What is facilitation, and how can it add value?

This article was first written for ACEVO Consulting and published in December 2011. I hope that readers who are not themselves Third Sector leaders will also find it helpful. See also Three dimensions of the facilitator role – a focused conversation with video.

photo Adam Swann

ACEVO Consulting aims to broker professional services to help third sector leaders save time and money, reduce risk, make informed business decisions and get the best results for their organisations.  Facilitation is among the services offered, however facilitation is a term that is widely and loosely applied.  This article aims to clarify what is meant by facilitation as a professional service, when and how it can best help third sector leaders realise the above benefits, and what to look for in seeking professional facilitation support.

What is facilitation?

The word facilitation is derived from the Latin ‘facile’ which, simply translated, means ‘to make easy’.  A facilitator is therefore someone who makes something easy for others.  So how is facilitation different from other professional services that might also make something easier, such as consultancy, training or mediation?  And how is facilitation different from other group leadership roles, such as chairing?  Clarity of definition can help to manage expectations on the sides of the client, the group and the facilitator, and so achieve better outcomes.

A classic if lengthy definition is that of Roger Schwarz:

“Group facilitation is a process in which a person, whose selection is acceptable to all members of the group, is substantively neutral,  and has no decision-making authority, diagnoses and intervenes to help a group improve how it identifies and solves problems and makes decisions, to increase the group’s effectiveness.” – Roger Schwarz

This definition addresses three critical dimensions – the role or stance of the facilitator, what he or she does to make things easy; and to what purpose.

Firstly, the facilitator is neutral to the content and task of the group. That is not to say that the facilitator cannot or should not have any content expertise or any stake in the outcome of the task, but that the group must be able to have confidence that the facilitator will not allow these to influence the group’s work and decisions.  In contrast, the consultant provides expert advice and the trainer imparts knowledge or skills, both contributing content expertise. The chair is generally a member of the group and so has a stake in the outcome, indeed often a particular responsibility for it.

Secondly, what the facilitator does is to diagnose and intervene in how the group works. In other words, he or she contributes process rather than content expertise.  The facilitator is not neutral to process, but indeed is granted responsibility for the group’s process, by the group.  A leader cannot impose a facilitator on a group without its consent.

Finally, the purpose is to increase the group’s effectiveness – to achieve a better outcome than otherwise, but not any particular outcome.  The outcome remains the responsibility of the group, thus helping to ensure the group’s ownership and commitment to it.

The facilitator will assume a diversity of perspectives, positions and needs within any group, and will help the group to relate and respond creatively to conflict, as appropriate to the task at hand. When the primary task of a group is to resolve conflict, then it may be that the particular conflict resolution expertise of a mediator is what is required.

Of course, in many cases multiple skills sets may be needed to help a group achieve a particular goal. Then a team, or a multi-skilled provider, may be required.  Nevertheless, the client will be wise to be clear which role is required for which part of the process at which time.

Commonly facilitators are engaged to design and lead one-off workshops, events and meetings of various kinds. However, facilitation adds great value to broader and longer term processes of organisational change, development and capacity building as well. These may involve multiple events or other interventions spread over time and geography, and often online as well as face to face participation.

When and how can facilitation help?

Most third sector leaders will not need convincing of the imperative to engage effectively with staff, service users and other stakeholders, to partner and collaborate with others, and to innovate to achieve more with less in the context of falling incomes and rising demand for services.  Most leaders and their organisations will already be using facilitation to some extent to improve group effectiveness, with varying degrees of expertise, confidence and success.  However, many may not realise that there is a body of professional knowledge and expertise available for them to draw on, or just what value that professional facilitation expertise can add.

Expert facilitation can be particularly helpful where issues are complex or contentious, where perspectives and interests are many and diverse, and where a high degree of creativity, consensus and collaboration are required.

An external facilitator may be particularly helpful when the leader needs to contribute fully to content of the task, rather than its process, or when the group may find it difficult to trust that the leader’s facilitation will be content neutral.

In the short term, it is not quicker or cheaper to engage a professional facilitator, or even to design and facilitate a participatory process in-house – at least not compared to the traditional top-down approach of developing and cascading decisions, policies and plans from the top.  However, if you’re wondering why your decisions, policies and plans sit gathering dust on a shelf, or why they are not delivering the outcomes that were hoped for, then it may be because stakeholders essential to their success were not involved adequately in the process.  Taking a longer view, up front investment in a more inclusive and effective process can save a great deal of time and money in more effective implementation down the line.

For better informed decisions and successful implementation, it is important to have a full range of perspectives included in the decision making process.  An aspect of this is bringing ‘the whole system in the room’, by ensuring that the right people ‘ARE IN’, ie: include those with Authority, Resources, Expertise, Information and Need (Marvin Weisborg and Sandra Janoff).  Identifying these stakeholders and ‘getting them in the room’, even figuratively, is only the start. It is the skills and techniques of facilitation that address power dynamics to ensure that all voices are heard, and all perspectives have influence.  Effectively including a wider diversity of perspectives and experience can also help to identify and assess a fuller range of risks at the planning stage, and their mitigation in implementation.

If you are going to seek professional facilitation support, however, do not delay!  The greater value to be gained from professional facilitation is not in the room with the group on the day, although even that alone can be considerable.  The greater value is to be gained from the diagnosis and contracting with the client in advance, and the process design for the intervention.  If you wait to seek support until too close to your deadline, even if you have designed a process yourself, you will be missing a major opportunity to benefit from the expertise of the facilitator.

What to look for?

First and foremost, look for specialist facilitation expertise and experience, rather than content knowledge and expertise related to your sector or the issue at hand.  In choosing between expert specialist facilitators, then consider their familiarity with the particular diversities and working culture(s) of the people involved.  If this comes with content expertise, satisfy yourself that what you are getting will indeed be a facilitator, if that’s what you need, rather than a consultant or trainer.

In looking to identify specialist facilitation expertise, consider the six Core Facilitation Competencies articulated by the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) and applied to its Certified Professional Facilitator programme.  A competent facilitator will:

  • create collaborative client relationships,
  • plan appropriate group processes,
  • create and sustain a participatory environment,
  • guide the group to appropriate and useful outcomes,
  • build and maintain professional knowledge, and
  • model a positive professional attitude.

You may find evidence of these competencies in the facilitator’s CV, in testimonials or case studies of previous work, or by asking for it directly or from previous clients or other referees.  IAF Certified Professional Facilitators (CPFs) have been rigorously peer assessed for evidence that they demonstrate these competencies.

Consider whether or to what extent you should be seeking external support simply to design and facilitate a process to accomplish a particular task in the short term, or also to develop the in-house capacity and competencies to do so more effectively in the future?  In the latter case look also for expertise in facilitation training, facilitator coaching and other facilitation support.

Consider also the scale of your task, in terms of time, space and numbers of people to be involved.  Might your facilitator need to engage a co-facilitator or a team of facilitators from among a network of associates? Might you need to engage an organisation with a wider network of associates to draw on, in order to provide a wide range of specialist facilitation expertise, adequate geographical coverage, or simply the capacity to deliver to scale over time?

Finally, beyond simply engaging a facilitator, consider your wider responsibilities as a leader in commissioning a participatory process. Is a participatory approach appropriate, and an effective use of the participants’ time and energy as well as your own?  Does a participatory approach enjoy wider support, for example from your Board? Are you ready and able to commit what resources or support may be necessary to enable effective participation?  Are you ready to commit to listening to the results of the process and acting on them, to providing timely feedback to participants on the results and their impact, and to evaluating and learning from the process?   Do carefully manage the expectations of all involved.  There are occasions when simply informing or consulting people is appropriate – but not when their expectation is to be empowered to decide or even act.

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Comment by Martin Gilbraith on July 25, 2014 at 11:35am

Thanks Jaap, I find thorough preparation invaluable especially when I have to stray significantly from what I have prepared to do, because it helps me by clear and transparent about why I prepared what I did and why I am straying to something else - it's all about helping that group achieve its aims in that context!

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