Open Book
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Open Book

Facilitation matters

Hazel White and Mike Press

“A facilitator is someone trained in the skill of shaping group dynamics and collective conversations. My job is to put the right people in a room and help them to collectively think, dream, argue, heal, envision, trust and connect for a specific larger purpose.”

Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering, Penguin, 2018

Facilitation can be described as preparing, guiding and supporting participants through a creative, innovative process of discovery. A facilitator will use many skills, tools and methods to assist in the exploratory journey involving all users stakeholders and potential users stakeholders.

Facilitated sessions are great for gathering information, generating ideas and making group decisions — but they’re not so great for presenting information or getting buy-in for decisions that have already been made.

A vital leadership skill

“There is a clear need for skilled facilitation and creation of the spaces to explore and have frank and honest conversations.

“The pull towards the ‘known’ is very strong and so consistent and long-term facilitation helps support and hold the space for change to emerge and become embedded.”

Collective Leadership for Scotland, First Annual Report, 2019

Workforce Scotland is actively furthering the concept of Collective Leadership in Scotland’s public sector. They are clear that facilitation is both a skill and an approach to leadership that is essential if organisations are serious about understanding and dealing with the highly complex issues that confront them.

The observations that follow are the key themes that we explore in our facilitation training sessions. If you prefer, our animated video also covers this ground. We hope that you find them useful.

Preparation is key

Getting the right sort of room, preferably not a meeting room, but somewhere you have access to flip chart, projector, walls and window space where you can stick things up and furniture that’s moveable and refreshments nearby. Planning the session takes up probably 80% of the time. Having a session plan that’s clear to understand what the objectives of the session are, and has different rhythms and different types of activities to keep people engaged throughout the session. There needs to be a mix of individual and group activities and a combination of both serious and playful activities.

The start and finish times

These are really important to get right — but you can be quite flexible around the timings of each activity — go with what seems appropriate with your group. You always need to have access to the room you’re using for 30 minutes in advance for setting up, and 30 minutes afterwards for harvesting your post-its, taking photographs and tidying up.

Sending out the invite

The amount of content depends on who is coming along, whether they want to know what each step is or whether you can leave it quite broad. It is really important to let people know the types of activity — whether you’ll be standing, talking, moving around and so forth. Find out people’s requirements to help them participate — for example, will it be challenging for any of them to move about? If it is, you will need to rethink your activities. Gather the materials based on the activities that you’re planning on running and the number of people — and bring more than you think you’ll need in case you have extra people.

Running the session

Check people in when they arrive and make them feel welcome. Try and make a personal connection with as many people as you can. Have some sort of icebreaker to enable people to relax and get to know each other. Remember at all times that you’re not the expert. You can’t facilitate and participate at the same time — your job is to be neutral and focus the group on the objectives of the session. Setting a positive intent at the outset helps get people into the right frame of mind for the workshop and that can involve allowing people time to get things off their chest. Bringing together as diverse a group of people as possible is absolutely key to getting good ideas and good outcomes. It is also important to use gender neutral language when addressing groups.

Diverse activities

Activities that move between convergent and divergent thinking are useful to help focus on the task in hand, and to enable different types of people to contribute in ways that are useful to them. We have found that Liberating Structures very helpful for doing this — starting off with self-reflection then paired conversations followed by discussions in groups of four that then open out to the whole room.

Checking out

At the end of the session, it’s helpful to get feedback straight away that participants can actually see as they are leaving the room. We invite people to write three post-its on the themes of ‘I liked’, ‘I learned’ and ‘Tomorrow I will’ and put these on the wall as they leave. As soon as you can after the event document and share these with the participants and encourage them to blog, tweet and talk about what’s happened in the workshop. Facilitation is very rewarding — but remember, you’re not the expert. Your participants are.

SessionLab

Open Change uses this online tool to plan all of our workshops and events. SessionLab provides the following:

  • Clear and visual way of setting timings and objectives for each element, which can be easily dragged around the screen and reconfigured.
  • Materials and other requirements can be specified for each element, and a central list generated for putting together your kit list (see section on right above).
  • You can set up your own library of activities that you can draw on for each new session that you plan. There is also a central library of icebreakers, ideation activities, etc that you can make use of. These include some of the Liberating Structures.
  • Collaborate with team members on sessions.
  • Export to a variety of formats.

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