The Challenges Of Facilitation

Facilitating, when you do it well, is a challenge. It isn’t easy taking a group where they need to go, particularly when you aren’t certain where that really is, or the process that will get them there. You can plan, you can contemplate, you can design—in the end, however, it is just you and the group. It is up to you to guide them, and up to them to let you guide them. When this falls apart, it gets very awkward indeed.

Many might not understand the above statements. They might look at facilitation as an easy exercise. Define the outcomes, know where the group needs to go, define a process to get them there, and then execute. What could possibly be easier? The challenge is that this only really works in one of two situations: where the result is a foregone conclusion, and the process is simply a means of formalizing that; or where the facilitator thinks that he or she knows what is best for the group, and is fully intent upon simply taking them there. In neither instance is this facilitation; it is simply manipulation, going through the motions to reach an already defined goal.

In designing a facilitation exercise, you might have a sense of what the outcome needs to be. There may be specific questions that need answering, or information that needs to be collected. A process improvement exercise may require input about current performance, or possible future solutions. A strategic planning session might need to result in actual strategies and objectives to be realized. An organizational design process might require a clear definition of how roles and responsibilities will be realigned. All of these examples simply define the types of information that are required; they don’t actually presume to know the answers to the questions being asked.

Leading a group in the face of unanswered questions is a challenging task. Does the group have the insights necessary to be able to develop the answers? Do they have the expertise and understanding necessary to contribute in a meaningful way? Do they accept the basis of the questions, or why they should be exploring them? Do they feel that they have the authority and accountability to answer the questions? Uncertainty on any front creates signifiant challenges to be worked through.

A recent facilitation I was responsible for brought me to confront headlong some of these challenges. It was a discomfiting experience. I had spent a great deal of time planning the session, consulting with the organization and familiarizing stakeholders with the approach I was planning to adopt, and why I thought it to be relevant. I had thought about how to engage the group, to guide them through exploring the issues they needed to consider in order to arrive at the answers they needed to provide. I thought about how I needed to approach my role, from setting expectations through to guiding execution of the actual agenda.

Ironically, the first part of the meeting proceeded incredibly well. People were engaged, the level of conversation was meaningful, and very real issues were being explored. There appeared to be a commitment to the process, and a level of discussion and insight that I had not seen the group attain before. All was very promising. Along the way through the facilitation, however, something changed. The group shifted its focus away from the task at hand, and proved unwilling to revert back to it. What should have been a straightforward check-in and review of where we were turned into an exhaustive discussion on matters not really related to the purpose of the meeting.

As a facilitator, this is a challenging situation to confront. You can highlight the situation. You can question the reason for it. You can encourage a shift in focus. You can identify the consequences of not getting to the answers you need. But you cannot make anyone do anything they don’t want to do; you cannot force a group to go where they are not prepared to go. Facing the challenge, I was equal parts flummoxed, frustrated and confused. I could see the potential to move forward, I could see where the group could get to if they wanted it, and I could also see the clearly the different factions within the group, the different outcomes that were desired, and the conflicts between them. There was a clear opportunity to address them, one I pointed out several times in different ways. Yet there appeared to be an inherent unwillingness to go there.

Ultimately, the session ended with at least answers to the questions that the organization needed to specifically address to move forward with their next steps. They got to where they needed to, at a very minimum, need to go. But that was all that was accomplished; the additional outcomes that had seemed possible at the outset of the meeting remained unexplored. The conversations that had been expected remained undiscussed. More interestingly, there seemed to be a sense of palpable relief when the session ended and they could leave, several of them doing so extremely quickly.

For me, the conclusion was a let down, and I had to spend some time reflecting why. Some of that, to be genuinely honest, was ego. I had seen where the group could have gone, and I was frustrated by their unwillingness to go there. I wanted the outcome for the group, but I had also wanted it for me; I wanted to have been the facilitator that got them to address questions at a level they had not previously explored. Ego is a challenge for any facilitator; in my experience, though, facilitators are at their best when there ego is not a part of the process. As difficult as it may be for me to accept that, it isn’t up to me to want for the group what the group doesn’t want for itself.

Part of the challenge, I also believe, was a lack of ability by the group to engage at the level that they claimed to want to (and need to) engage. The session required addressing abstract concepts, where they are more comfortable with concrete realities. There would also have been the need to engage in constructive conflict, to put on the table their differences as individuals and sub-groups, and to speak honestly about what those meant; these are hard conversations for any group to have.

For me, the biggest question was, “what could I have done differently?” How could I have approached the meeting in a way that would have allowed them to move further forward? It’s a difficult question to ask, in part because there are no certainties. A different answer first requires a belief in the willingness of the group to go further, and I’m still not sure of whether that willingness existed (or exists). Certainly, I could have realized a different outcome for myself by letting go of my ego, and accepting that the group would go where it was prepared to go. They may well have been very happy with the outcome they did arrive at, and equally happy to have avoided going further. It is not up to me to judge that.

Finally I could also have taken a different approach to dealing with the abstract issues, as I saw those issues emerging. Knowing that the group deals well with specifics, but less so with conceptual outcomes, I could have — once the opportunity was recognized — designed an exercise to deal with specifics, and then facilitated an extrapolation from the specifics to the general. I could have framed much more concrete questions around the issues they needed to explore, and used the results to infer the larger themes that were emerging.

Designing the meeting over again, I would likely do this. It wasn’t something I registered the need to do during the meeting, at the time seeing it is a short discussion that we would quickly move forward from. Once it was clear that the discussion was becoming much more stuck in place, I took a break to try to regroup, hoping that focussing them back in to the immediate task at hand would allow us to reset our attentions and move quickly through the rest of the discussion. It didn’t. By then, however, we were running out of time. The scheduled conclusion of the meeting coincided with finally accomplishing the task at hand, with no time or space to continue forwards. All there was time for was some brief closing remarks and adjournment.

All of the above represents my personal frustration with the process. For all I know, I am alone with that frustration. It is entirely possible that the participants are quite satisfied with how the meeting went, and the outcomes that they did (and did not) arrive at. That fact that some of this is a product of my own frustration that the meeting didn’t lead somewhere else might simply be the product of my own ego, and as a result something that I need to just let go. Thinking of how to desire better meetings going forward is helpful. Remembering to step out mentally during a session and consider other approaches is useful. Beating myself up because the group wasn’t willing to go somewhere that was open to them isn’t constructive.

As I said at the outset, facilitation is hard.

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