Lately, I have received a lot of last-minute requests for a facilitator, and I realize that colleagues and clients have a misperception that facilitation does not require preparation – that a facilitator can step in at the last minute to facilitate on any topic. Clearly, there is a misunderstanding about what it takes to prepare for a facilitated retreat, off-site meeting or session or how a lack of preparation might affect the quality of outcomes.
Of course, compared to having the session facilitated by a person who is not trained as a facilitator, having a professional facilitator at the last minute will improve your outcomes, but I am making the case that if you decide to pay for a professional facilitator, it is in your interest to give the facilitator ample time to prepare. This will provide you with the most bang for your buck and the best outcomes.
Typically, it is important to give a facilitator from 4 weeks to up to 3 months to prepare depending on the scope of the meeting. This allows time for the facilitator to meet with the client or client team several times, to conduct interviews with key participants or stakeholders that will attend the meeting and to design the agenda and activities for the session as well as get final approval on the approach/design.
Here are just four reasons facilitators require ample prep time:
1. Part of the preparation involves coaching or consulting the client around setting objectives for the session.
Clients often do not have a sense of what is a reasonable set of outcomes for a session and they may also not have a clear sense of what they would like to accomplish. The preparation time allows everyone the time and space to reflect on what the objectives should be and what is a reasonable set of objectives given the time allotted to the meeting.
What can be accomplished in two days is very different from what can be accomplished in 2 to 4 hours or even one day.
2. During the preparation time, the facilitator is learning about the organizational culture of the organization, the operations or daily business of the organization, the different groups that will attend and their agendas, needs or conflicts.
As the facilitator meets the different attendees, he/she gets a sense of the possible group dynamics, the level of resistance of different groups and the desired outcomes of different groups.
All of this information is used by the facilitator both in designing the session activities as well as during the meeting itself.
3. When a facilitator is not informed of the possible areas of conflict or contention, or the different priorities or agendas, the facilitator may be taken by surprise, and that can affect outcomes.
The facilitator may design an activity that will not work given the conflicts or state of the relationships. A good guideline is to make sure that facilitator is not surprised by any elephants in the room.
4. When a facilitator has not had enough time to do homework on the workings of the organization, a facilitator may not adequately understand the organization’s operations or business and where to focus the conversation.
While the facilitator does not need to be an expert on the organization (and probably for objectivity should not be) a facilitator that knows nothing or very little is hampered and cannot direct the conversation or focus the conversation as well as a facilitator who has a feel for what the different groups consider to be priorities or where the pain points are. And an informed and prepared facilitator is able to anticipate possible outcomes and have several different activities in the back pocket in case the discussion dictates a change in the plan.
So, in short, make sure you allot up to 3 months run time for the facilitator to study up, do their homework, meet with key attendees and stakeholders and help set objectives and outcomes. A well-prepared facilitator has the best chance and highest likelihood of achieving all the objectives and providing a good foundation for the organization to move forward with its mission.