What comes to mind when you hear the term “facilitator”? A task manager hogging airspace up at the front of the room? Or thoughts like, “Ugh–okay, how do I get out of attending this workshop?”
But done right, facilitation isn’t about boring presentations. It’s a process for getting groups of people together to solve any problem. Good facilitators know how to jump right in, establish an objective, create a format packed with interactive opportunities for discussion, and lead groups of all sizes toward constructive solutions. And you don’t need a specific job title or a certain amount of experience to become an effective facilitator–you just have to develop a set of skills that gives structure and purpose to the otherwise unruly art of collaboration.
As workplaces become less hierarchical and more reliant on interpersonal problem-solving, rather than just tactical execution, facilitation is becoming a job skill you’ll need to rely on more and more. Here’s what you need to know to get started developing it.
It’s Not Just For Managers
What typically happens when you and your team face a major challenge? Usually your manager calls a meeting, and the organizer becomes the facilitator by default. While it’s true that managers are responsible for making things happen day-to-day, their job title doesn’t automatically make them great at getting these discussions to run smoothly.
If you want a more productive meeting, everyone needs to embrace the idea of changing the status quo–which means knowing how to facilitate the types of tough conversations where teams decide how to change. In other words, anybody can be an effective facilitator. You just have to shed the familiar hierarchy-driven way of doing things first.
Don’t Share An Agenda
Another familiar habit of conventional brainstorms and team meetings is the agenda–which usually gets circulated in advance so everyone knows what’s on the docket. Maybe your boss even divvies up PowerPoint slides in order to allocate time among your group’s presenters. In fact, slide decks have become such a universal expectation–a default method of fulfilling a meeting agenda–that they’ve become a crutch.
So not only should you avoid preparing a PowerPoint presentation for your next brainstorm, you should actually avoid the temptation to even share an agenda ahead of time. I know this sounds like a recipe for mayhem. But by removing the agenda crutch, you’ll start making people sweat–and that’s a good thing. It lets them know that the meeting they’re about to attend is about shaking up the status quo and thinking more creatively than they might be used to.
One way to ease attendees’ minds is by sharing the meeting’s objectives, but that’s not the same thing as a fully fleshed-out agenda. Let participants know what you want them to walk away with at the end of the session, but resist the urge to share anything else.
Divide Up Your Time Differently
Now you need to decide how you’ll meet those goals in a set period of time. Facilitators have many options here: Do you want to run the session like a “design thinking” workshop to get the most out of every participant? If so, check out this Stanford d.School workshop called “Bootleg” for support. Or do you want to put your “model-based” methods into action? Here are some tips from MIT’s Otto Scharmer, plus some details on what model-based facilitation looks like in practice. And for even more inspiration, check out this handy taxonomy of 10 different approaches to facilitation.
No matter what approach you choose, you can find a way to organize the time you’ve allotted more efficiently than traditional meetings do. Here’s one example: Anytime one person is planning to speak at length to the group–even for just five minutes–cut that time in half or even down by three-quarters. Then ask the would-be speaker to write up their main points and share a printout instead, and ask attendees to read it in silence.
Crazy? Not really. Effective facilitators know that people can read twice as fast as anyone can talk, so rather than devoting chunks of time to updates or presentations, they look for ways to transmit information more efficiently.
Facilitation, Diversity, And The Future Of Work
As the general population diversifies, so will the workplace of the future, and forward-looking companies are already hard at work to actively diversity their ranks. People with different backgrounds and points of view chipping away at the same problem together are more likely to reach creative solutions. But it isn’t inevitable that they’ll do so all on their own, without a facilitator to guide things. One reason facilitation is becoming an even more important job skill going forward is because organizations will need people who know how to harness all that diversity of thought and channel it productively.
Sometimes that comes down to your problem-solving approach, which may either encourage or discourage diversity of solutions. For example, are you looking at a problem from a 10-year vantage point or just trying to beat your immediate competitors? There are probably more ways of doing the former than the latter. Likewise, are you letting your teams examine each problem just once, or are you creating opportunities to take multiple stabs at a solution from a variety of angles over the course of a week or even a month? If you broaden your approach, you’ll get more people involved in finding answers.
Smaller groups can sometimes also harness the power of diversity better than large ones can. Facilitators should consider devoting half the time of a given session to having participants work on an issue in groups of three to eight people.
Finally, diverse workforces often need to be able to talk through issues of inclusion and bias, and those can be tough conversations. That’s all the more reason to train capable facilitators at every level of your company. Collaborating is never easy all the time–and it’s even harder when the issues and challenges you’re working on together create discomfort, anxiety, or fear. But those emotions aren’t going to vanish from the workplace anytime soon. So start practicing facilitation now, and you’ll future-proof your work culture for the more diverse, fast-moving world that’s heading our way.
Brandon Klein is the coauthor of Facilitating Collaboration: Notes on Facilitation for Experienced Collaborators. A former Fortune 100 chief collaboration officer, he cofounded Collaboration.Ai, which uses data to improve team performance. Brandon is also a partner at The Difference Consulting.