Significant changes or breakthroughs often require significant meetings with important stakeholders. When the stakes are high, people turn to professional facilitators to lead the process. This practice frees leaders and stakeholders to focus on the content of the change.
When facilitators strictly observe this role delineation between content and process, they risk compromising the success of these turning point meetings. And they risk leaving out a third component of a successful meeting: the human context.
Good facilitation draws on three disciplines and skills:
- Strategic thinking knowledge and decision making skills of futurists, planners and problem solvers.
- Organizational skills and execution expertise of project managers, quality experts and supervisors.
- Human context and group dynamics best understood by organizational development consultants, psychologists and social workers.
To offer these capabilities to the client, a good facilitator needs to bend the boundaries a bit around who has leadership for content and process. For example, if the meeting convener is still foggy on the challenge or opportunity or lacks a clear statement of the goals and outcomes, the facilitator has to assert the importance of having a strategic focus. To do this facilitators don’t need to be subject matter experts, but they do need to know enough to challenge assumptions and recognize when a group is moving toward or away from achieving its goals. In real time during the meeting, the facilitator has to be able to synthesize what is happening, point to possible gaps in group thinking, and push ahead when the group has found the path forward. This requires some prior knowledge as well as a mental facility to learn in the moment with the participants.
If the meeting is supposed to make change begin to happen, the facilitator has to insist on processes that transition from understanding and insight into determining the next steps for execution. Many changes are executed through initiatives or a set of related projects. Project managers are disciplined to end meetings with clear assignments, deadlines, and monitoring processes. Facilitators also need to know where the ideas or recommendations from the change meeting will go or explain how the group will decide these next steps. Sharing this intent with meeting participants at the outset builds trust and helps people work toward a successful outcome.
A good meeting can turn into a great meeting when people commit to leading change. To get this commitment, facilitators value the human context. A good facilitator will discover people’s hopes and fears early in the process and check in throughout the meeting to ask if these fears are being addressed and their hopes encouraged. Who is moving into the circle of engagement and who is still standing outside and why? Can the group do anything to expand the circle or must it choose to move ahead with a critical mass of people committed to the change? A good facilitator will help the group honor this human context and draw individuals who all begin from different places and needs into a unified force for change.