The best group facilitated sessions create a combustible engine room atmosphere, fuelled by a perfect mix of high octane ingredients. The premium rocket fuels of group facilitation are TIME and ENERGY. Manage them in the right combinations and you'll have lift off!
The best facilitators that I have worked with realise that TIME is a vital commodity that must never be squandered. They work with TIME and create best outputs by:
Planning with intent
A solid plan is the foundation of any workshop or facilitated session. Take time to plan and create an agenda of not only what you will do, but why you are doing it, what time you can allow for it, what resources you will need and what do you expect the key output to be. A days' workshop might require a full day of planning. Spec out a workshop in ten minutes and you're either very very good or headed for a nightmare.
Setting expectations and clarifying them early
People will arrive with a range of views on what needs to happen. The best facilitators sculpt a common goal that people first create and then sign up to. They make sure everyone is pointed in the same direction.
Maintaining a focus on the key output (WTF?)
Ask yourself WTF (what's the focus?). Everything that happens in the workshop or meeting should be moving the group closer to their key outcome. Ask yourself WTF are we doing? If the process or output is valid, then continue with passion. If not, change it.
The best facilitators move smoothly between phases and activities. They somehow focus on what's happening now but with a mind on what's next. A good plan really helps with this but there always needs to be some room for flexibility that doesn't break the time limit. What needs to happen next? Is it ready? Can we go there yet? How will this impact energy? This includes making creative use of breaks and time outs.
Designing for impact
The best facilitators I have worked with use impactful exercises that ensure time is well spent. They somehow not only get the output they need but shape the inquiry to generate this with reflective learning that shapes more impactful outcomes. You can see lightbulbs going on in the heads of participants as they generate new thinking.
Controlling group feedback
"Tell us what happened in your group". Yawn! There's nothing worse than monotonous feedback delivered by a participant. Hurrying them up can be difficult. In fact, this is a double negative as not only does this person steal time but they also drain the energy from the group. Good facilitators shepherd feedback sessions closely to make sure that feedback is on topic and concise. They hand over the reigns selectively and with full understanding of the potential repercussions.
Being prepared to move on
Sometimes you need to accept that something is not working and move on to something different. The best facilitators know that it's OK to be stuck. Ask yourself 'what's the focus' (WTF), and you don't where you are now or where you are headed, make a change. Never let a group pursue a meaningless task simply because it is in your plan. You'll burn precious time and energy that you will never get back. And if you, as the facilitator, feel a fool then get over it. It's not about you, it's about the group.
Leave enough time for actions
This is a most vital aspect. Many people report that workshops create good discussions but that the actions are squeezed into the final ten minutes. This comes about primarily due to overly optimistic assessments of the timeline. An extra few minutes here and there soon means that the sands of time run through so quickly that action assignments are rushed. Always carry out a full analysis using a tool such as RACI or Action Matrix to help you ensure that actions are understood, assigned and owned and that everyone is clear about what the very next step should be. Allocation of actions often generate additional discussions as people understand a clear expectation of the action and what they need to do to achieve it. As a rule of them if you can allow 33% to 25% of session time for this then you will get better outcomes than if you schedule for 10%. It sounds obvious doesn't it? But the key thing is to safeguard that time.
Facilitators as dealers in ENERGY
Your groups will need energy. Some of this they will provide for themselves but as the facilitator it is your job to maintain and manage the energy in the group. The best facilitators that I have seen create and channel energy in the following ways:
Working with passion
An outward show of passion is infectious. The best facilitators that I have worked with demonstrate a passion for the group, the session and the content. This is exhibited in their behaviour, including their body language, facial mask and voice pitch, tone and volume. They build rapport with the group. They make it personal.
Facilitators get people to buy in to the group activities by setting clear expectations and allowing people to contribute to the process. They build personal connections and use great questions and combinations of activities set at the individual, group and plenary (whole group) level. They realise he power of dialogue and understand group process.
A facilitator needs to have a can do attitude, and maintain a positive enthusiasm when the group feel stuck. They encourage, support, sustain and ask questions. They share the vision of the key output as an achievable goal that can be worked towards.
Ask great questions
If you want better answers, ask better questions. Coaching questions transfer very neatly into the domain of facilitation. Facilitators ask open questions based around 'What' and 'How' to generate open responses that can be explored as needed. They might also use 'Why', depending on the context (asking 'why' can put people on the defensive and close down discussion). When a group is stuck they will help them explore new avenues and delve deeper into topics by asking questions like "Tell me more about X" or "What in particular is happening?". They will help more the discussion along with questions like "What needs to happen next?", "What else would we see", "What else needs to be done?"or perhaps the ever useful "What would someone else say".
There is a skill involved in making sure that everybody's voice is heard. Work only in plenary and you can expect to hear from the extroverts, people with an agenda and, often, the HiPPOs (Highest paid person's opinion). But break into groups and you'll hear more voices, or maximise the dialogue content by going to paired activities. On top of this, use exercises that include written outcomes like cards or post-it notes. This is great leveller, giving all voices the same volume. You can further generate energy by making changes to the composition of groups and even by how they work.
Use Flexible Methods
Energy is maintained and even created by allowing the group to follow their own line of inquiry when needed. Flexing with the energy in the room will put pressure on the plan and the timeline but, if harnessed, will enable more meaningful dialogue and enhance outcomes. Think also about how people are working. Change environments to stimulate thinking and see what happens to the energy when you ask people to stand up to perform activities - you'll find they generally work faster than seated groups.
Negative behaviours can eat away at the energy of a group. We've all experienced the psychic-vampire that sucks the lifeblood out of any meeting or workshop. Positive behaviours can boost energy. The best facilitators that I have seen use their own authority and power to close down verbose and dominate voices and create a space for everyone to be heard. They do this in a variety of ways, including creative use of groups and role based activities. They hand the leadership of the group to the right people at the right time. It's the application of good training and good emotional intelligence.
They know what to explore
To facilitate well is to read the needs of the group, and seeing where the group has energy. The best facilitators are tuned into this and develop such a feeling for the key output and grasp for the dynamic of a group that they intuitively know what to explore to maintain the energy in the room. Questions are the doorway to this.
How do you learn to do this? The simple answer is facilitate more. Take every opportunity you can to work creatively with groups. Practice managing TIME and ENERGY. Facilitated sessions generate impactful actions much more quickly than you can see in a standard meeting.
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