Facilitation Series: All the Posts

I ended up writing six posts in my Facilitation series. Here they are, in chronological order.

What is Facilitation?

What Does a Facilitator Do?

Prepare for a Facilitation in Three Steps

What Happens During a Facilitation?

The Report: How Does a Facilitation End?

 Facilitation: The Good, Bad and Ugly

I hope you’ve enjoyed the series. If I’ve missed anything or you would like to see follow up posts on certain issues, let me know in the comments below this post.

Facilitation: The Good, Bad and Ugly

This is Part 6 of a short series on facilitation and its uses in organizations. To read the entire series from the beginning, start at the bottom of the Facilitation page of this site.

In a previous post in this series, Ann Emery asked me to share stories from successful (and not so successful) facilitations that I’ve taken part in.  When I thought about the many meetings I’ve participated in or led, I can only think of one that went kind of wrong (let’s keep the streak alive!), and that had more to do with the dynamics of the organization than the meeting topic or the facilitator. However, there was one that I led that had the potential to go wrong, but ended up going really well.

Here’s the background…

I was hired to help an organization do some planning. We had an initial session where I dutifully helped them write a vision statement, and then we scheduled another meeting to create a long range action plan. I began my background research, and uncovered some problems. Big problems. Going out of business problems!

I realized that long range planning was the last thing the org needed. What they really needed was their board to face up to the situation. I decided that instead of a planning meeting, I was going to confront them with their reality. This could have gone one of two ways:

  1. I get fired.
  2. The participants rise to the challenge.

Fortunately, the latter happened and we had a productive meeting. The org is by no means out of the woods yet, but they have taken some solid steps to define who they are, what they want to do, and how they can go forward in this time of crisis.

Now, it’s your turn to share. Do you have any stories of great or awful facilitators or facilitated meetings? Please disguise identities to protect the guilty, but give us the best (and worst) you’ve got!

photo by: b.frahm

The Report: How Does a Facilitation End?

This is Part 5 of a short series on facilitation and its uses in organizations. To read the entire series from the beginning, start at the bottom of the Facilitation page of this site.

After the meeting is over, you’ve walked off the donuts, and everyone has gone home, a facilitator’s job is not done. He or she is usually responsible for creating a written summary of the meeting. This summary should include:

  1. The initial research to prepare for the meeting
  2. A description of the meeting including date, time, location and participants
  3. The agenda
  4. Major points of discussion, any controversies, and any decisions the group reached
  5. Issues that were tabled for later discussion, with a description of the agreement on follow up
  6. Next steps

If the facilitator is involved in the larger work of the group, he or she may also include recommendations for action or further exploration and study. Ideally, the summary document should be descriptive enough so that every participant can understand their agreements and commitments and the organization can continue to move forward in its work.

What Happens During a Facilitation?

This is Part 4 of a short series on facilitation and its uses in organizations. To read the entire series from the beginning, start at the bottom of the Facilitation page of this site.

If you attend a meeting led by a professional facilitator, he or she is likely there because there is important work to be done. Organizations generally use outside facilitators when they are conducting high level planning, managing change, writing a mission and/or vision statement, or working through a highly charged issue.

The facilitator’s job is to run the meeting in a professional and neutral manner so that the participants can focus on the work at hand. During the meeting, the facilitator will generally do the following:

  1. Set up the room. Before participants arrive, the facilitator will usually arrange the furniture, set up any visual aids such as large notepads, work with catering to arrange food and drinks, and may even set out small toys and games for fiddling.
  2. Introduce the meeting agenda. The facilitator will start the meeting with an explanation of the day’s agenda. He or she may lead an icebreaker or other warm-up activity. There will probably be introductions and a reminder of where restrooms and other necessities are located. When attending a facilitated meeting, come prepared to get up and move, talk, and play along with all manner of activities!
  3. Help the meeting go smoothly. Depending on their level of involvement, the facilitator will be sure to keep the meeting progressing along the agenda, or alter the agenda as issues arise. He or she will help participants have an equal say, defuse emotional situations, summarize progress periodically, and generally be the referee and time keeper. This is the part of facilitating that is more art than science. This part of the job is what makes a facilitator effective or ineffective!
  4. Take notes. The facilitator is responsible for taking notes of the meeting highlights. There are many ways to do this. I’ve seen facilitators bring a colleague to write notes or write notes personally. I’ve also seen video or audio recording, picture taking, and the collection of any sticky notes or other written materials. No matter their method, a facilitator should leave with an accurate and complete record of the meeting and the decisions made.
  5. Verbally summarize the meeting. At the end of the meeting, the facilitator should summarize the events and decisions made throughout the day. Each participant should leave knowing what was accomplished and possibly the next steps in the process.

The end of the meeting is often the most crucial part of ensuring the ongoing success of the process. Before dismissal, any disagreements should be settled, or the participants should agree to table those issues. Ideally, everyone should leave feeling that their input was heard and considered and the group made the best choices possible based on the information they had.

Prepare for a Facilitation in Three Steps

This is Part 3 of a series on facilitation and its uses in organizations. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

Facilitators can come from inside or outside of an organization or group. The key in choosing a facilitator is to select someone with an impartial outlook. In my experience, it is pretty tough to remain detached from a decision-making process if you work with or belong to the group doing the deciding! Because of that, facilitators often volunteer or get hired from outside groups.

A lack of familiarity with the issues being discussed can make for a fresh perspective, but some knowledge is necessary to guide a conversation in a relevant direction. Any facilitator, whether from inside or outside the group, needs to perform three basic tasks to prepare for a productive session.

1) Background Research
If you are not already very familiar with the group and issue you will be facilitating, you will need to do some research. The objective of the research stage is to ensure that you design a facilitation session that addresses the real issue(s) the group is having, and uses structures and methods that are most appropriate to their needs.

There are several ways of gathering the information you will need. The most appropriate methods will depend on the time you have to prepare and the size of the group you are working with. One-on-one interviews work well with smaller groups. Online or written surveys are efficient for large groups. If you have a lot of time available, in-person observation is a good way to get a lot of contextual information, especially if you are working with the group on a process or procedural issue.

2) Agenda Development
The actual agenda for the session will often have to be developed in cooperation with (or at least get the approval of) the team that has scheduled the session. As the facilitator, you should draft an agenda the addresses the issue(s) you identified in the background research step. Depending on the needs of the group, you may schedule ice breakers in the morning, brainstorming during lunch, and an energizer in the afternoon.

After you’ve drafted the agenda, share it with the event organizers and ensure that it works with their own agendas and the time available. Some back and forth may occur and the organizers may request changes. Be accommodating, but don’t let their input bury an issue that you are sure is important to the ultimate resolution of the problem.

3) Physical Space Preparation
The physical space is very important in helping session participants get into the right mindset. As a facilitator, it is your job to arrive at the meeting space early to ensure that: chairs and/or tables are set up in a way that encourages interaction; all the needed supplies are available such as white board markers, flip charts, and post-its; all the AV equipment is working as needed; the temperature is appropriate for the level of activity the session will require; and any other detail that can possibly go wrong is anticipated!

Now that all the background work is complete, the real work fun begins.

My Services on Offer – For Cheap!

First of all, I want to thank everyone who has visited my site this week. It’s been a really great experience to see it go from brand new to gaining a bit of traffic, some RSS feed subscribers, and even a couple of comments! Many thanks to Michelle Rafter and the 2012 WordCount Blogathon for motivating me to get all of this done.

Today I added my first services page, appropriately titled Quick and Dirty Consulting Services. I am offering a very limited number of consulting slots for $49. These slots are for nonprofit staff or volunteers who are doing their own program evaluation and need an experienced set of eyes to guide them. I can’t offer this price for long, so be sure to sign up soon!

If you have any questions about my services or experience, ask in the comments for this post.

Saturday is Personal Change Day: How to Change When You’re Over 30

During the month of May, I am participating in the 2012 WordCount Blogathon. I will be posting every day (I hope!) this month. However, in the future I plan on Saturdays being Personal Change Day. In addition to my work with organizations, I am very interested in personal development and personal change management.  Once a week I will post an article or links about the fine art of making changes in our personal lives. Have a topic you’d like me to cover? Leave a comment on this post.

According to some top scientists, human beings over the age of 30 hardly ever change their lives successfully. In fact, they go on to argue, that it is almost biologically impossible for us to change after we pass our 20′s.

Do you agree with that? Are you willing to accept it – especially if you’ve passed the Big 3-0?

I passed 30 quite some time ago. I say they’re wrong, and I’m going to use their own arguments to explain why, and show you how you can successfully make major changes in your life.

Why is it So Hard to Change?

A recent article in Scientific American (Set in Our Ways: Why Change is So Hard) made the argument that very few people over the age of 30 successfully make changes in their lives. In the research that this article reports on, scientists found that all people become less interested in change as we age. This happens in all cultures, so they believe that there is a biological reason for at least part of this behavior. They also include a few other reasons:

  • Life gets complicated as you get older. Most people over the age of 30 have some large barriers to change such as a spouse, children, a mortgage, a career. Change can threaten some or all of these commitments.
  • Novelty becomes less attractive over time. People get pretty comfortable in their ruts. You know how it is. You come home after a long day at work, flip on the TV like always, eat the same dinner you ate last Tuesday, and go to bed at the same time every night. Even if a behavior isn’t making us happy, we often continue it out of sheer inertia. It takes a lot of energy to change habits, and not many people are willing to put in the effort.
  • Unrealistic expectations for the ripple effects of change. In the article, the author uses the example of a woman wanting to lose 20 pounds so she can meet the perfect partner and live happily ever after. That may be a bit much to expect from a diet!

These are some pretty large barriers to change, but we know that many people make successful changes – no matter how old they are. How do they do it?

What is the Secret to Making Lasting Changes?

This article has a very negative tone to it, but it does sneak in a few helpful suggestions that can help you plan a successful change.

  • Figure out your tolerance for change. Everyone has a different set point for openness to change. If you’re naturally change resistant, you will need to start very small and gradually build up your tolerance. It’s a bit like exercise. Pick the tiniest change you can make, just like you’d pick the lightest dumbbell on the rack.
  • Take it 1 change at a time. In the example above, the woman who wanted to loose weight actually wanted 3 or 4 other things as well – and none of them were related! If you’re just getting started with change, pick one thing to work on. Our example woman could be successful if she decided to loose weight OR started dating to find a partner OR worked on her own internal happiness. She probably won’t succeed if she tries to do all 3 at once.
  • Figure out the real cause and effect relationship. Again picking on our weight loss woman, she is seeing a cause and effect relationship that doesn’t really exist. There is no rule that says you can’t get a partner if you’re 20 pounds overweight. There is also no rule that says you’ll be happy if you find a partner. Unpack your issues and think about why you want to make a particular change. If you don’t have a real desire to do it, or you’re only doing it because you think it will get you what you really want, rethink your strategies and work on the core issue.
  • Start sooner, because later never comes. If it’s inevitable that we become more resistant to change with time, it’s always better to start a change quickly. This gives you more time, and helps you take advantage of all the mental flexibility you have right now, no matter what your age.

I hope this article gives you some idea for starting to improve your life in small, manageable ways. If you have other suggestions, or further questions, leave a comment after this post.

Photo by Nate Brelsford.

What Does a Facilitator Do?

This is Part 2 a short series on facilitation and its uses in organizations. Part 1 describes the nature of facilitation here.

A facilitator is not a part of the decision-making group. He or she is also not the group leader, teacher or trainer. So what is the facilitator’s job?

In a nutshell, the facilitator guides the group through a decision-making process.

From start to finish, the facilitator is responsible for:

  1. Preparing for the session.
  2. Setting the agenda.
  3. Formulating questions for discussion.
  4. Keeping the conversation on track. This includes bringing to the forefront any side conversations, defusing any destructive conflict, and encouraging any constructive conflict.
  5. Taking notes throughout the session.
  6. Bringing the group to a conclusion and/or a resolution to the problem at hand.
  7. Summarizing the session after it is complete and distributing the summary to all participants.

What is Facilitation?

This is Part 1 of a short series on facilitation and its uses in organizations. As an evaluator, I sometimes use facilitation to help organizations plan and use the results of my work.

Over the past several years, facilitation has become a popular word and concept in organizations. We are asked to “facilitate” meetings or processes or introductions. It’s become a bit of a junk term, with unclear definitions. Just what does facilitation mean?

“Facile” is the root word of facilitation, and according to Merriam-Webster Online, a synonym for facile is “easy.” In other words, facilitation at its most basic means to “make easy.” In the context of organizations, it is a different thing than training, teaching, or managing.

The facilitator is not part of the group, but is tasked with helping the group come to a decision. This is key, because groups are much more likely to implement decisions when everyone in the group has a sense of buy-in and commitment to the decision. An equation you can use to describe facilitation is:


where ED=Effective Decision; RD=Right Decision; CD=Commitment to Decision.

Facilitation is a widely useful set of tools. In future posts I’ll be exploring ways to take these tools and apply them for organizational effectiveness, especially when you want to make changes.

Not All Change is Created Equal – Multiple Levels of Change

Not all change is created equal.

The first step in effectively creating change of any kind is to understand that change happens at many different levels – from a single moment or thought, up to an historical change in social structure. If you don’t understand the level of change you are working at, you may select the wrong approach for dealing with that change. In this post I identify four levels of change and give some examples that will be helpful in deciding what level you need to work at.

The micro-personal level of change happens moment-to-moment. It is all about a thought, single action, or event in our daily lives. Change at this level means interrupting a pattern just once. This can be a habit of thought or action, like negative thinking or smoking. It can also be a repeated sequence of events, like a yellow light always being followed by a red light.

Personal change is the level that I address when I want to “change my life.” Most often when we talk about personal change, we’re talking about changing a habit. Building on the previous examples, quitting smoking for any length of time is a personal change. Replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts is another personal change. Generally people want to change their lives on a long-term basis, but personal change can also be temporary. One common example is pregnant women who give up pain relievers during their pregnancies, but reach for an Advil the first time their baby has a crying fit!

At the organizational level, planned change is usually addressed through change management initiatives. This seems to be the organizational equivalent of “I want to change my life.” Of course, change can happen to organizations in many more ways. It seems that more often organizations are faced with unplanned change such as shifting markets, staff turnover, or technology changes. In those situations, organizations can either react through a planned initiative, or ignore the change and hope it goes away.


Over time, all communities and societies will experience massive amounts of change. Societies are the ultimate open systems and are subject to a constant inflow and outflow of people and ideas. This is a good thing, because too much stability in a society creates stagnation. The “Dark Ages” in Europe provide one of the best examples of an insular society hostile to innovation. However, when societies change too quickly, the chaos that follows can lead to a lot of unhappiness. I imagine that American Indian societies went through a long period of chaos and cultural upheaval during the European migration to North America.

Modern governments generally attempt to balance the pace of societal change through public policy. For example, the United States controls attempts to control the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country every year. Social norms are also a means to slowing change. The stronger a social norm is in a current population, the slower the change pendulum will swing toward its opposite.

In any situation requiring change, I suggest that you consider the level of change that is appropriate. While this isn’t always obvious – for example, you may have to change your mindset about your job instead of changing the company you work at – some reflection will lead you in a starting direction.