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Global Flipchart #19

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September 2020

Has Facilitation Lost the Plot

Malin Morén Durnford & Trevor Durnford

“Show us what you can do!”, the client said. “Well, that depends on what your outcomes are”, we responded. “Tell us about your needs and what you want to achieve to start with. Then we can suggest a process that can deliver the outcomes in an effective way.”

It was in that client meeting we realized that something has happened. The way our client leaned back in the chair, waiting for us to start to showcase something, like we were selling a generic product called facilitation. “This method works on all groups, it guarantees participation and it makes people have fun in the workshop!” Or, like we were in the entertainment business: “You will have the show of a lifetime if you choose us as your magic facilitators!” To be more focussed on how the session is designed than what the outcomes are, or wanting to be entertained in a workshop as the main purpose, is far from how facilitation is supposed to help groups. Or was, anyway.

So where are we coming from?

Both of us started out as facilitators almost 30 years ago, coming into the profession from two different schools and backgrounds: Trevor, a chartered mechanical engineer, started to facilitate groups working with TQM, Lean, Six Sigma. Malin, a behavioural scientist, facilitated teams in conflict with focus on process consulting. But both schools we came from had one thing in common: Always focus on the outcomes first! 

For us, without reflecting much about it, outcomes has always been more important than choice of methods and process.

That’s why that specific client meeting triggered our curiosity on the matter engagement vs outcomes. Maybe we have missed something? Perhaps facilitation is not about outcomes any more, it’s all about engaging people? And in that case, what implications can that lead to? As with any profession, also the profession of facilitators will develop. And we are sure that the future for facilitation will look different depending on what choices we make as professionals here and now. Let’s explore three trends, or phenomena, that we have noticed, and reflect upon the implications of them.

1. Has engagement become more important than reaching outcomes?

Is it more important that participants in a workshop are engaged and involved during the workshop itself, than actually what they do as a result of it? We have noticed that many facilitators focus mainly (and sometimes only) on the workshop they are hired to deliver. The perhaps most important phase, the client contracting, where actually the outcomes are defined gets less attention, and sometimes this very important meeting is mixed up with a “sales meeting” where the facilitator tries to sell her-/himself and/or certain methods. And the same with the mandatory “follow-up and assess results” meeting with the client. This is the occasion where we exchange feedback with the client, of course around the process used, but primarily, to evaluate if the chosen process helped to delivered agreed outcomes.

Signs showing that more attention goes into the workshops themselves, rather than the before (defining outcomes) and the after (evaluating the outcomes) can for example be the amount of workshops and seminars available focussing on methods and to some extent skills to use in workshops, not before and after. Other signs of less buzz around outcomes is the number of applications for FIA awards. If the profession was more focussed on outcomes and impact, the IAF FIA committee would most likely be flooded by applications from all around the world. But they are not. And finally, if reaching outcomes and measuring impact was our main focus, it would be very easy to promote the power of facilitation. Who would not like to hire a facilitator when the return on investment and business case shows the massive benefits, not only in engagement, but in outcomes delivered and achievements made?

2. I want to facilitate but they don’t want me to!

This leads us into a second tendency we have spotted: Facilitators who find it difficult to sell facilitation. But that’s the whole thing! It’s not facilitation as such we sell, neither is it a set of facilitation methods or even a super inspiring facilitator. It’s the result of the facilitation we sell! On rare occasions, when the client wants to compare and assess one specific facilitator against another, that is when we sell our specific facilitation skills. But in our experience, that is not the kind of situation most, especially new, facilitators face, for them it’s the selling at all that is the trouble.

If you want to sell facilitation, you need to think and act as a consultant! Before, during and after, with focus on outcomes, impact and results. If we purely are in this profession because we want to focus on creating dynamic, inspiring and engaging sessions, there are many other businesses we could work in; hosting parties, spiritual meetings, well, events of all kinds, where the event itself is the main thing. What puts the facilitation profession apart from the examples above, is the co-created result of coming together!

So, if you want to facilitate, and your clients don’t see the point of hiring you, maybe you are coming at it from the wrong angle? Maybe your main focus is to design an inclusive and engaging process, and you consider your job to be done when the workshop is finished? While writing this text, we just received an email from a client from many years, a multinational pharma company: “Hi Malin & Trevor! I would need some data on the outcomes of the facilitated team effectiveness sessions we did last year, to convince my boss to continue with teams in other departments. Can you please send this to me? Thanks!”

There are a few insights in that brief email:

a. We (client and facilitators) continue to collaborate long after the workshops are finished, we discuss outcomes, share ideas of how they can continue to develop.

b. She (the client) is asking for the outcomes of the sessions. In this case, we used a tool to measure team effectiveness before and after the sessions, to see what impact they had. She did not ask for a description of the methods, or an evaluation form saying how good the participants thought the workshop itself were.

c. She (the client) takes on to sell a similar process to the rest of the organisation. If there is a need and they see the potential benefits and return on that investment, they will come back to us.

So if you want to facilitate more, and promote the power of facilitation, ask yourself what to focus on in your promotion: Is the power of facilitation the engagement you can help to create? Or is the power of facilitation the results you help groups achieve? 

In an ideal situation the answer would of course be: Both! But when we listen to facilitators struggling to “sell” facilitation, we very often come to the conclusion that they are trying to sell an experience in a workshop, the engaging process, rather than focussing on results.

3. Is engagement and all being heard more important than listening to experts?

The third reflection we would like to bring forward is probably a trend in our society: Everyone's an expert, and everyone needs to have an opinion on everything.

The whole point with facilitation is to gather a group of people so they, with various experiences and different perspectives, can deliver a better outcome together than they would have been able to do without collaborating. But, are always all peoples comments in a workshop equally important? Is there a risk that we make more stupid decisions since we are striving for consensus, and don’t pay enough attention to people in a group that really know stuff?

We are strong advocates of Roger Schwarz view: “Choose a decision making process that uses an appropriate level of engagement!” 

And, that means that sometimes all voices in a workshop are not equally important. Because what happens if we neglect the fact that there are different levels of expertise in the room, and use methods that make the factual knowledge in the room disappear?  Maybe the most important and game-changing comment is scribbled down in the corner of a flipchart by the most knowledgeable scientist in the room, and we miss it because of more loud voices and bigger handwriting? The outcomes and decisions made in some sessions are of such bad quality that they show impossible to implement. Everybody had a great time in the workshop, and from a pure engagement perspective, the workshops were outstanding. But the output was useless.

The way around this is to treat people differently. People who know more, who are subject matter experts, should be given that role in sessions. Give them space to share their knowledge so the facilitators can work with groups on what to do with that knowledge. Don’t put the experts in group discussions where they are just one amongst others. Another role that we have found useful is to have a “critical friend” in the room. One person who is given the task of challenging suggested actions, from a subject-matter-expert perspective, or simply, to do a reality check if the actions from the workshop are really what was stated as outcomes from the beginning.

But isn’t engagement and participation what facilitation is all about?

Of course you can argue that participatory processes are more important than anything, that’s the foundation of democratic communities. As long as all are engaged, the outcome from a session is secondary. 

That the knowledge is in the room, that it is what is between the noses, not between the ears, that matters.

If only we can design processes and workshops that brings out the best of everybody, then the results will come, with time.

We can also see that engaging and inspirational workshops with no specific actions or results expected can have their place. And from the individuals perspective, they can be life-changing. But what if we risk diminishing the value of facilitation by letting these kinds of workshops become the definition of what facilitation is? What if the norm for a good workshop becomes how inspired you were as an individual, rather than what we achieved as a team? And where we as facilitators become “one-trick-ponies”, evaluated on how great shows we can pull off in the room, rather than assessed on the impact we help groups make?

So, has facilitation lost the plot?

Well, that depends on what the plot is. With focus on outcomes delivered through a dynamic and participatory process – before, during and after interventions – facilitation will be a profession making a lasting difference in the world, and not quick gigs inspiring and entertaining groups. The definition of facilitation is to make it more easy for groups of people to reach outcomes, together. To get into action. That is what we do, that is what we are paid for. If the profession of facilitators spent just as much time on discussing outcomes and impact as we do talking about methods or how to sell or explain what facilitation is, we are convinced the business opportunities for facilitators would look very different. Because then our focus will be on what facilitation makes possible, how groups can reach goals in more effective ways, how teams can make smarter decisions. And that is exactly what our clients want our professional help with.