Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Facilitation with Gordon Wyllie

In this article I am going to address the subject of facilitation. The purpose of a facilitator is to make an activity much more productive and easier to perform. It's about helping groups, or individuals to identify and agree an outcome. The group or individual come up with their own ideas/answers, not the facilitator.

A facilitator has to act as a catalyst, someone who creates an environment which encourages full participation, respect for other people's views, the sharing of information leading to joint ownership of the outcome. They have to get ideas and insights to flow promoting the identification and agreement of appropriate solutions, where previously there were none.

There is extensive information about facilitation on the internet. You can delve into the theory of group dynamics - forming, storming, norming, performing (, adjourning). Here’s just some of the advice given:

What you should do

• Observe
• Actively listen
• Let the discussions flow, make your interventions appropriate and value adding
• Encourage participation by all
• Focus on the process not the content

What you shouldn’t do

• Lead the group
• Downplay people’s ideas.
• Promote personal agendas and opinions
• Allow bullying behaviour
• Dominate the group.
• Side with one section of the group

All very good, but how do you do it in the real world? We all have to act as facilitators in some shape or form in our day-to-day lives. It could be:

• Helping your team to identify the root cause of a recurring problem.
• Working with a staff member to identify their career path
• Identifying requirements with a customer

So how do I facilitate? My approach is to break the activity into four key stages

• Orientation
• Intellectual Harvesting
• Outcome Generation
• Closeout


The participants need to be clear about what they are discussing and what is to be achieved. It is vital that they are all singing from the same hymn sheet. Clarity at the start helps avoid confusion and fruitless debate later.

I first show them a map of the intended purpose of the meeting. The map also shows them what their roles are, what my role is and the process to be adopted.

I then get them to discuss the subject matter to agree the purpose and intended outcomes. This gets them participating immediately. I also get an understanding of what they are talking about, the vocabulary that they use and, more importantly, whether or not they are in agreement about the task in hand. Sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how often you discover that apparent experts or practitioners of a particular activity have widely differing views and knowledge about it. Some individuals may not even be aware of why they have been asked to be involved.

It’s at this point that any change to the planned outcome and process should be agreed. The agreed map also serves as a route map for the rest of the meeting and provides a means of bringing the discussion back onto track if it starts to deviate.

Intellectual Harvesting
Having established a shared perspective of the subject matter, I then enter the ‘Intellectual Harvesting’ stage of facilitation where I record all of their thoughts on the subject matter. Why record? Because otherwise what is said will be lost and you won’t have anything to review or walk back through at a later stage. It is important that all the participants’ knowledge, thoughts, opinions, and experience can be seen and shared. You don’t want a ‘knowledge is power’ situation to develop.

I encourage them to discuss all aspects. I often use a combination of open questions and mini brainstorming sessions to get them to explore the subject matter. Open questions are ideal for encouraging the participants to expand on a comment or to provide further supporting evidence. The MindGenius Questions Lists are extremely helpful for doing this.

Even just asking the question “Why?” can work wonders. Repeated use of “Why?” helps you peel away the layers of (mis)information so you get to the crux of the matter. It is so simple to do. However don’t overdo it as people will not be quick to volunteer a comment if they know they are going to be questioned about it.

As ever, balance is important. One way to break up the questions is to go for a period without a question, just record what is being said. Then summarise the input and sprinkle it with a few pertinent questions. Alternatively ask some questions first in order to get the participants thinking from different perspectives and record the outcome.

When you are trying to get the participants to share their thoughts, to be creative or to think about new things, short brainstorming sessions are ideal for recording thoughts, ideas, opinions and suggestions

Once the initial Intellectual Harvesting is complete I walk through the map to summarize what they have said. This gives them an opportunity to discuss areas that they consider require to be amended/discussed further. It gives them a chance to make sense of what has been recorded.
The walkthrough recounts what has been said, rather than my interpretation of what was said – keeps me neutral.

Outcome Generation
The Intellectual Harvesting information is then used as the basis for creating the agreed outcomes. I get them to use categories in the Intellectual Harvesting map to help them identify the key areas and prioritise them, to separate the wheat from the chaff. Then they can filter the information to focus on a specific aspect.
Again the use of questions and short brainstorming sessions can help the participants develop the outcomes. I often use the Timer feature to initially limit the brainstorming sessions and focus the minds

But always remember that the participants are the experts, the idea generators. You are there to facilitate them in these roles, not to give your opinion or recount your own experience in this matter. It’s much better to get them to arrive at the solution. Perhaps open a new avenue of thought with “Have you considered…..?”

They develop the outcomes whilst I facilitate and record their discussions. When they are finished, I again walk them through the maps to reaffirm their consensus on the outcome.

Having agreed the outcome, I get them to discuss and agree what is to happen with the outcomes and who will do what after the meeting. Agreed actions are added to the map, with the people responsible (Resource), description of activity (Note) and timescales (Task) information recorded.
So that’s my approach to facilitation.
• Orientation – starting from a common point to create agreed outcomes
• Intellectual Harvesting – recording the knowledge and thoughts of the participants
• Outcome Generation – generating and agreeing the outcomes
• Closeout – creating an action plan

I hope you found this article of interest. As ever, if you have any comments or queries please don’t hesitate to ask Gordon.

PS: I’ve been using the new question lists and brainstorming features in MindGenius 4.

It’s useful that you can brainstorm away from the map environment as it can give the activity a less structured, more creative feel. Also the fact that the participants can be prompted from question lists and their responses automatically linked to the question stimulating the response so the recorded ideas can be later displayed as a question centric map adds significantly to my box of facilitation tools.

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