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All that glitters: Is facilitation the latest trainers’ treasure?


Photo of treasure chestTony Mann argues that facilitators who are good at what they do are worth their weight in gold.

There is a new type of person on the block - the facilitator, or their big brother the change agent. They're professional, stand tall and offer support in an operational context. The role is an extension of the trainer whose role is to transfer expertise, skills and knowledge, and the consultant who is there to provide answers. The facilitator is there to provide a method, and a means, to help deliver answers to complex issues in an operational context.

Good facilitation can distinguish between a poor decision and a brilliant one. It can make the difference between a solution that has all kinds of hidden problems and solutions that are robust and can be made to work.

However, facilitators need to develop and hone their skills. Many people say to me, 'I have been a trainer for x years, so I should be good at facilitating, shouldn't I?' The answer is "No, not necessarily!". Just because I have driven a car for years doesn't make me a rally driver. The skill set is different and, like all skills, has to be learnt and developed.

Photo of Tony Mann'How do you manage difficult people?' The answer is a surprising one: "I don't – I let the process and format do that."

Tony Mann, author

So what skills, attributes and knowledge does a facilitator have? Well first and foremost they don't rely on their technical knowledge; instead they rely on their knowledge and expertise of format and process. They understand how to manage groups and what models, tools and techniques to use to produce outcomes. When people ask 'How do you manage difficult people?' The answer is a surprising one: "I don't – I let the process and format do that." Format is the way a group is structured and organised to tackle a particular task (e.g. 'all to one', 'one to all', 'group' or 'all'). Process is the combination of different models and techniques used to tackle an issue.

People react when they are threatened. For instance, by being exposed or revealed. I remember hearing about a group where the trainer/consultant asked everyone in turn 'What they were thinking and what they intended to do'. A Myers Briggs introvert would find this very threatening, and sure enough, one person would go to the cloakroom just before it got round to them! If the person leading this session had been more aware they would have asked anyone (format) or perhaps got people to work in pairs (format) and used Post Its™ (process).

Another time a women refused to use a particular technique. She did so not because she was a difficult person, but because it required a numerical analysis and she hated numbers! I asked her to use the flip chart and draw her perceptions instead. When we shared the outputs from the numerical technique (Relative Importance Grid) and I asked her to share her drawing there was a genuine round of applause – her drawing gave the same result as the numbers. Good facilitators use the right format and the most appropriate technique to suit individual people.

Once, in a session with senior civil servants, one man sat on the floor and worked all on his own. No one complained, he was absorbed in the task, and contributed enormously to the outcome.

"When everyone else leaves the room, satisfied that there has been a job well done, facilitators clear up, pick up their notes and pens and muse on the fact that they appeared to be invisible."

Secondly a facilitator is creative and takes risks. They are willing to step outside their comfort zone to create a technique or adapt a tool to suit a particular situation. They stand out because they don't stick to their favourite methods and models.

Thirdly, a good facilitator is quick to act – the group may stumble over a difficult issue and the facilitator is there to ensure that they have the process to find the answer. If the group is to stay positive then the facilitator has to be ready and flexible to find a new way of approaching the task.

All of this takes place in uncertainty, where even the question may be unclear. So the fourth skill and aptitude a facilitator has is being open to change and unafraid of the moving deck beneath them! They have the ability to keep calm and seem stress-free even though the issue may seem impenetrable.

Fifthly, they do not rely on specialist knowledge but rather a broad awareness of the world around. They have accumulated a vast store of similes, analogies and metaphors which they use to encourage the group that the issue is 'known to man' and that it 'sounds like' something that they will have seen before.

Finally, when everyone else leaves the room, satisfied that there has been a job well done, facilitators clear up, pick up their notes and pens and muse on the fact that they appeared to be invisible. The wry smile on their face is a signal that they know they did a good job – even if everyone else left patting themselves on the back for having resolved a problem, found a solution, or developed a plan.

Often consultants attempt to act in a facilitative way. This is counter intuitive, consultants are best when they advise their clients and give suitable answers. Facilitators don't give answers they provide the means by which the group finds the answer.

More and more often management teams are looking for someone to facilitate them as they tackle complex issues in the operational arena outside the training environment. So what can we do if we are a trainer or consultant? Well, like coaching, we need to acknowledge the different skills sets and get trained, practice with on-going support and keep benchmarking our skill level. Facilitation is part of the essential skills of modern organisational development and trainers should be stepping out of their own environment and meeting the client where they are, offering this service and helping teams and organisations to be successful in this competitive world.

Tony Mann has written several books, recently two on Facilitation

He also runs workshops on Facilitation and a Professional Qualification in Facilitation with Leeds Metropolitan University.


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