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.