Facilitation – the known and the unknown
Why is facilitation becoming so popular right now? We could say that it's just a fashion... but it is much more likely that it is an authentic need.
We are searching for tools which will increase involvement and a sense of joint responsibility and will allow groups and teams to effectively work together on complex problems. It is at such times that we use facilitation. A significant number of companies apply it at such critical stages as implementing changes, developing solutions, solving problems, making decisions and creating strategies.
Facilitation becomes recognisable as a service with specific scope, standards and applications. Now let us focus on the specific requirements and competences of facilitators. What we require at this point is due regard for an understanding of what facilitation is and what it is not. Paradoxically, this is not so easy, although we facilitate so often. The term "facilitation" tends to be utilised in different contexts.
What is facilitation? When is it worth using it? What are its limitations? What role does a facilitator play?
A tool which is old and new at the same time
In its basic assumptions, facilitation is impacting upon the work of a group focused on helping to achieve the best results in optimal time and with the fullest use of the potential of its participants. It seems that the assumptions regarding work are not new. Facilitation has been used for many years. It has also been present in Poland for a very long time. However, it was functioning casually, without having a specific designation or being indicated as a particular way of working.
When do Polish companies turn to facilitators?
The effectiveness of meetings, or rather the lack of it, is a very broad subject that can be discussed at great length. Conflicting interests, lack of agenda, defending one’s own reasons, lack of opportunity required for each participant of the meeting to have their contribution - this is only the tip of an iceberg.
A common reason for using facilitation is either a willingness or a need for a leader to be involved in the substantive work process. In such an instance a facilitator would then take over the technical responsibilities for the group's work process. Inviting the facilitator to cooperate with the group allows the leader to fully engage in substantive work and in discussion with the participants. Another advantage of the facilitation process, often duly noted by leaders, is the greater involvement of team members - they jointly work with their superior and together they work out solutions. Such a partnership galvanises people, increases their involvement and the sense of collective responsibility for the outcomes they have achieved as a group.
The facilitators that I talk with often emphasise that they are invited to step in when companies or teams feel that the intellectual challenge that they are tackling at a given point in time most likely requires a different approach. The companies have enough substantive knowledge, but at the same time they lack the competence to design and implement the whole process. An example would be to run a creative session based on the best knowledge and tools available in the field of creative thinking, in order to find the solution that the team is working towards.
Sometimes a facilitator appears when a group feels that they have exhausted the working methods at their disposal and they require a fresh approach, other solutions or a different way of looking at a given problem.
The size and complexity of the group is also a premise for working with facilitators. There are meetings that take place in groups of several dozen or even several hundred people and the work process itself must be designed and implemented with great precision and diligence, in order to unlock the exchange of experiences and allow the flow of knowledge between all of the individuals involved in said process.
Before the process begins
The facilitator's work is divided into several stages. Most people are surprised to hear that the largest investment of time and effort is spent on the preparation stage, which includes determining the needs and expectations of the client, understanding their organisation, its structure and culture. Monika Gąsienica – the coordinator of the Polish branch of the International Association of Facilitators, emphasises that in facilitation practice, the clients’ level of involvement in the preparation process tends to be greater than in preparation of training sessions. Before facilitation can take place, the facilitator must establish with the client their goals and the measurable results of the facilitation. Later on, at the stage of preparation of the facilitation process, the client needs to be informed in advance about "what, when and why" will happen during the meeting - and this proposed course of action must then be accepted. The role of the client during the event is also meticulously agreed. The facilitator should also be aware of what will subsequently happen to the results of the group's work and how they will be utilised. In a nutshell, the clients can and should expect close cooperation with facilitator and understand the necessity of making joint arrangements before the group work commences.
The central stage of the facilitation process is the act of conducting a workshop or a series of meetings in accordance with the adopted plan. The facilitator introduces each step, asks questions, maintains the level of involvement, controls the time and encourages everyone to participate fully. The engagement of all the participants, coupled with the issue of independence and neutrality of the facilitator, are the key areas determining the success of the process.
When will facilitation not fulfil its role?
Facilitation is not a cure for all ills. Its effectiveness will rapidly become jeopardised if the group does not have clarity with regards to the use of the results of its work. Organisational culture can often prove to be a limitation as well. To achieve the effects of facilitation, a high level of commitment, creativity and shared responsibility is required. If we are dealing with a culture which, up till now, did not permit proactivity and punished people for every mistake they made, we would most likely experience difficulties and distrust of the group when using facilitative methods (maladjustment of working methods with relation to the group which we work with). In such a case, the employees would simply not be convinced of the benefits of this form of work. Sometimes we place such high hopes in the tool itself that we expect that during a one-day session with the participation of a facilitator we will create an innovative solution and on the top of it we will agree on a detailed implementation plan. However, it is important to realise that in some cases the usefulness of this tool can be limited by the inappropriate composition of the group, the lack of representatives of all indispensable points of view, or by a manager who cannot decide whether he/she wants to hear the group's ideas or would rather promote his/her chosen direction. Good preparation of a meeting, just like a thorough discussion, takes time. We must understand that facilitation itself (although in effect accelerating and facilitating many things) is not necessarily a quick process.
IAF – Let’s talk about standards
The awareness of facilitation as a tool is growing and changes are taking place very quickly. Three years ago, when I was preparing an interview with Mirjami Sipponen-Damonte, an international facilitator from the International Association of Facilitators, I felt that I was dealing with a topic that was very fresh in Poland. Now, facilitation is something which is well known. It is used not only by the private sector but also by the public sector and the local government. Every year, numerous conferences are organised, including International Facilitation Week. Courses and schools educating facilitators have become available on the market. We also have a Polish branch of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) – which is operating in 62 countries around the world to build a network of facilitators and promote the idea of facilitation. It is an independent institution that does not provide training or services for clients. The IAF has built the standards of facilitation: The IAF Code of Ethics and the IAF Core Facilitator Competencies framework. In Poland, the IAF Certified Professional Facilitator certifications event was also carried out, the finale of which was the obtainment of the international IAF certificate by eight facilitators.
Facilitation creates opportunities for people within an organisation or community to actually take an active part in finding solutions, making decisions or constructing action plans, in each of which they will be involved responsibly and with conviction. A competent facilitator can remedy the weaknesses of meetings by preparing and conducting them in such a way that all participants make the maximum contribution available to them. It is, therefore, beneficial to be aware of the tools and standard of work that we should expect from facilitators, to ensure that those effects actually materialise.
Monika Dawid-Sawicka – author of texts, analyses and studies on labour market, human resources management and human capital. She has worked in the HR sector for 15 years. A certified trainer for FRIS thinking and acting styles diagnostic tool. ECPC coach working with individuals who wish to change their professional careers. EPALE Ambassador.