Sarah was just made team leader of her company’s latest quality improvement project. Sarah is excited about this new role because she believes this is her opportunity to shine in the company and put forth her ideas.
Part of the project involves assembling a team of staff to brainstorm project objectives and strategies to advance the company's goals. In addition, Sarah's boss has advised her and the team to assemble a focus group of clients he has selected to determine additional goals and objectives from the customer’s point of view.
Sarah decides she will act as the facilitator for both sessions. Even though she has never facilitated before, she assumes there is no special skill required and just moves forward without preparation.
Entering into this project, Sarah’s personal objective is to advance herself and her own ideas; therefore, each session has Sarah doing most of the talking. Many of the staff and the clients leave the sessions feeling their time has been wasted and their input devalued.
The end result of Sarah's failure as a facilitator is a quality improvement plan that lacks a multi-dimensional focus and has no buy in or ownership from most of the staff. Likewise, the client focus group that could have been a useful marketing tool ends up alienating several key clients and causing more harm than good.
So what exactly is a facilitator?
From the example above, we see what many people mistakenly believe a facilitator's role to be...one who advances a particular agenda, usually their own.
Let’s take the root of the word…facilitate: to make easy or easier.
So in the context of a fact finding mission like focus groups and brainstorming sessions, facilitators are there to make the process of coming up with innovative ideas easier. Facilitators are people who make progress easier. Yet far too many facilitators impede progress because of a misunderstanding of their role.
I feel the role of a facilitator is a simple one ...to be a neutral leader. However, what may seem a simple task is often one of the hardest for many who are placed in this role.
Whether a basic staff meeting or a major strategic planning session, a facilitator’s job is to ensure all voices are heard, that everyone has an opportunity to put forth ideas and to mitigate or reduce any barriers to progress, all while maintaining their role as a neutral participant. For only through neutrality and the ability to play devil's advocate can you assure that all avenues of discovery have been exhausted.
In the example above, we see that Sarah made the mistake many placed in the role of facilitator make; she became the focus and forgot the true focus was the creation of ideas. Her role was to provide leadership to the team; to encourage and motivate to bring people to their full potential and maintain a detached and pragmatic view.
A good facilitator knows the barriers to consensus building, effective dialog and brainstorming, anticipates these barriers and employs strategies to ensure they don’t impede the progress.
Have you ever been in a focus group or brainstorming sessions where one person seems to dominate the discussions; or even worse, they dominate the discussion with their own personal gripes? This is the result of a facilitator who hasn't brought with them the skills to effectively neutralize these challenging team members.
Brainstorming and group collaboration can be a very effective tool in strategic planning and continuous quality improvement of any business or agency. However, they are only as good as the process used and the people you bring to the table for discussion, not the least of which is the facilitator.