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The Great Facilitator

Part Business Analyst. Part Orchestra Conductor. Part Psychologist. 

Think about what it takes to lead 100 musicians to make beautiful music together.  Or how much sensitivity it takes to understand why people behave the way they do.  While the qualities that separate a great conductor or therapist from a mediocre one may be subtle, the outcomes are obvious. The same holds true for facilitators.

Do you think of yourself as an effective facilitator but unsure how others perceive you?

Maybe you’ve been at a meeting recently where the facilitator is doing a fantastic job but you just can’t figure out exactly she is doing differently.

The differences are subtle.  This series is about those subtleties that separate the great facilitators from the mediocre ones. 

Part 1:  Scribe vs. Presenter:

Whether we like it or now, somewhere along the line we all play the role of a facilitator. How do we make sure we don’t make one of the most common and damaging facilitator blunders: Pushing our own agenda.

In the IT world, we all play the role of a facilitator.  Technical architects facilitate sessions for estimating and creating designs for their teams.  Project managers facilitate team and client meetings and make sure the team is on track to reach its goals. When Business Analysts collect requirements, they may facilitate large requirement meetings.  With so many kinds of facilitation roles, can we assume we know what being a facilitator really means? Do we, as facilitators, recognize that this is a significant role we need to work at in order to be effective?  And, most importantly, how do we make sure we stay “within” our role as a neutral facilitator and not push our own agenda?

So you think to yourself, “Yes, this is obvious. Of course I am an effective facilitator.” But let’s test ourselves to find out how effective we really are. 

The Two Extremes of Ineffective Facilitation

When I’ve been a less-than-effective facilitator, I’m usually acting in one of two extremes. I either go into “Presenter” mode or into “Scribe” mode.  Let me demonstrate these two extremes.

First, the “Presenter”.  Although their role is to facilitate a discussion (e.g. illicit requirements from business users or help a team arrive at estimates), “Presenters” actually come to the meeting with an opinion, specifically, a desired outcome. They are there to help others meet his or her agenda, rather than facilitate the room to develop its own opinions.  When a facilitator starts presenting, he or she does not allow others in the room  to collaborate towards finding their own solutions.  This shuts down the energy in the room. This also means the participants may not “own” the solution.

At the other extreme, a facilitator goes into “scribe” mode. When a facilitator is in scribe mode, it means that when he or she walks into the meeting, they sit and take notes or  meeting-minutes but do not influence the dialogue.  This approach makes it easier for  others in the meeting to go off-topic and start discussing points not related to the objective of the meeting. Also, if someone is “checked-out” or “shut down”, there is no true facilitator in the room to make sure their voice is heard.

What Makes a Great Facilitator?

While most facilitators bring their own approaches to a session, the best facilitators allow  the solution to be defined and owned by the individuals they are facilitating. She has the tact and skill to:

  • Help the team clarify and align on their objective. Then, facilitate by making progress towards the objective.
  • Help keep the group’s energy high so everyone contributes, is engaged and feels heard.
  • Keep momentum or rhythm flowing towards the objective. (Although they can help the team change direction if the team believes it is required.)   Staying on track can be tricky since the facilitator needs to balance discussion on side topics that are helpful to the objective vs. topics that derail the goal. 

What About You .. Presenter? Scribe? Not sure?

Even if we believe we are doing an effective job at facilitating, we may actually be playing a Presenter or even Scribe.  Here are some ways we can test our effectiveness:

  • Are you directing conversations with your own agenda? Or, are you enabling the team to have its own conversations?
  • Are you making sure the team stays on topic and on track to meet its objectives?
  • Are you making sure everyone in the room is being heard? Is anyone’s  idea’s being  shut down? (This can affect the energy of the room.)
  • Did you leave your opinion at the door? A good facilitator helps get to a solution, not give a solution.
  • If you had not attended the meeting, would the team have accomplished the same result? (Maybe you are not being as affective as you think you are.)

When It Comes Together…

Simon Sinek recently shared the following quote:  “Don’t show up to prove; Show up to improve”.

When great facilitators lead meetings, they enable a dialogue that allows the room to make a decision. They do not abuse their role to force an outcome. Instead, they help everyone do a better job and accomplish fulfilling work. The room fills with energy and momentum that can’t avoid delivering results. When meetings feel this energy, you know you are leading the room as a great facilitator.

Be sure to watch for the rest of the series in upcoming articles:

Part 2 – Check in and the Chair:  Why can some facilitators effortlessly lead their team to achieve brilliant clarity and enthusiastic alignment? This article includes some basic practices great facilitators use to manage a room and deliver impressive results.

Part 3 – Commitment Based Estimation: In order for an estimate to have teeth, the team must feel ownership of the process and genuinely believe the estimates are achievable. This article includes exercises to facilitate estimates that are realistic and manageable. 

Part 4 – What Great Facilitators Know about Estimating: While estimation sessions can be tricky to facilitate, a great facilitator can make their teams super confident about their estimates. This article includes some ideas on overcoming the subtle challenges that can undermine the estimation process.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Bob Zimmerman is the Vice President & CTO at Geneca. His career in custom software development spans more than two decades and has been largely dedicated to the process of leveraging technology to drive innovation and growth.

As Geneca’s CTO, Bob Zimmerman is the driving force behind Getting PredictableS.M., the requirements definition best practices that are the foundation of Geneca’s mission to make software development predictable.