Updated July 25, 2015
Meet Barney Snuffelouffagus, facilitator of many discussions over the years. Everyone loves BS (we will abbreviate his name) and feels great after BS facilitates sessions. A great deal of BS work has been published in various journals on the subjects of teamwork, respect, and culture. His most famous work is “Barney and the Workplace: I Love You and You Love Me.” Participants leave Barney’s workshops feeling better about their work and the potential for improvement.
The love fest lasts for a few weeks. Then it’s back to status quo.
Organizations fall under the spell of feel-good facilitators whose focus is to make sure everyone is happy and on the same page. A significant amount of time is wasted on facilitated workshops, resulting in platitudes and mutual backslapping but little measurable action.
The rare successfully-facilitated workshops are led by a different breed of facilitators. Truly effective facilitators challenge the status quo by working hard to understand circumstances, think critically, encourage a certain level of chaos, and charter assignments.
Typical facilitators spend their preparation time ensuring the session environment will stimulate participation and thought. Are there enough rolls of white paper on which to write? Is there a Mr. Potato Head to pass to frustrated participants? Can the air conditioning be turned down to reduce napping? Is there a stereo system to blast motivational music? While important, none of this properly prepares a facilitator to ensure a successful session.
The facilitator’s ability to ensure a successful session requires a good understanding of the organization’s circumstances. Prior to any facilitated session, the facilitator should gather enough facts about the current challenges from a variety of constituents. The preparation process should include interviewing workshop participants and non-participants, data gathering, and analysis. A smart facilitator can paint a data-driven picture of the organization’s current state. This allows the facilitator to have enough objective background information to determine whether or not participants are tackling the most salient issues.
Professional facilitators often attempt to be 100% objective. Facilitators are taught to be encouraging and make sure all participants are heard and taken seriously. Expert facilitators are not supposed to direct conversations or provide solutions.
Contrary to popular opinion, there are bad ideas. It is up to the facilitator to make sure time and energy aren’t wasted on them. A facilitator with in-depth situational knowledge can employ root cause analysis and critical reasoning to draw out constructive debate regarding the idea. In many cases, good ideas come from this kind of frank discussion regarding what doesn’t work and why.
In feel-good facilitation, the facilitator likes to have complete control of the group and all conversations. Chaos is discouraged, as people will feel left out of critical discussions. However, disruption of the status quo comes from breakthrough ideas and vice versa. A certain amount of disorder allows ideas to flow without restraint and gives people the freedom to think abstractly.
An effective facilitator sets aside time for chaos. Allowing the workshop participants to freely flow about the room and share ideas is a process we often employ. People like to get out of their seats and get moving. In our experience, some of the best ideas are discovered in the least orderly conditions. This, of course, requires time management skills to prevent the workshop from running late into the night.
Most facilitators assume participants will behave differently after the session experience. For a short time, this may be true. People who didn’t know each other before the session will communicate better. While this change is important, it is minimal. Most sessions do not end with clearly defined tasks or assignments—so commitment to change is fleeting.
Successful workshops end with assignments, or charters, which should be developed by participants during the workshop (not afterwards). The charters define what is going to be done to implement the ideas generated during the workshop. At a minimum, charters should include action items, assigned accountability, milestones, deadlines, and tangible measures of success.
In sum, the traditional approach to facilitation is fine for building teams and getting people excited about a new agenda. However, why not just take the team out for a nice golf or spa outing to generate the excitement and build relationships? They will appreciate that much more than being trapped in a meeting room for a day with BS.