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Why facilitate?

Mayvin Director James Traeger makes the business case for excellent facilitation and offers his thoughts on the crucial ingredients for success
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How can we make sure that the key moments of truth go well, when key business decisions are made and relationships forged? And how can we do this better in the increasingly complex, chaotic and diverse world that business currently operates in?

It may not be a huge surprise to hear that poor communication costs businesses billions. Of course, we can all identify when we have misunderstood someone with dire consequences. But, rarely do we start to crunch this down to a bit more detail. This is where we may have the opportunity to make a difference; where we can start to offer a more refined and targeted solution to this kind of problem than merely ‘improving communication’ suggests. And that’s where facilitation comes in.

We often find ourselves in a kind of dream where organisations are rational places, in which key billion pound decisions are made on the basis of reason, fact, data and so on. As we know by the reality that meets us in our waking life, organisations are actually intensely political places where people are open to persuasion this way or that. Whether this is good or bad, it is the truth we face.

The role of the facilitator comes in many guises on this very stage. It could be that of a project manager bringing together a diverse cross-functional team. It could be the OD consultant, internal or external, brought in to make change happen where there is resistance. It could be the new Director, who was hired to make a difference, who once in post finds that the difference they were brought in to make goes against the grain of what seems to be the very establishment that hired them. Or it could simply be the line manager clearing up the distress of interdepartmental conflict.

In all of these cases, beyond the safe world of papers, reports and risk assessments, it comes down to a facilitative ability to make it happen, to lead, cajole, influence, challenge, catalyse, channel energies, support, value and indeed to know when to step out of the way, let go and even disappear, in the crucial moments, of group decision-making.

The skill set of the facilitator works at a range of levels in all of these cases. Their role is to tip the balance in the direction of travel of the common good. They can learn how to help ‘make things easy’, and let’s face it; we could all do with someone who can help make things easier at work.

At one level, the facilitator’s job is about content. Are we talking about the right things? Are we clear about what is at hand? How often have you been called to a meeting via Outlook, compliantly turning up and sitting, chatting amiably but without any commonly agreed sense of why you are there? The facilitator’s job is to make sure the content is clearly understood, but then perhaps to step back and allow those with the expertise to work creatively together. This ‘space making’ is in itself a facilitative skill.

But you may know exactly what the content at hand is and be frustrated that you don’t ever seem to get to the point? That is where the facilitator’s next level of responsibility comes in; at the level of procedure. At a simple level this may seem just about the ability to chair meetings and this is indeed one important type of facilitation. But it shouldn’t be allowed to be the default position. The expert facilitator considers what the right kind of procedure is for the meeting at hand. You can’t hear from everyone if there are 150 people in the room, so what kind of procedure do you design for that? How do you design a creative procedure that mirrors a creative product development session?

And finally, what do you do when things get edgy? This is where the facilitator may start to dip their toe into the pool of process. Process is about group dynamics, about unconscious as well as conscious mechanisms that can conspire to sabotage progress. It can be about conflict. It is a murky world, and demands of the facilitator inner as well as outer capacities, of self-awareness, emotional literacy and clarity of mind and being. Working with a group in conflict using ‘self-as-instrument’ skills is challenging work, but it can be great work.

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