Transitions: The Need for Facilitation

One question that frequently comes up when potential clients contact me is “When do I need to bring in an outside facilitator?”  If you ask three or ten different facilitators the same question one will get three or ten different answers. Early on in this blog I outlined some heuristics about working with consultants that partially answers this question from my perspective. However, in my interaction with clients,  I am convinced of the key role an external facilitator can play is during periods of transition.  Transitions can be difficult times for nonprofit organizations. In fact, managing change is one of the key drivers of exploratory calls I receive from potential clients who recognize their need for help. I believe that there are at least five types of transitions where a facilitator can be a useful outside voice:

1,  Mergers & Acquisitions:  Any organization that has experienced the blending of two organizations can tell you how complicated, emotional and volatile such a process of change is.  By the sheer complexity, a merger or acquisition often includes a team of strategic advisors, lawyers, and a sundry of other consultants (human resource, accounting, real estate, etc).  As part of this change team, a facilitator can bring a “process value” to help manage the complexity.

2,  Succession Planning & Leadership Change:  Clearly when the leader of an organization changes, the ripples of that that change reverberate through an entire organization and, often, the extended community.   There is fairly significant body of succession planning literature that can be used to guide succession planning and one of the core principles common to several references is the need for active management of the change.  This management of change is a process of facilitation.  I also suggest that facilitating the transition of leadership may not only be tied to the senior management positions.  There are times when it is a good practice to facilitate change in the “lower ranks” of an organization.  For example, the departure of a highly effective and volunteer coordinator in an organization that is dependent upon volunteer contributions might require the active management of the transition between coordinators to ensure the strength of the volunteer base.

3.  Crisis: A third transition where a facilitator can play a stabilizing and moderating role is during periods of crisis.  I have consulted with organizations that have gone through messy human resource crises and one once was hired to direct a project that had been fiscally mismanaged and was reeling from the aftermath of divisive politics. My personal experiences with crisis helped me understand the role that an external and impartial facilitator can play in helping an agency to manage crisis.

4.  Shift in Culture: There are times when organization practice changes in a way that creates a shift in organizational culture. For example I once worked with an organization that created a new human resource job classification system to bring uniformity across several distinct business units.  The implementation of the new classification system resulted in some employees being reclassified “upwards” and others reclassified “downwards.”  In addition, the new classification system came with a new annual staff appraisal system.  While the strategic direction and program of the agency remained constant, the shift in organizational practice required the use of a facilitator to assist in the cultural transition to the new system.  Other culture shifts could include such things as the implementation of a new organizational performance management systems, the unionization of a workforce, or even an agency relocation into new space.

5.  Change in Strategic Direction: Organizations that are faced with a dramatic change in strategic direction can also benefit from an external facilitator.  In fact, I would say that when strategy is at stake, the entire agency needs to be engaged in the process.  An external facilitator makes that universal engagement possible.  Examples of such strategic change might include an organization experiencing a sudden dramatic increase in revenue such as from a federal stimulus grant (or conversely the sudden lost revenue), an organization undergoing a major re-branding initiative, or organization developing an entirely new strategic or business plan. Each of these scenarios could benefit from the external perspective of a facilitator.

While this list of transitions is likely not comprehensive it illustrates a range of issues that potentially require the use of a facilitator to manage the change.  In addition to standard tools a facilitator would bring to the meeting and process management, transitional facilitation requires the facilitator to assume one or more of the following roles:

•  Coordination:  A facilitator can bring to a transition project a coordination role in complex processes of change.  For example, an organizational merger, having an individual tasked with facilitating all the moving parts, frees up senior management to focus on leadership, content and diligence rather than ensuring meeting minutes are copied and distributed in a timely manner or that major meetings are not scheduled on top of each other.

•  Communication:  A second role that a facilitator can play in a transition is to be the communication link, ensuring that all of staff and stakeholders are informed.  Uniquely, a facilitator that is external and impartial can also act as a ground wire, taking some of the charged current out of the communication messages.  Communication might also involve such specific tools as interest-based problem solving or mediation to help keep everyone engaged, open, and transparent.

•  Compassion:  Related to communication, a facilitator might also serve as a reflector of compassion.  Perhaps using tools like Nonviolent Communication techniques, a facilitator can help lead individuals and groups through a process of observing and feeling as well as identifying needs and requests. This humanizing role of facilitation allows space for hearing and for being heard at a relational level.

•  Coaching:  Increasingly, facilitation is also about coaching.  Facilitator as a coach requires a depth of experience and expertise that helps empower individuals and teams in constructive ways. Being a sounding board, reflective mirror, and provocateur can help leaders move through transitional waters.

•  Clarity/compass:  A final role of a transitional facilitator is to weave together the other roles in a way that acts as clarifier and compass to the process.  Far from being  simple GPS system that tells the group when to turn left and right, being a compass requires the facilitator to explore and move through the transition as a guide that is confident of where the group will end up, despite detours taken along the way.

In this context, my personal bias comes though once again, that facilitation is not about running good meetings but is fundamentally about performance improvement. Facilitation is fundamentally about managing change and assisting organizations in transition is likely one of the most effective use of a facilitators skills.  Organizations seeking a competitive advantage will do well to consider the strategic use of facilitation and process.


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.