Most managers today would agree that facilitation skills can be useful in many situations, from project planning to team development. But how do you know when you really have a need for facilitation? We believe there are three key signs to look for.

Consider the following situations:

  • The Vice President of Human Resources receives a lot of complaints about the hiring process. Some departments complain that it takes too long to get people hired. Others express concern that people don’t have enough involvement in the screening process. Still others believe the organization hires people who lack basic skills. You are responsible for researching the problem and recommending a revised hiring process.
  • The General Manager of your plant announces, “Our largest customer has asked us to implement a plan for ensuring that our products keep up with their quality standards. If we fail, we stand to lose about half of our business. I want you to make it your number one priority.”
  • You are leading a systems development project for your company. The contractors working on the software originally estimated that the system would cost $2 million and require a year to implement. Two years and $3 million later, the contractors tell you they need another $1 million and one more year to complete the job. Your CIO wants a recommendation. Should the company continue investing in the project, rescue what it can from what is currently finished, or cancel the project completely?

Though the situations are different, they have three key elements in common:

  1. A problem has been detected and needs to be addressed: an inefficient process, a client seeking assurances of continued quality, a project that has exceeded its budget.
  2. The solution to the problem is not readily apparent. Obvious solutions are more than likely already implemented. Developing a solution requires a deeper understanding and analysis of the situation.
  3. Buy-in is needed for the solution to be successful. The solution will require a change in behavior by a number of people. Without the behavior change, even the best solution will fail.

We believe situations with these characteristics are in need of a facilitation solution through one or more facilitated sessions. We define a facilitated session as an extremely structured meeting in which the facilitator guides the participants through a series of pre-defined steps in order for them to arrive at a result they have created, understood and accepted.

There are several key aspects to this definition. Every facilitated session has a specific purpose or result to achieve. For example, the purpose of a facilitated meeting might be to create a strategic plan for the organization, improve the efficiency of a specific process, or define a solution to a difficult problem. The participants follow a series of pre-defined steps to create the final result. The steps might involve understanding the current situation, isolating the problems and root causes, generating potential solutions, selecting the best solution, and developing an implementation plan.

Final thoughts

The role of the facilitator is to guide the participants through the steps. Rather than dictating the solution, the facilitator uses an understanding of the process steps and group dynamics to help the group achieve the desired results, given the specific needs and characteristics of the participants. If the facilitation is successful, the participants create, understand and accept the final result.

For more techniques on facilitating group sessions, consider our course The Effective Facilitator.