Facilitation goals and tools

Clarifying Facilitation Goals and Process Tools

As I speak to potential clients, it is not too infrequent that I have to say, “When looking for a facilitation consultant it is important to separate and keep separate the concepts of facilitation goals and facilitation tools.”   To unpack this concept, let me illustrate with a personal story. At a couple of different times in my life, I worked in construction.  On one project, I worked closely with Dan, a highly experienced finish carpenter, who became a mentor as he taught me finish carpentry.  Our goal was clear, trim windows and doors so that the end result looked spectacular. The tools however, were varied.  Table saw, miter box saw, levels, files, hammers, As I was learning how to work with power tools, a very nuanced process, Dan would ask a lot of questions, sometimes guide my hand and, at other times, would intervene and save me from wasting an expensive length of trim molding.  Dan taught me a variety of alternative ways of looking at, what on the surface, is a simple process of measuring twice and cutting once.  Finish carpentry, I learned was a craft that is executed best by those rich in a tacit understanding of the process as well as the tools. So what does this have to do with facilitation?

Coming back to my opening sentence, I once was talking to a potential client who was describing his board’s interest in hiring a facilitator to help his organization create a new strategic plan.  He waxed eloquent about how the board was looking for innovative approaches to the process of creating a strategic plan.  His passion for innovation raised my eyebrows, because the written specs for the project clearly asked for a scenario planning process.  When I suggested that “innovation” in creating a strategic plan might not involve scenario planning, the response was basically that a board member attended a scenario planning process and that is what they are looking for.  To me, this is a great example of confusing facilitation goals with facilitation tools.  In this one conversation the potential client was asking for both innovation as a goal and at the same time prescribing a single tool that might or might not be terribly innovative.

When I heard that dichotomy being expressed, I remembered back to working with Dan.  We needed to cut a corner piece on a complicated trim molding and Dan said, “How do we cut it?” I answered, “The finish table saw, set at 45 degrees.” Dan smiled, “Too complicated of a cut. Hand saw in a miter box at 47 degrees.” Dan’s method resulted in a near perfect match.  Dan not only knew both what was needed to be done but also tacitly knew how it should be done.

When facilitation goals and facilitation tools are confused, the best outcome is rarely achieved.  So when seeking the assistance of a facilitation consultant one needs to clearly separate goals from tools. This is an important task and both clients and facilitation consultant have a role to play in the separation process. Here are some simple questions to help you think about this separation.

1.  Where do you want to be? The critical first step is to clearly figure out where you want to end up when the facilitated process is over. Rather than focusing on facilitation tool that will get you there, it is important to first clearly know where you are going. The goal is more important than the tool.   “We want to develop a strategic vision,” or “We want to create an implementation plan for our strategic vision,” are clear goal statements.  “We want you to facilitate a retreat,” is not so clear. Being clear about the goal helps you ask the right questions of a facilitator.   If the goal is to create an implementation plan, then you know to ask questions about implementation planning. What is his/her experience in the area of implementation planning?  What are his/her foundations of practice?

2.  Do you have strong feelings about how you get there? A second question reflects on the tools.  Does the tool matter to you?  If so, then you need a facilitator who has experience helping agencies with similar goals and has a deep content knowledge of the specific tool you require. If “doing a SWOT analysis,” or “facilitating scenario planning” are critical tools to use then be intentional about looking for a facilitator with expertise in using those tools. However, if you separate the goal from the tool then your preference for a tool might be influenced as the facilitator helps you reflect on the goal.  A finish table saw is good choice to get the job done, but there are times when a miter box is a better choice.  Keeping the goal and tools separate allows you to have a wider lens in assessing potential facilitators.

3.  What is the organizational fit? The third question is to consider how the facilitation goals and tools fit with your organizational culture and structure. Elsewhere, I wrote more extensively about cultural and organizational fit but the reminder in this post is to consider the impact of the facilitation process on your organization.  For example, if you are a smaller grassroots nonprofit agency and you are seeking for someone to assess your organizational capacity, traditional capacity assessment tools likely have little relevance to your organization.  In your case, capacity measurement needs to be forward thinking and aspirational rather than the use of a “present or absent” capacity checklist.

4.  Do you have the resources to make it work? The final question is to think about the resources available to make a facilitation process work.  While this includes thinking about money, it may also be influenced by such factors and time and space.  In some urban areas, the cost of a face-to-face meeting might include 60-90 minutes of commute time on top of meeting times.  Such a commute might negate planning a series of face-to-face meetings.  Commuting time becomes a geographic cost barrier.

Remember that facilitation consultants should be able to help you untangle the differences between where you want to get to and how to get there.  If you have worked out the four questions above, it is completely appropriate to discuss your rationale with prospective consultants and seek validation or invite alternate ways of triaging the context.  Beware of the consultant who jumps too quickly to, “of course I can facilitate your retreat what date do you want me to do it?”  Remember, hiring a facilitator is starting a strategic relationship that ideally is the beginning of a long-term partnership  rather than a one-time event.

Coming back to our example of the director looking for innovation in strategic planning but requiring the use of a scenario planning tool, his confusion of goals and tools was easy to reframe.  This agency was looking for a facilitation consultant who could help the organization think about future trends in the strategic planning process.  There is nothing wrong with having a specific tool in mind when it fits the organizational culture and resources available.   The point that needs to be made  however, is that when hiring a facilitator you need to start with the goals, culture and resources and stay open to the specific tool or process. To the degree that you think through these issues the process of assessing potential consultants becomes easier.

The process of hiring a facilitation consultant is challenging.  In fact, much of the traffic that comes to my site via search engines is often driven by variations of the phrase “how to hire a facilitator.”  Hopefully, this post on clarifying facilitation goals and facilitation tools, along with other posts in this occasional series, will better equip your agency to find consultants that will not just “run a good meeting” but will significantly advance your organizational capacity.


~ Mark

Photo Credit: Pexels

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.