Putting principles into practice

In The Principles of Facilitation, David Sibbet of The Grove Consultants International defines facilitation as: “The art of leading people through processes toward agreed-upon objectives in a manner that encourages participation, ownership and creativity from all involved.” This shows that it isn’t just a role for someone at the front of a meeting, but a real leadership style.

I’m slightly bemused by all the jargon about leadership in business books and articles. It is commonly agreed that the days of the ‘command and control’ leader are gone. However, when you look at what organisations are asking from leaders, there seem to be long lists of what they need to deliver (strategic alignment, motivation, empowerment, engagement, enabling discretionary effort) with little advice on how.

Fifteen years ago I decided that facilitation ‘rocks’. I went on to found Meeting Magic, which gives me the opportunity to facilitate for clients and also to adopt a facilitative leadership within the organisation. This has given me a diverse experience and rich insight into how facilitation can be applied. I believe that facilitation is the answer to many leadership conundrums.

I’m fortunate enough to have a number of long-term clients who I have worked with for many years. They are all leaders in their organisations and through their careers have brought me in to work with them on various types of isseus:

  • Developing vision and strategy
  • Gaining alignment and commitment towards a vision
  • All types of planning situations
  • Team formation or kick-off meetings and team development
  • Creative problem solving and idea generation
  • Large group consultation
  • Developing business partnerships and collaborations
  • Issue resolution within groups

Stages of facilitation

Kick-off meetings are critical for leaders who are new to a team or organisation. A well run kick-off can really help a leader to set the direction for their team and also to set the tone or the style for how they want to work. Taking the time to take a new team offsite for a couple of days to get ‘set up’ properly is a real example of ‘going slow to go quickly.’ The momentum it creates can bring an increase in productivity that is equivalent to weeks or months of work. The art of doing this well comes throug the design and facilitation, so that a direction is set, real issues are addressed and relationships are developed.

Sometimes, it’s appropriate for a leader to set the direction for their part of an organisation. However, this often has to be done by a leadership team, as the complexity of the organisation and its geographics spread means that a robust vision and strategy requires a lot of input. In these situations, it’s really valuable if a leader takes the time to lead his direct reports through a strategic visioning process. This builds common ground in a group and a unified commitment to the vision and strategy created. It’s the first step to effective strategy deployment.

The next step is often getting alignment within the wider organisation. This usually involves facilitating large groups to share or even shape the vision. Using large visuals, telling stories and facilitating a deep conversation are at the heart of alignment and engagement in vision and strategy.

A facilitated approach to collaborative planning makes sense in large organisations. It’s often necessary for a leader to ‘give’ the priorities or goals to the team if these are strongly influenced from ‘above’. Engaging a team means that you are likely to develop a much more robust plan and you don’t need to spend time communicating it to the team because they built it. By planning in a facilitative way, a leader will ensure that the team is engaged, motivated and likely to give plenty of discretionary effort to achieve the plan.

Reviews are part of the infrastructure in some organisations but are often forgotten in others. I think they are a really important part of leadership. They provide the chance to celebrate success, diagnose problems, reset directions and most importantly LEARN. Facilitating really effective reviews is about setting up an environment for sharing and learning, so that the data behind under- or over-performance are fully understood. This is the basis for preventing repeated mistakes and also replicating great performance. Effective reviews can help a leader to steer a course through troubled waters.

Going it alone

I hope that these examples have shown the overlap between effective leadership and facilitation. However, I’ve only described situations in which a leader works with a facilitator. In this joint leadership, the leader of the organisation leads the content (including decision making)  and the facilitator leads the process (including the process by which decisions are made).

However, sometimes it isn’t possible for a leader to work with a facilitator (e.g. day-to-day meetings, small companies, and more junior managers that don’t have the budget). In these situations, managers often ask me: ‘Can I effectively facilitate and lead my meeting?’ May response is always ‘Yes’. In fact, as the Meeting Magic business grows, I have more experience of working this way myself. The three principles that I use the most are:

  • Knowing when to lead and when to follow – being very clear about when I need to set a decision and communicate it and when I need to collaborate with the team.
  • Going slow to go quickly – I have a need for speed! This means I sometimes have to hold myself back and take time to set things up well with the team, rather than rushing headlong into activity.
  • Don’t do for the group what they can do for themselves – for me, this is part of having a mutual, adult relationship with the team, not micro-managing everything.

These principles apply in group situations but, if facilitation is a leadership style, they shouldn’t just be reserved for meetings. I try to practice a facilitative approach in all of my interactions with clients, suppliers and colleagues. I learn as much about myself and my facilitation from these day-to-day interactions as I do from the meetings I lead.

I believe that all leaders should have a grounding in facilitation. I’m still in touch with people who I trained in facilitation in my days at Mars and they all say that it was one of the most useful, universally applicable skills they learnt. So, my final encouragement to any leader who wants to engage, motivate, inspire or align is either to find a facilitator that you work well with (an important criteria is that they should make you look good!) or learn to facilitate yourself.

This article by Katherine Woods first appeared in September 2012.

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