Mastering Facilitation Fundamentals…FIRST!

“Gentlemen…this is a football!”  Every year in late summer, rookies, walk-ons and old-timers alike would assemble on a training field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The anxiety and tension were palpable as they gathered around the veteran coach in hopes of gleaning some football wisdom from him, and maybe even having some of his magic rub off on them. Vince Lombardi started every pre-season training session of his career the exact same way, holding up the pigskin and reiterating those now famous words. It was immediately followed by a discussion about the role of the ball, its impact on the game, walking the gridiron together and rediscovering the length and breadth of the field, its boundaries, the rules…in short: revisiting the basics. Vince Lombardi understood that in the final analysis, regardless of your level of experience or natural abilities, success isn’t found in the complexities of the game or the sophistication of your strategy, but very simply in executing the fundamentals soundly and effectively.

Facilitation, like any other skill, is about mastering the fundamentals in order to be as effective as possible, but we must first understand what those fundamentals are. In looking at the facilitation playing field and its boundaries, we’ve had to learn as Mark Twain said: “To not let schooling interfere with our education!”  That said, we have broken from the traditional view and redefined what our experience has taught us the fundamentals of good and effective facilitation really are.

Ask anyone what “facilitation” means and they will likely describe anything from keeping an audience engaged to running a meeting (and any number of other like descriptions in between). In most cases though, those descriptions are referring only to the actual engagement itself. While none of these descriptors are in and of themselves wrong, truly good and effective facilitation encompasses so much more than just this typical, but limited view.  We’ve discovered over the past 30 years as leaders and facilitators that good and effective facilitation encompasses seven key elements: Session Organization, Preparation, Standards, Flexibility, Technique, Subtleties, and Self-Awareness.  Dissect a good facilitation, and its anatomy will reveal that aspects of these elements are applied across three critical phases: Pre-facilitation, Conduct of the facilitation, and Post-facilitation, or simply put, what must happen before, during, and after a facilitation to make it as effective as possible.

Session Organization involves coordinating administrative and logistics requirements across all of the phases.  Preparation is about ensuring the facilitator understands the purpose, the plan, and the environment of the facilitation before walking into the room. Standards are those absolute things that should ALWAYS occur during the conduct of any facilitation. Flexibility means just that; good facilitators must be able to assimilate and adapt their plan in order to meet the objectives. Techniques are skills that can be applied in order to maximize the facilitation or overcome challenges.  Subtleties are more advanced techniques that are the result of years of facilitation experience, but can still help accelerate a facilitator’s growth and yield a higher impact session.  Finally, Self-Awareness is about a facilitator understanding how they are coming across during a session, and those things they can do to ensure their impression does not distract from accomplishing the objectives.  Any of these elements applied individually can improve how a session runs. Applied in combination though, these elements can have an exponential effect on the outcome of the session and the individual and collective experience of the group.

Like every good mission or project, getting organized and having a plan dramatically improves the chances of success. This requires the facilitator to take time to develop a plan, adequately prepare for and execute that plan, and provide documentation to the participants.  That means that certain tasks need to be accomplished and standards applied in each of the three phases. The Pre-Facilitation phase involves the facilitator getting with the appropriate leaders and identifying what the intent of the session is, and what needs to be accomplished during that time. Developing a plan and coordinating the logistics to ensure the intent is met is what postures the facilitator and the participants for success.  Conduct of the Facilitation is where the facilitator applies the standards and employs the necessary techniques required to effectively execute the plan and meet the intended objectives. Finally, the Post-Facilitation ensures a record of the actions required and the agreement made during the session. It gives teeth to the outcome of the facilitation, and a means of accountability that is normally missing from most facilitations we’ve experienced. It is the combination of these three phases that provides a level of rigor and organization before, during, and after a session that makes this concept of facilitation unique, and ultimately yields a much more effective and successful session than the traditional approach.

While good facilitators can make it look easy, facilitation can be a challenging responsibility even for experienced leaders. Recognizing first that it is a skill set that needs to be learned and practiced, and then applying some of these techniques can go a long way towards getting the most out of any group collaboration.  Mastering the basics takes time, but even the most inexperienced facilitator can apply these fundamentals and experience an immediate impact on any session they facilitate from a common meeting to a complex conference.  Always remember, go back to the basics…”Gentlemen, this is a football!”

Contact us for more information on our high-impact, four hour workshop titled “Facilitation Skills for Leaders.”

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