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IT as Great Facilitators Part 1

IT-as-Great-FacilitatorsIn the IT world, we all play the role of a facilitator.  Technical architects facilitate sessions for estimating and creating designs for their teams.  Project managers facilitate team and client meetings and make sure the team is on track to reach its goals. When Business Analysts collect requirements, they may facilitate large requirement meetings.  With so many kinds of facilitation roles, can we assume we know what being a facilitator really means? Do we, as  facilitators, recognize that this is a significant role we need to work at and manage in order to be effective? How do we make sure we stay  “within” our role as a neutral facilitator and not push our own agenda?

So you think to yourself, “Yes Bob, this is obvious. Of course I am an effective facilitator.” But let’s really test how effective each of us really are.


The Two Extremes of Ineffective Facilitation

When I have been a less-than-effective facilitator, I am acting in one of two extremes. I either go into “Presenter” mode or into “Scribe” mode.  Let me demonstrate these two extremes.

On one side, a facilitator may go into “presenter” mode.  Although their role is to facilitate a discussion (e.g. illicit requirements from business users or help a team arrive at estimates), the “Presenter” actually comes to the meeting with an opinion, specifically, a desired outcome. They are there to help others meet his or her agenda, rather than facilitate the room to develop its own opinions.  When a facilitator starts presenting, he or she does not allow others in the room  to collaborate towards finding their own solutions.  This shuts down the energy in the room. This also means the participants may not “own” the solution.

At the other extreme, a facilitator goes into “scribe” mode. When a facilitator is in “scribe” mode, it means that when he or she walks into the meeting, they sit and take notes and meeting-minutes but do not influence the dialogue.  This often allows others in the meeting to go off topic and start discussing points not related, in any way, to the objective of the meeting. Also, if someone is “checked-out” or “shut down”, there is no true facilitator in the room to make sure their voice is heard.

The Responsibility of a Facilitator

The best facilitators enable others to define, own and work in order to achieve their objectives. While the facilitator may bring an approach,  the solution is owned by the individuals they are facilitating.

A Good Facilitator:

  • Helps the team clarify and align on their objective and then facilitates the team so they make progress towards their objective.
  • Helps keep the group’s energy high, so everyone is contributing and feeling heard.
  • Keeps momentum or rhythm flowing towards the objective.
  • Does not change the team objective during facilitation. (Although they can help the team  change direction if the team believes it is required.)
  • Helps an entire group make progress towards its objective and makes sure everyone’s  opinion counts.

Additionally, a good facilitator is constantly taking the group’s temperature in terms of:

  • Energy in the room: Everyone is engaged, participating and making constant progress towards accomplishing their objective.
  • Rhythm of dialogue: The dialogue is flowing but stays focused on the initial goal of the meeting.
  • Focus: The meeting is staying on track and accomplishing its objective.  This can be tricky since the facilitator needs to balance discussion on side topics that are helpful to the objective, vs. topics that derail the goal. 


Are You an Efficient Facilitator?

Even if we  believe we are doing an effective job at facilitating, we may actually be playing a Presenter or even Scribe.  Here are ways we can test our effectiveness:

  • Are you directing conversations with your own agenda? Or, are you enabling the team to have its own conversations?
  • Are you making sure the team stays on topic and on track to meet its objectives?
  • Are you making sure everyone in the room is being heard, and no one’s idea’s are shut down? (This can affect the energy of the room.)
  • Did you leave your opinion at the door? A good facilitator helps get to a solution, not give a solution.
  • If you had not attended the meeting, would the team have accomplished the same result? (Maybe you are not being as affective as you think you are.)

When It Comes Together…

Simon Sinek recently shared the following quote:  “Don’t show up to prove; Show up to improve”.

When great facilitators lead meetings, they enable a dialogue that allows the room to make a decision. They do not abuse their role to force an outcome. Instead, they help everyone do a better job and accomplish fulfilling work. The room fills with energy and momentum that can’t avoid delivering results. When meetings feel this energy, you know you are leading the room and are an effective facilitator.

Do you consider yourself an efficient facilitator? Are there any other suggestions you can offer to help others meet their objectives?

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Category: Business-IT Alignment, For Practitioners, Requirements Definition

Comments (7)

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  1. In the context of not being a presenter, what do you do if you as the facilitator have a pre-conceived great idea to solve the problem at hand (or what you think is a great idea). At what point the does the facilitator “present” their own idea? I suppose in this case that the facilitator must also put all ego aside to make sure that other ideas get just as much play.

  2. @Chris,

    It’s a great question. So let me clarify my post intention. It isn’t that you don’t share ideas, but you do so in helping them team accomplish their objective.

    If you have a great idea, and you’ve let the team explore their approach, you should definitely present your idea. You can either just present, or even phrase it as a “What about” or “What If” or “Have you considered”. This let’s the team start co-owning your idea.

    Here’s the important point. If the team rejects your idea or discounts it, don’t go into “presenter” mode and start selling your idea when it’s not welcome. The team will think you aren’t there to help them, only to sell your idea.

    One final note: There are meetings where you are a “member of the team” and also a facilitator. This is one of the hardest lines to walk. As a member of the team, you have the right to sell your idea and work with the team towards the objective. But you need to make sure you aren’t shutting down the team and balance the roles (I could definitely do better on this one).

    Thanks for your comment – let me know if I missed your point.

  3. @scottrojas says:

    Bob –
    How do you know as a facilitator that a side session is or is not helpful to a groups goal, if you as the facilitator are neutral. I guess what I am asking, is how do you know how long to let something go before reigning it in?

    • @Scott – good question. I personally believe that this is more art than science. But here are the guidelines I use when facilitating. I monitor Energy, Rhythm and movement to the teams objective.

      If the side conversation is killing room energy or “stopping” existing rhythm, then I would intervene or steer the conversation towards the group so we can raise the energy and restart the rhythm.

      This type of gauge has worked for me pretty well – and supports my vision of the role of a facilitator.

      It’s a great question and I don’t believe there is a simple answer. Hopefully these guidelines help.

  4. Jenny Nunemacher says:

    One of my biggest challenges as a facilitator is to have a participant who rambles, or repeats their idea or thoughts 3-4 different ways (or not so different ways).

    I suppose I need to intervene early once I’ve identified a rambler and restate their contribution: “Excuse me for interrupting, but let me see if I understand what you’ve just said…”

    The variation on this type of rambler is the one who has a big preamble before either asking a question or making a suggestion. How do I move them along to their point?

    Thanks for the topic. I really enjoy the work of facilitating a group of thinkers, but I would love to be better at it.

    • @Jenny – we all encounter this situation. I am sure I am the culprit many times myself . There is no “one size fits all”, but here are some suggestions.

      There are typically two reasons that this occurs. 1) The individual doesn’t feel heard. So they repeat to get their point across. 2) The individual is repeating it because they are “working it out in their head as they speak – it is their thinking model”.

      If you have a whiteboard, be sure to capture their key points while they are chatting. This makes them feel heard … you can point at your “writing” on the board and say – did I capture this or are you saying something else/new?

      If you “know” this is going to happen, you should have a discussion with the individual on the side and explain that you may interrupt with the words “Let me see if I get you so far” – as your contract to be able to interrupt and regain control.

      The Whiteboard approach is very effective and is my goto tool since it helps “everyone” see their point and helps them know they were heard.

      You will still run into the situation – but hopefully these suggestions can help.

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