Quality Facilitation

Characteristics of Quality Facilitation

This is one of the first blog posts that I wrote back in 2009.  Still holds true.

One of the common misconceptions that I encounter is that many people equate facilitation with meeting management.  If meetings run smoothly they are considered successful and facilitated well.  While running effective meetings does require facilitation, meeting management is the most rudimentary of facilitation skills.  Virtually anyone can be trained to develop an effective agenda, manage time and decisions, and accurately capture meeting process but facilitation, as a process, means much more than running good meetings.  The kind of facilitation that teams and agencies should aspire to is much deeper and richer than the foundational elements of meeting management.  This brings us to the question of evaluating facilitation.  Aside from stepping people through the process from meeting agenda to meeting minutes, what are the expectations that teams should have of facilitators.  What does quality facilitation look like? I would like to suggest the following characteristics of quality facilitation.

Process & Systems Thinking:  A key difference between running a meeting and facilitation is the ability to keep the immediate process in the context of the larger systems view. I have discussed this concept before, so, for a present example, at a simple level, if a team is developing a new flex-schedule policy for their business unit, the facilitator needs to be able to help the group consider the larger agency human resources system of the organization.  At the other end of complexity, a facilitator of a large community meeting where residents are advocating for community-level change, a facilitator needs to make room in the process to consider the political, media, and social systems and conventions that may influence their planning process.

Valuing Diversity:  A second characteristic of quality is found in the facilitator’s ability to recognize and incorporate the strength of the group’s diversity.  Good facilitation ensures that participants work both cross-functionally and cross-culturally to maximize the differing perspectives and ensure power equity.  The ability to create bridges between diversity strengthens team functioning.

Managing Conflict: In addition to being able to use simpler tools of conflict management such as naming, redirecting, magnifying or distributing, a facilitator needs to possess skills in mediation and the insight to be able use, when called for, structured mediation or interest-based negotiation strategies to solve conflict.

Visual Learning: Unfortunately, many facilitators feel that as long as stuff is written in multi-colored markers on chart pack paper that s/he is facilitating.  Indeed, I have been in workgroups where progress was measured by the amount of wall space covered by chart pack paper.  Quality facilitation should be measured by the effective use of visuals to  support the process not by the mere quantity of paper used.  Indeed, I believe that copious visual notes can be a sign that a facilitator has difficulty synthesizing big ideas and effectively summarizing.  Facilitators should have formal training in disciplines such as concept-mapping, information-mapping, logic models, and flow-charting.  Such training enables facilitators to not just write things down, but help teams learn and clarify visually throughout the process.

Focusing on Performance Improvement:  The ultimate goal of facilitation is to help teams “close the gap” between where they are right now and where they want to be.  Quality facilitation draws from a wide array of empowerment and adult learning theories, organizational design theories, and systems theory to help strengthen a team’s ability to solve performance problems or improve performance quality.

Documenting Process:  A final marker of quality facilitation comes back around to where we started, in that, effective meeting facilitation does involve creating an agenda, managing a meeting and summarizing the event as meeting minutes. However, rather than sketch agendas, and rambling meeting summaries, quality facilitation uses the written documentation as a communication tool to reinforce and clarify expectations, action, accountability and progress.  Documenting the process is a primary tool for orienting and moving teams forward and capturing knowledge so that organizational learning is strengthened.

When taken as a whole, these characteristics describe quality facilitation.  It would be a simple exercise to create a performance rubric or another evaluation tool as a way of measuring the effectiveness of facilitators.  Taken together, they also represent a roadmap for training new facilitators or improving the skills of existing ones.  In the end, the point that I want to make is that while meeting management is the basic foundation for facilitation, quality facilitation is the sum of advanced practice and skills in addition to meeting basics.  Focusing on these advanced practices will help teams manage process more effectively with a higher return on the time invested.

~Mark

Photo Credit  Upsplash

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.