Most managers today would agree that facilitation skills can be useful in a variety of situations, from project planning to team development. But how do you know when you really need to use a facilitated approach? We believe there are three key signs to look for. Consider the following scenarios:

  • The Vice President of Human Resources is fed up with all the complaints about the hiring process. Some departments complain it takes too long to get people hired. Others are concerned that people don’t have enough involvement in the screening process. Still others believe the organization hires people who lack basic skills. You’ve been asked to research the problem and recommend a revised hiring process.
  • The General Manager of your plant announces, “We have been asked by our largest customer to implement a plan for ensuring that our products keep up with their quality standards. If we fail, we stand to lose about half of our business. I want you to make it your number one priority.”
  • You are leading a systems development project for your company. The contractors working on the software originally estimated that the system would cost $2 million and require a year to implement. Two years and $3 million later, the contractors tell you that another $1 million and one more year will be needed to complete the job. Your CIO wants a recommendation. Should the company continue to invest in the project, salvage what it can from what is currently finished, or cancel the project completely?

Though the three situations are different, they have three key elements in common:

  1. A problem has been detected. There is a problem that needs to be addressed: an inefficient process, a client seeking assurances of continued quality, a project that has exceeded its budget.
  2. The solution to the problem is not readily apparent. If the solution were obvious, more than likely it would have been implemented already. To develop a solution will require a deeper understanding and analysis of the situation.
  3. Buy-in is needed for the solution to be successful. The solution will require a change in behavior by a number of people. Without the behavior change, even the best solution will fail.

We believe situations with these characteristics cry out for a “facilitated” solution created through one or more facilitated sessions. Though “facilitation” has been used to define many activities, we define a “facilitated session” as a highly structured meeting in which the facilitator guides the participants through a series of pre-defined steps to arrive at a result that is created, understood and accepted by all participants.

There are several key aspects to this definition. Every facilitated session has a specific purpose or result to be achieved. For example, the purpose of a particular facilitated meeting might be to create a strategic plan for the organization, or improve the efficiency of a specific process, or define a solution to a difficult problem. To create the result, the participants are involved in a series of pre-defined steps. The steps might involve understanding the current situation, isolating the problems and root causes, generating potential solutions, selecting the best solution, and developing an implementation plan.

The role of the facilitator is to guide the participants through the steps. Rather than dictating the solution, the facilitator uses an understanding of the process steps and group dynamics to help the group achieve the desired results, given the specific needs and characteristics of the participants. If the facilitation is successful, the final result will have been created, understood and accepted by all participants.