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Global Flipchart #11

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April 2018

Effective Process Design

By John Butcher CPF, Cameron Fraser CPF, Tony Nash CPF, and Rhonda Tranks CPF.

“Facilitation” is the shorthand term we use to describe our work in helping groups to think more efficiently and effectively. But the meeting management skills of facilitation are only half the story. The other half is “process” - the task-specific thinking frameworks we employ to help groups achieve useful and sustainable outcomes.

Let’s begin with an overview of the characteristics of effective process design - the criteria we look for when crafting or selecting a thinking framework to use with our client groups, whether in face-to-face or virtual settings.

Easy to understand

First and foremost, the process must be easy to understand - both for us and for our client groups. Many of the thinking frameworks we use as facilitators are familiar to group participants from other contexts. For example, investigations into any sort of disaster (from airplane crashes to manufacturing defects) use some form of problem identification and analysis to try to get at the root causes of the event, and so enable corrective action to be taken. Client groups quickly grasp both the intent and the structure of a process when we can root it in shared experiences or information.

Easy to use

The process must be straightforward to use. The thinking framework cannot be so complicated or intimidating that participants spend a disproportionate amount of time struggling to apply it to their situation. Nor should the process ask groups to try to do more than one thing at a time. Take the advice of the late fashion innovator and business woman, Coco Chanel, who once said: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take at least one thing off.”  There is a trap in packing too much into any design. While not all processes are linear, they should help groups to see a path toward resolution of the situation that gave rise to the facilitated session.

Adaptable and timely

If you work with groups whose members come from different locations and who have little flexibility in their travel schedules, an effective process can be completed within the time the group has set aside for its work, and can be scaled up or back as circumstances require. This is also very dependent on the skillfulness of the facilitator of the session - our ability to keep the group moving, to work around obstacles not essential to the outcomes desired, to ensure that group members are progressing at the same pace together in their thinking. A clunky process, that has too many steps, or overlapping elements, will slow a group and often cause it to miss its deadlines for completion. And remember, breaks and lunch can take big chunks out of any working day, especially with large groups.

Complex issues are broken down 

The process used allows groups to both diverge and converge in their thinking. It is fundamental to process design that groups can dismantle the issue they are addressing into its component elements, then reassemble them in ways that can be more effectively and efficiently addressed. Often the apparent complexity of an issue is inhibiting clear thinking. That complexity needs to be broken down, the components of it exposed, then each component - singly or in tandem with others - examined and tackled.

Many groups now work virtually, from geographically-scattered locales or even within the same physical facility. But those groups must also, at times, meet face-to-face, or in combined sessions. As a result, an effective process must be adaptable to various facilitation approaches and meeting formats, so that groups working face-to-face, virtually, or both simultaneously, can use the same thinking framework.

Tried and tested

We must always test a process design to ensure it will be effective - that it will actually enable the group to do the thinking it must do to address the situation that gave rise to the facilitated intervention. This requires the facilitator to understand exactly what the group wants to achieve, the real working time available, the implications of the size and composition of the group, as well as the existing culture and any stress on the group. Such factors help determine the type of process that can be used, and how the group will come to closure. And the larger the group, the simpler the process steps should be.

Head and heart

We should do process design with a balance of head and heart - the rational and the emotional. Our groups are comprised of humans. Humans need to work on both levels to fully realize their potential. So our processes need to make sense on both levels too.

We need to guard against skill without knowledge - of designing or using processes without being aware of where they came from, what there were really intended to do, or the theoretical frameworks behind the methods. “Come on,” you say, “the group’s just trying to sort out why the conference fell flat, not re-examine the origin of life.” But not knowing such things can lead to the misuse of processes, and to unreliable, diluted, or distorted outcomes.

Lastly, our processes need to have an overall sense of cohesion and flow. There is an aesthetic at work here. “Elegant” might be that effect we can all strive for.

Skilled facilitation without effective effective process design is unlikely to help a group achieve its desired results, and effective process design can rarely compensate for inadequate facilitation. We need to develop both if we are to provide the best possible service to our clients.

Tony Nash, Cameron Fraser, and John Butcher are independent facilitators based in Ottawa, Canada. Rhonda Tranks operates her facilitation practice from Melbourne, Australia. Each has over 25 years experience serving organizations in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors.