Choosing Facilitation

© 2003 Johanna Rothman,

Meetings are a fact of our lives. Most of the time we don’t need a facilitator to help move our meeting along; we can manage to accomplish the goals of the meeting without a formal facilitator. However, there are times when a facilitator makes sense.

Darcy is a middle manager in a startup. They have enough money for the next eight months. For the last three months, the senior managers have closeted themselves in meetings day in, day out. Darcy knows they’re trying to define the current strategy and tactics to accomplish the goal: drive enough revenue to break even. If they can break even in eight months, their investors will consider investing just a bit more to overcome the slow economy and the company will succeed. If they can’t break even, they’ll be shut down.

Darcy’s no dummy. Neither are the other people in the company. They all know what these closed-door meetings mean. Darcy is concerned that if the senior management team can’t figure out what they’re going to do soon, the meetings will turn into layoff-decision meetings.

Darcy’s management team needs a little facilitation to help them overcome their inability to come to a decision and move forward to specific tactics and action items.

Senior management teams aren’t the only groups who become stuck and need help making decisions. Sometimes, a technical group has the same problem. Desmond, a database developer has on ongoing discussion with George, the GUI developer, and Tina, the tester about how to appropriately design the database upgrade for their product. Desmond, George, and Tina all agree they need an upgrade. They can’t decide how the upgrade should work. Depending on how they choose to implement the upgrade, their work will change, as well as the work the users will have to accomplish. Each of them has different ideas, and each idea is valid. They can’t come to a decision, and they have only a week left to decide.

In both of these cases, well-meaning, intelligent people are stuck. Their normal ways of managing their disagreements are not working.

Consider choosing a facilitator under these conditions:

  • When a group has trouble coming to agreement on a strategy or set of actions.
  • When you want to be part of the discussion and decision-making. It’s not possible to treat the group fairly if you want to participate and facilitate.
  • When you want to explore a previous project (retrospective facilitator) or explore alternatives (meeting facilitator)

You may be able to use people inside your organization as facilitators. Sometimes HR people or others are trained as facilitators. If you’re not part of the problem context or solution, you can facilitate the decision-making.

Whatever you do, choose when you require a facilitator. Don’t let the problems or conflicts escalate into no decisions, especially when you require a timely decision.

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