Facilitation Guidelines by Glen Milne

Guidelines prepared by Glen Milne

This document provides some general guidelines on what can be achieved with a facilitation session and how it can be successfully planned and executed. The dozen guidelines are not comprehensive, perfect or applicable in every situation, but they can give you a running start at organizing and executing a successful session. They can also serve as rough performance standards for facilitation services.

1. Purpose & Product of a Facilitation Session

A facilitation session enables a group of people to quickly and collaboratively develop, share and build ideas, knowledge and designs. When well run, a session can quickly develop a highly informed, innovative and feasible common understanding, agreement, strategy or product. The application of facilitation guidelines can make almost any problem-solving, foresight, innovation, collaborative work, conflict resolution, or other process more effective, productive, enjoyable and quick - even without a facilitator.

2. Reasonable Expectations

The client for a session (the person who will use the results of the session) might ask for the session to solve almost everything – when the session’s best purpose might be to only develop a fresh environment scan, many new ideas and a sketch of a potential strategy. A group can usually make a better contribution on the basis of a ten minute status report presentation from the client at the event - than trying to find time to read several binders of briefing materials before. The results of a facilitation session are best aimed at a draft result. In almost every case the results of a session need to be filled in after the event as a coherent and complete logic by one or two persons. Reasonable expectations for what a session can achieve and how to achieve it can be developed through careful planning.

3. Careful Planning

A successful facilitation session depends in part on clarifying the situation, requirements, desired and feasible results, best participants, hidden agendas, etc, before the session. This can be achieved through the following steps.

  • An early discussion and assessment of the objectives and conditions for the session by the facilitator and client.
  • Interviews between the facilitator and a representative range of stakeholders (before the session is fully planned) to develop joint insight on the content, issues, desired product, agenda, process, etc.
  • Bringing a representative group of stakeholders together to plan the session, including:
    • clear definition of the challenge and its context
    • delineation of expectations for the event and its follow-up
    • the agenda, participants, briefing materials, facilities, etc.
    • Develop an invitation that outlines the objectives, the agenda, what will be produced, and participants’ roles and contributions.

    4. Clear and separate roles

    The senior persons from the sponsoring organization(s) host the event. They welcome the group at the outset and thank everyone for the results at the close. But (!) during the session they become participants (they are not running or dominating the meeting).   The client for the session is the person with follow-up responsibility for the project under consideration. The whole group is there to help them with their responsibilities. The facilitator is responsible for the design and execution of the process. The rapporteur’s responsibility is to record the key content and decisions. Everyone in the room should be a full contributor (except the facilitator and rapporteur). ‘Observers’ can cast a chill or get a little frustrated and jump in to the dialogue in a disruptive manner…as in;

    “I came to see how you were doing…but I must say you don’t really understand why we…”

    5. Control the number of people in the room

    For a problem solving or creative session the rule of thumb is seven plus or minus two. When groups must be larger, then expectations and the agenda must be adjusted accordingly. For larger groups consider making it a session that produces ideas for a smaller group to work with after the session. Alternatively a large group can be in a seminar format where the group responds to a presentation and a set of pre-determined questions. A large meeting can break out into smaller groups for more creative work.

    6. Appropriate facility and equipment

    The physical environment is a key driver of the results of a session. Flip charts on wobbly tripods are inferior to eight feet or more of clear flat wall to tape up ‘newsprint’ sheets, 3M ‘stickies’, etc. That span of wall enables the group to see the emerging pattern and direction of their contributions. Please don’t ask your facilitator to work on a wall covered with decorative mouldings, posters or delicate wallpaper.

    Usually an ‘open square’ table arrangement works best. Put the participants around three sides of the square – leave the front open for the facilitator, and a clear view of the wall for all. Avoid narrow rooms and furniture that dictate a ‘board room’ table arrangement. It creates many difficulties, including encouraging those at the head of the table to turn their back on the facilitator and making it difficult for participants to see each others’ faces. Allow for ample circulation space around the edge of the room and at the back of the room for a table of liquid refreshments…including alternatives to caffeinated coffee.

    Filtered daylight helps keep the brain invigorated. Current demographics result in 20% of participants with slight to medium hearing loss. Ask those presenting briefings to only turn on their projectors when needed. Beware of noisy air systems and rooms without their own thermostat.

    Prepare two-sided name ‘tents’ with lettering large enough to see across the room. The tents help make people feel welcome and focussed on the event – as well as helping the facilitator to address people by name. ‘Bivouac’ the tents on a table near the door for participants to pick up as they select their own seat.

      7. Use an expert facilitator

        An expert facilitator can enable a group to quickly produce innovative, feasible and often breakthrough results. An expert facilitator knows the theory, is well trained and has learned through experience. They have no vested interest in a particular outcome, other than serving the client and group well. Many untrained people volunteer to facilitate with the best of intentions but unknowingly make repeated fundamental errors in technique and process. Unfortunately a few sense it as a chance to hold the pen and steer the group in their version of the right direction.

        A professional facilitator will not manipulate a group to a foregone conclusion or direction. It is inevitably in everyone’s best interest to encourage transparency, full disclosure, grappling with the real issues, developing ideas and vision that lead to fresh creative and feasible strategies, etc.

        With or without a facilitator a group can help make a successful process by forming its own ground rules for process at the outset. Many teams learn from the occasional use of professional facilitators how to better manage their regular meetings and individual behaviour.

        8. The right length of time

          Sessions can be too long as well as too short. A brisk half-day session (especially in the morning) can achieve as much as a full day because of the inevitable post-lunch sag or difficulties in keeping participants attention for a whole day. A broad range of excellent ideas can be developed in minutes. A good format for a longer session is to hold it over an evening, full day and morning. You get the benefit of the following sequence of possibilities.

          • a somewhat relaxed evening 'present and vent' session
          • a night to think about all that
          • a fresh start and hard work the next morning
          • an afternoon to develop and share ideas in small groups
          • a night to do other things while the secretariat develops a draft strategy
          • a focussed final morning session to fine-tune the strategy and follow-up
          • a lunch for everyone not catching the 1:30 plane

            9. Process that works with human nature

              Good process goes with the natural flow of human nature rather than against it. Here are some observations from thirty years of facilitation.

                  • We do best if we are well oriented (to who, why, what and when).
                  • It's hard to listen until we’ve been recognized and ‘seen to be heard’.
                  • We arrive with things we want to tell, and can’t really participate until we get them off our chest (or added via a loaded question).
                  • If you pose a question, the mind will tend to answer it right away.
                  • We tense up if asked for the best answer, but gladly volunteer our best example.
                  • The mind can work more effectively ‘downhill’ from idealized solutions to feasible designs…than push existing solutions ‘uphill’ to true innovation.
                  • The mind will find a pattern in almost any field of information.
                  • People sag, tense up and retaliate if their ideas are immediately tested - but relax and build on each others' ideas if the virtues of an idea are counted first.
                  • It turns us off when some participants assume authority, take too much air time, interrupt, ignore or put down others’ contributions, etc.

                    10. A naturally flowing agenda

                    Careful observations by those who invented and practice facilitation have found natural process instincts in people that it is best to work with rather than against. A starting point for a session agenda taking the above into account might be as follows:

                        1. Welcome and purpose of the session by the host(s).
                        2. Participant self-introductions and ‘2 liner’ interests in the project.
                        3. Review the session agenda and time allocation.
                        4. Briefly review the existing 'state of the art' and challenge.
                        5. Environment scan: stakeholders, interests, & 'SWOT' (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats).
                        6. Key factors and ideas from everyone.
                        7. Ideas and creative scenarios by small teams.
                        8. Group synthesis of the scenarios into a strategy.
                        9. Development of a 'W5' follow-up action plan (who does what, when, where, with whom, etc.).
                        10. A few early 'false finishes' to draw out important leftovers.
                        11. Concluding '4 liners' from everyone and thanks all around.
                        12. Time refreshment breaks by the clock – when necessary find a break in the middle of an item. A group can lose steam for the whole day if the first break is at 10:45 AM rather than 10:00. Give folks light-hearted two minutes and one minute warnings that the group is about to reconvene. Take 60 second st-r-e-t-ch breaks every 45 minutes. Encourage participants to wiggle, raise their arms, re-set their lower back, etc. – then back to work.

                          11. Good process execution

                          The facilitator encourages the group process through the agenda with reference to the agenda timetable so that time is kept for the all important creative and conclusive work.

                          The facilitator succinctly notes on the wall charts and/or 3M stickies all contributions using the participants’ key words and diagrams to catch relationships and models. This visual record builds over the session as a collaborative body of knowledge and ideas. Seeing their contributions ‘up there’ minimizes impatience and repetition, enables participants to see patterns, etc.

                          Early in the creative process the facilitator can ask questions that encourage participants creativity. Perhaps small funny awards are given for the ‘furthest out’ ideas. Once a topic and its environment have been well explored it can be very effective to ask everyone to write quietly on their own note-pad a set of key ideas, goals or recommendations. Then ask each person in turn to read out what they have written. It is also effective to ask ‘teams of two’ to come up with such contributions. Encourage folks to read out their ideas even if they feel they have been said by others – it adds value to the ideas and strategy and everyone’s sense of participation. The facilitator can draw on her own understanding to ask some leading questions - but not suggest anything. As soon as a facilitator makes suggestions the group will lose trust in their impartiality and expect steering to foregone or personal directions.

                          For larger group sessions it is wise to employ a rapporteur who can build a complementary set of notes that catch nuances and details – as well as get a quicker start on the logic of the session report.

                          The facilitator writes up the contributions and adds check marks beside a contribution when it is repeated. Attribution of a contribution to a particular participant only happens when it is necessary for follow-up action. Several times during the event the facilitator checks with the 'responsible client' and asks for an 'itemized response' on what is useful that has been produced so far, concerns and further direction for the session. The facilitator also checks with the rapporteur to make sure he has everything needed for their report...including the 'W5' action plan. In order to avoid any perceptions of being subject to special pleading or pressure the facilitator encourages all participants to raise suggestions re content and process with the group as a whole. Progress reports can be produced in the middle of sessions and serve as a springboard for the next stage of the session. (via lap-top documents, summary charts, etc.)

                          12. Quick follow-up with clear expectations

                          After the event the rapporteur synthesizes the results in a point form session report...with help from the facilitator. A good session report from a half-day workshop might take one or even two days to prepare. Participants always want to get copies of the report. Think of it as part of their compensation package along with that great sandwich lunch. The facilitator and rapporteur meet with the client within 2 to 5 days to review their draft session report and the session’s results and planning.

                          A clear distinction must be made between the rapporteur's session report and any strategy document to be developed on the basis of the session report. The session report can be more useful to the client if it clusters the results in a strategic logic. Sometimes the client just wants the participants’ contributions in chronological order. It is much easier to provide the participants with the report on their session rather than a downstream proprietary strategy document incorporating further work by the client. The client can undertake a comprehensive strategy document with the focus provided by participating in the session and the contents of the session report. That way the strategy and all the understanding attached to it belongs to the client group…not the consultant (or the shelf).

                          A Facilitated Strategy Session

                          Strategy sessions organized and run with services of an expert facilitator can be the best way to quickly develop a highly informed, innovative and feasible strategy or agreement.

                          They can be used for problem solving and creative group work such as:

                          • Vision, strategy, business, action and communication plans
                          • Consultations
                          • Negotiated agreements
                          • New services and products
                          • Organizational development
                          • Policy and program proposals

                          Before the event the facilitator meets with the client contact to clarify the challenge, context, agenda and expected products. The facilitator can help identify participants representing a comprehensive range of understanding and expertise from the client organization and outside stakeholders and experts. Some projects require a series of sessions to accommodate different types or locations of participants and topics.

                          A session agenda is usually approximately as follows:

                          • Review the purpose and agenda of the session
                          • Self-introductions and interests from participants
                          • One or two persons present an overview of the challenge and its environment
                          • Everyone contributes observations to an environment scan (stakeholders' interests, factors and forces, 'SWOT', etc.)
                          • Ideas from everyone...and combining ideas
                          • Discussion of key factors and ideas
                          • Speculative scenarios developed and presented by small teams
                          • Synthesis of the scenarios into strategic direction and components
                          • Development of a 'W5' follow-up action plan (who does what, when, etc.)

                          The facilitator encourages, manages and ensures contributions from all participants - including the 'boss' if there is one - and notes all contributions on wall charts with key phrases and graphics. This visual record serves to build up a body of common knowledge and shared ideas, minimize impatience and repetition, enable cross-references, etc. The facilitator occasionally will draw on their experience to ask some leading questions - but not suggest anything. The facilitator has a professional responsibility to all participants.

                          After the event the facilitator works with the rapporteur's notes to synthesize the strategy in a draft session report in a 'paragraphs + points + diagrams' format for review with the client group. The final session report is then usually distributed to all participants within a few days. This helps build understanding, trust and commitment among participants before, during and after the session. The client and other participants are then free to use the session report as they see fit in their own follow-up strategy work and documentation.

                        • Beware the ides of afternoon. Mother nature wants us to nap about 30 minutes after lunch. In the absence of cots for everyone that phenomena can be sidestepped by having folks work in a pairs or small groups for a half hour or more (see item 7. above). Do not ask people to formally work over lunch – and rarely at night. Other kinds of work and consideration get done in those breaks.