During my last month of consulting activities, I’ve spent more time on one specific type of consulting than on any other. This consulting activity did not involve technical design, although my knowledge of technical issues was an important part of my contribution. It didn’t involve giving business advice, although my understanding of the underlying business issues was one of the reasons I was asked to participate. It wasn’t my subject-matter or vertical-market proficiency that initiated my involvement with these clients.

I was invited to work with these clients because of my ability to facilitate productive meetings. Facilitation is a skill that every consultant needs to develop, one that produces results for clients in ways that pure technical or subject-matter expertise never could. Many organizations have learned over a long history of unproductive and contentious meetings that results don’t happen just by bringing team members together in one room. Teams that need to develop corporate strategies, make decisions, plot technical directions, plan consistent communications messages, or do any of the myriad other organizational direction-setting activities need a discussion leader. They need a facilitator who can lead them into fruitful areas of discussion, can assist in recording and clarifying proposals and ideas, can diplomatically move past controversial and unproductive arguments, and can apply a structured process to getting results from meetings.

Facilitators offer structure, guide discussions
There will always be situations in which we’re engaged for a focused result—to install that server or design that Web page—where the client has a very clear idea of what the end result should look like and needs a technologist to implement that vision. In our complex world of network technologies, sophisticated applications, and competitive e-business marketplaces, however, many enterprises need to spend a significant amount of up-front time deciding on directions, business models, strategies, and underlying technologies before they can take any concrete actions. For these situations, a consultant who can act as a facilitator is essential.

Organizations realize that internal folks can’t always facilitate, because they typically come to the table with a departmental or personal agenda. Even in one-to-one situations, such as interviews or negotiations, facilitation skills enable us to take the emotion out of our encounters and drive conversations toward a clear set of deliverables and responsibilities.

A facilitator has one goal: to make it easier for teams to reach decisions and thus create action plans. In support of this goal, facilitators do two things: they structure the team’s activities, and they guide the discussion. Anyone who has sat in a meeting that was dominated by one member, that never produced an action plan, that was sparsely attended, or that was punctuated by cell phones ringing every two minutes and team members running out of the room constantly, will agree that meetings need guidance and structure, ground rules, and results. In contrast to these chaotic and unconstructive gatherings, facilitated meetings typically have a well-understood set of ground rules that enable all participants to contribute. They yield more creative results, build consensus within the team, and head off negative, emotional effects. Most importantly, they result in clear decisions and action items that are documented and assigned to responsible parties.

The role of a facilitator
So, with this general discussion of facilitation out of the way, what exactly does a facilitator do? In order to achieve the results I outlined above, a facilitator must:

  • Help the team set meeting goals and objectives.
  • Help the team set and respect a time contract within which to reach those goals.
  • Encourage participation from all team members.
  • Document and organize team input.
  • Summarize dialogue and gain consensus on meaning.
  • Provide processes and structures for encouraging creativity, such as brainstorming and flowcharting.
  • Promote team discussion and dialogue.

Along with these concrete and structured activities, facilitators must play some more subtle roles as well. They must:

  • Resist domination of the team by rank or personality.
  • Remain neutral and avoid injecting personal agendas into the discussion.
  • Protect team members and ideas from attack or disrespect.
  • Help the team emphasize group, as opposed to personal, goals.

As you can see from these lists, facilitation is a complex and delicate set of skills, requiring both a solid grasp of group techniques and a subtle diplomatic flair. Many talented facilitators refer to this as the balance between the art and science of facilitation. Now that we’ve set a foundation for the facilitator’s art, let’s dig into some of these points a bit and review the techniques that top facilitators use to deliver results.

Help the team set meeting goals and objectives
A common experience among corporate team members today is to be summoned to a meeting without knowing why they’re invited or what the objective is. There are still many executives and team leaders who aren’t skilled enough at meeting techniques to understand the importance of setting goals and objectives, or of creating and distributing an agenda beforehand. Many organizations have also gone through the “panacea of the month,” whether it was total quality management or business re-engineering, e-commerce or supply-chain management. Through painful experience with these types of meetings and initiatives, many folks have negative expectations of meetings, and these negative feelings create a vicious cycle in which people come to meetings with low expectations and high cynicism.

By defining the expectations and goals up front, facilitators can help defuse many of these negative emotions. Facilitators need to ask questions such as:

  • What do we expect this meeting to achieve?
  • What specific results or outcomes are we looking for?
  • Why were these particular people invited? What are we expecting each of them to contribute?
  • Is there any background or level-setting material we must cover before the group can make constructive progress?

Good consultants are always looking out for the risks inherent in any engagement, and our engagement as facilitators is no exception. When I take on a facilitation project, apart from the tangible goal-setting questions, I also try to delve discreetly into issues of cultural and group dynamics with questions like:

  • Have these team members worked together before?
  • Are there any external pressures or responsibilities that could impact the group’s ability to work together or to deliver on commitments made in this room?
  • What is the audience for the outcomes of this meeting? Will the decisions made here go to an executive committee, a board, or respective department heads?

Understanding organizational issues
By asking these and similar diplomatic but probing questions, I can get a flavor for the pressures, concerns, and organizational issues that may impact the atmosphere in the meeting room. To do the best job for our clients as consultants and facilitators, we need to assess both the tangible goals that are expected as well as the underlying cultural norms and constraints that will be guiding the behavior of participants. I’ve seen many productive meetings congeal, for example, when we started to assign roles and responsibilities for action items, because participants were concerned that their managers wouldn’t support the decisions made or wouldn’t grant them the time away from current commitments to work on the project. The best facilitators, like the best consultants, have an uncanny ability to assess the entire organizational situation and to apply that knowledge in order to guide teams to meaningful and achievable results.

In my next few installments, I’ll walk you through the remaining items on the list of facilitator responsibilities. I’ll talk about methods for inspiring creativity in participants, such as brainstorming, and techniques for building consensus, such as multi-voting and decision matrixing. I want to talk about this important subject in depth, both because I believe it’s a gap in many consultants’ skill sets, and because it’s a potent weapon for differentiating yourself from your competition and for adding customer value.

Rick Freedman is the author of The IT Consultant: A Commonsense Framework for Managing the Client Relationship and the upcoming The Internet Consultant, both published by Jossey Bass. He is the founder of Consulting Strategies, Inc., a training firm that advises and mentors IT professional services firms in fundamental IT project management and consulting skills.

Have you acted as a facilitator for your clients? How did you carry out this role? To share your thoughts, send us a note or start a discussion below.