For any IT consultant who wants to migrate up the "value chain" and be perceived as a strategic partner rather than a "tech-for-hire," facilitation skills are a necessary set of practices. A facilitator is hired to sit in on clients' project meetings and:
- Focus the team on the objectives at hand.
- Provide structured techniques for achieving those objectives.
- Create an environment that fosters participation and consensus.
- Manage any conflicts or issues that arise.
In previous columns, I talked about the need to set some ground rules, but that's just the beginning of the facilitator's role. In this column, I'll discuss the methods used in the actual facilitated session. (Read previous installments in this series: Facilitation produces results for IT consulting clients and Help clients make efficient use of meeting time.)
It's a personal rule of mine that I don't accept facilitation assignments with predetermined outcomes, so in the sessions I run, there are no results unless the team plays its part. With that in mind, here's a good way to begin a facilitated meeting:
- Introduce yourself and discuss your role as facilitator and then ask attendees to continue around the room introducing themselves. In meetings where you've delegated the roles of scribe and/or timekeeper, describe these roles and how they work in the session. (I personally delegate these roles only in very large sessions, as I like to document the sessions and keep time myself.)
- Ask attendees if they have worked in a facilitated session before. If you feel from their response that it's necessary, describe the basic processes involved in facilitation.
- Emphasize the neutrality of the facilitator and reassure attendees that the need for their participation is genuine. This is to short-circuit the notion that you're there merely to drive them to some preconceived conclusion.
- Walk through the agenda and the time contracts associated with each agenda item and review the concept of the time contract to ensure that everyone understands.
Expectations and objectives
Once I've gotten these preliminaries covered, the session can begin. My first question is always "What do you expect from this session?" I request responses using the "round robin" technique, which is simply going around the room and giving everyone a chance to voice their opinion. This way, everyone sees that they're expected to participate and that there'll be no "back of the room" hiding places.
But what if the team's expectations are out of sync with the established objectives? Do you change the goals on the fly to meet the expectations or help the team understand why the goals were set as they were? The answer to this depends on the circumstances of the session, but it's usually some combination of both — keeping the focus on the task at hand, but having some flexibility to address other issues that arise.
It is also vital for facilitators to draw a distinction for the team between content and process. Whatever the content of the session may be — whether it's development of a marketing strategy or creation of a Web site — the process is similar and uses the same basic tools. As facilitators, we are neutral on content: We have no agenda to advance. Managing the process of making decisions is the facilitator's contribution, but the team's decision is theirs alone to make. The best facilitators make the process invisible so that the participants can focus on the content of the discussion and the decisions and actions that need to be pursued.
Tools of the facilitation trade
As the meeting progresses, facilitators may use a mix of these basic techniques:
- Ask questions. Effective questioning is the central tool of facilitating. By combining open-ended questions that require more than a yes or no response with more closed questions that test the group's consensus and closure, facilitators prime the conversation and drive the group to creativity. By judiciously directing questions to the entire team, or to the appropriate individuals, the facilitator can have a real impact on the quality of the results.
- Clarify and rephrase. Skilled facilitators repeat responses and points in their own words, both to test their own understanding of the replies and to emphasize the points made to the group. A simple "Is this what you meant?" ensures that everyone shares the meaning of the discussion and guarantees that the session notes accurately reflect the discussion.
- Build consensus. Facilitators can test agreement by going around the room and asking other participants to comment on and amplify the points made. Attendees who may not want to disagree with the observations of their associates will find a diplomatic way of voicing their concerns if asked to build on the ideas expressed. If the team agrees, asking for comments will also reveal that.
- Keep the discussion focused. Through the use of the time contract and the "parking" of issues that aren't directly pertinent to the discussion at hand, skilled facilitators ensure that sessions don't veer off into unproductive areas or turn into gripe sessions. Post a "parking lot" sheet for recording any issues that need to be revisited later.
- Document the results. The effective use of the flipchart and the whiteboard is an underrated skill. Top facilitators can effectively summarize the comments and decisions made, can record the actions that participants have committed to, and can capture the flow and feel of the discussion in a way that everyone in the room can support. This is a skill that grows with experience and is nurtured through continuous "pulse-taking" with the team to ensure that the notes accurately reflect the team's conclusions.
- Check the process. Skilled facilitators stop often to check with the team and ensure that the tools and techniques are delivering the results expected. To adhere to a time contract, for instance, facilitators will sometimes cut short a discussion the team felt needed more attention. By checking the pace, results, and "feeling" of the meeting, you'll deliver the best outcome possible.
Rick Freedman is the author of three books on IT consulting, including "The IT Consultant." Rick is an independent consultant and trainer, working, through his company Consulting Strategies Inc., to help agile teams and organizations understand agile practices and migrate successfully.