules and demanding workloads, group sessions require a higher level of commitment from individuals and a new set of interpersonal skills. Drawing from a mix of communication, creativity, meeting management and project management tools, a trained facilitator can be particularly helpful in resolving conflict; overcoming deeply entrenched ways of doing things; establishing roles, responsibilities, and expectations for new efforts; and preventing project teams from taking on more than anyone planned or expected.

INTERVIEWING PROCESS

When you interview a facilitator, look for

  • the ability to listen closely, while, at the same time, understanding,

  • the ability to remain neutral and objective,

  • a genuine interest in your issues and an optimistic “can do” attitude,

  • a collaborative style that prefers win/win solutions over compromises or win/lose solutions,

  • an appreciation for the value of your time and effort, and

  • the ability to get cooperation and full participation from a group, adjusting the flow of conversation while protecting individuals and their ideas.



Generic tasks for the facilitator include

  • focusing the group on the essentials,

  • setting the stage early on for a successful conclusion,

  • keeping all the participants engaged and involved,

  • asking the obvious — and even the unaskable — questions,

  • clarifying roles, responsibilities, and expectations,

  • recording actionable steps along with timeframes and accountable individuals, and

  • providing closure around decisions or results.



In many cases, facilitation skills can be developed by one or more members within a group. Facilitative techniques can be improved by understanding the theories and strategies behind group dynamics, by gaining experience working with many groups, and by staying current with organizational processes that yield results. Additional expertise can be gained by studying creative and critical thinking techniques, adult learning, and leadership development.

INTERNAL VS. EXTERNAL

Having these skills readily available will increase day-to-day productivity and satisfaction. There are times, however, when the internal resource is not available, or the content of the issue makes it virtually impossible to maintain the neutrality required of a facilitator. Sometimes, experience with decision-making, idea-generation, or commitment-building techniques need to be augmented, or it is advisable to pursue the goal using structured techniques. Then it is time to bring in an external facilitator who can provide those services. While internal facilitators may not need to take as much time to get up to speed with the players and the project, external facilitators have the advantage of not having a stake in, or preconceived notions about, the outcome. This position enables them to enhance the group's product by soliciting differences in perspectives and highlighting inconsistencies.

Because each effort is unique, there is no set routine for establishing a relationship with a professional facilitator or for determining the length of that person's involvement. Generally, an external facilitator needs to pursue the same fact-finding path as most consultants, so that they know what the issues are, who is involved, what the timeframes are, and so forth. Once these initial determinations are made, the consultant should be able to propose a format, which might be as simple as helping with an initial meeting where the group determines what the process will be.

Or the proposal could be much more formal, depending on the nature of the task and the orientation of the facilitator.

An effective facilitated session requires some work prior to the meeting. Objectives need to be defined or clarified; preliminary requirements, including people and time, need to be determined; and the level of priority of the objective over other matters needs to be established. The sponsor needs to pursue this pre-session work in partnership with the facilitator.

GROUP — OR GOAL — DIRECTED?

As with any consultant, facilitators have varying preferences, capabilities, and approaches. There are two distinct result orientations: producing products (goal-directed) versus improving group effectiveness (group-directed).

Goal-directed facilitation. Sometimes a very specific task needs to be tackled in order to deliver a specific product, such as idea development, decision-making, mission statements, or problem-solving. A skilled facilitator can help the group focus on the task at hand and employ group techniques that have proven effective for the particular task. Creativity exercises, criteria development, identifying and categorizing components, and root cause analysis are examples of specific task-oriented group processes. Metaphorical and alternative process simulations offer new approaches to old problems. Each technique is selected to support the group in delivering the needed results. When the task is multi-faceted, or composed of phases, a facilitator may be able to apply “structured techniques.” These are step-by-step, linear methodologies that use information to trigger predetermined actions. Such techniques elicit information, explore alternatives, outline expectations, and sometimes even provide prototype solutions.

Group-directed facilitation. Some groups need to focus on improving the effectiveness of the group's performance before they can begin, or continue, to tackle the task. All facilitators should possess the rudimentary skills for helping a group with the interpersonal skills needed to interact effectively. However, there are facilitators who specialize in interventions that are designed to improve the group's effectiveness. Special tools and techniques are used to diagnose and address specific issues that face the group on an interpersonal level. The focus of these work sessions is to improve specific skills such as teambuilding, conflict resolution, valuing diversity, and communication. Building interpersonal skills and identifying problems that block effective group dynamics can dramatically improve the overall productivity of the group.

Other group-directed facilitation includes interventions to build leadership and coaching capabilities within the group, and facilitated discussions to encourage critical thinking and idea exploration so all assumptions can get out on the table and learning can take place. These techniques build the capacity for meaningful dialogues to lay the groundwork for planning and supporting change.




Andrea Tannenbaum is principal of IntraGroup Dynamics, a Bloomfield, Conn.-based firm specializing in group facilitation, teambuilding, project management, and creative problem-solving processes (e-mail: atatannenbaum@dynamic-living.com ). Reprinted with permission from the Hartford Business Journal (860) 236-9998.