When it comes to better, faster and more productive teamwork, facilitation is the trending topic of the moment.
With the rise of AI and a backdrop of sweeping layoffs at previously untouchable tech companies, the topic on everyone’s minds is human skills. And facilitation is the ultimate suite of human skills - making you an irreplaceable force in any organization you’re a part of.
Whereas in previous years we heard more about specific methods, sprints, and workshops, it’s becoming clear that the transferrable skills you have access to as a factilitator go way beyond a single process. They give you the superior cognitive, communicative and innovative capabilities that are essential to standing out in a precarious and rapidly changing world of work.
However, as with any trending term, there are some common misconceptions about what it means to have facilitation skills, and how to apply them. As OG facilitators, we’ve put together a breakdown of all the basics that you need to know in order to add these essential skills to your repertoire.
This is article is useful if you’re:
- Curious about facilitation skills, and how they can uplevel your career
- Already aware of facilitation, and looking for simple points to convince leadership to invest in facilitation training for you and/or your team
Let’s get started.
1. What facilitation actually means
2. Why facilitation is the skill of the future
3. Why every organization, company and team needs a facilitator
4. When to use facilitation: 3 questions and 7 examples
5. What makes a great facilitator: essential skills
6. How to get started with facilitation: Essential tools & structures
What facilitation actually means
In a business context, facilitation is helping a group of people get more meaningful work done through problem-solving and decision-making.
With a toolbox of step-by-step processes and adaptable skills, the facilitator ensures everyone in the room gets heard, and there’s a successful, actionable outcome every time a group comes together.
Importantly, a facilitator is not a manager or a decision maker, although there are skills overlaps between those roles. The facilitator’s goal is to guide a group to its best outcomes, not to solve the challenge for the team.
Why facilitation is the skill of the future
Wherever you stand on the debate about AI and what it means for the future of work, the fact is that the landscape is changing faster than ever before. Human skills – the ones that can’t be mimicked by tech, or work to harness the power of tech and put it to positive use – are increasingly the holy grail.
A recent report by the World Economic Forum identified the top 10 skills employers will prioritize when hiring in coming years, and most of them are encompassed within facilitation. From analytical thinking & innovation, to complex problem solving, to creativity, originality & initiative - when you learn facilitation skills you get all of these skills ‘baked in’. And not as wishy washy abstract ideas, but as concrete processes so that you can demonstrate and apply these in-demand skills in any situation, with any group of people.
Why every organization, company and team needs a facilitator
Now you might be thinking, “this sounds great, but my company doesn’t have / want / need a facilitator role right now.”
Indeed, what we hope to show in this article is that facilitation doesn’t mean a career change or a brand new role, it’s a suite of skills that uplevel any career and boost results in any organization.
The more employees who have these transferrable skills, and the more we can promote the ideas behind facilitation as a must-have for all kinds of sectors and departments, the better for each company, and the world of work as a whole.
The problems we’re facing right now are clear, and they’re universal.
Problem 1: Broken collaboration
You are probably familiar with this one. The unavoidable reality is that teams don’t become good at teamwork by magic. Most people don’t naturally know how to problem-solve as a group, how to deal with inevitable disagreement and discomfort, how to hear everyone’s voice equally.
A report on the future of collaboration by software company Alludo found that:
- 41% of enterprise employees have left or would consider leaving their job due to poor collaboration
- 64% of employees worldwide claim that poor collaboration is costing them at least 3 hours per week in productivity
- 75% of decision-makers say they need to improve collaboration within their own department, and 80% with other departments
Why facilitation is the solution:
Rather than see collaboration challenges as an obstacle, facilitators see them as an opportunity.
During training, facilitators learn to account for every potential collaboration breakdown in a group session or meeting, and preemptively plan their sessions with this in mind. They also learn to flexibly apply those skills and can quickly re-orientate the team when unforeseen bumps arise.
Problem 2: Unproductive meetings
If you’ve ever felt the dread of being called to a two hour meeting with no point or purpose, you’ll know that meeting culture as it stands today is toxic for any future-facing company.
- Nearly a third of meetings are unnecessary, wasting $25 million a year for every 1,000 people
- Employees spend a shocking 18 hours a week in meetings, on average. Attending non-critical meetings wastes approximately $25,000 per employee annually, resulting in over $100 million a year in waste for organisations with more than 5,000 employees.
- The knock on effects are shocking too – studies have shown direct links between unproductive meetings and lower levels of market share, innovation, and employment stability.
Why facilitation is the solution:
As a facilitator, your main objective is to help a group accomplish more in less time. Therefore you’re automatically focused on the processes you have in your toolkit to keep discussions on track, and move forward to a tangible outcome. The result is fewer meetings, and more concrete results each time.
Problem 3: Wasted people power
Whether you lead a team or form part of one, you’ll know that companies are not currently getting the best out of their employees. Organizations spend millions on hiring the best people, but (in large part due to problems 1 and 2) they waste even more by not allowing them to reach their full potential.
Feeling like they’re only achieving a small percentage of what they’re capable of is frustrating for both leadership and the employees themselves and leads to a dangerous cycle of plummeting motivation and productivity.
Why facilitation is the solution:
Again, part of facilitators’ basic process is to create an environment that encourages full participation. Facilitation means using tried and tested structures and excellent human skills to ensure that every team member feels heard, their opinions valued, and their expertise truly used.
Problem 4: Lack of ownership
This one is pretty simple: when people are not actively involved in problem-solving, decision making and planning, implementation will be half-hearted and will often fail.
Think about it – if your job feels like a series of to-do lists handed down by leadership, where’s your motivation to innovate and excel?
Why facilitation is the solution:
Facilitators have the skills to create an environment that encourages people to make collaborative decisions, and self-manage as responsible adults.
Facilitation gives team members that sense of agency, so they feel part of something bigger than just their direct tasks, and are personally invested in delivery.
But of course facilitation isn’t a one-size fits all. Here’s a handy guide to when you can use it:
When to use facilitation: 3 questions and 7 examples
The first and easiest filter is to ask yourself these 3 questions:
1. Is it a group of 3 or more people?
When the situation is anything more than 1:1, the interpersonal dynamics can be best harnessed by a neutral facilitator who can guide the discussion and create the right environment for alignment.
2. Is there an important, complex issue that needs to be addressed?
One of the reasons facilitation methodology is so faithfully used by the biggest names in tech and SaaS is because the issue is almost always important and almost always complex. There’s rarely a yes/no answer or a clear set of choices. Facilitation creates space to break down the problem, explore opportunities and prioritize actionable steps.
3. Does the team need to ‘buy into’ the outcome of this workshop or session?
Following on from question 2, when a problem is complex, the solution is innovative and potentially disruptive. Without the entire team “on board,” even the best solutions will fail to materialize. One of the main aims of facilitation is to make collective decisions with diverse team members, so that everyone feels invested in the outcome and excited to execute the action plan.
If you answered yes to the above, then facilitation is the right path. Which means there are infinite situations where you can apply facilitation skills in daily work.
Here’s a broad menu of the type of sessions in which a facilitator can 10x results.
- Decision-making and problem-solving
- Strategic planning
- Kick-starting a new project or program
- Retrospective: a session to share feedback and improve performance
- When solutions need to be prioritised in a standardised way
- Validating new products
- Retreats (leadership, strategy…)
What makes a great facilitator: Essential skills
As we’ve discussed, facilitation is the complete skillset for the future of work. We can draw the main competencies of a great facilitator into six broad categories.
Recommended: If you’d like to learn about these skills in more depth, we did a breakdown here.
To be an exceptional factilitate, you need to:
A great facilitator knows that they’re the guide, not the hero.
As with all aspects of facilitation, it’s essential to explain this clearly to the participants. If you don’t manage their expectations, they will naturally look to you to close decisions or confirm directions. Make it obvious that you’re an expert in guiding them along the path, but you don’t hold the key to the destination.
Ask better questions
One of the most critical facilitation skills is the ability to ask the right questions, at the right time, in the right way.
Whether it’s getting to the real root of a problem, providing a level playing field for everyone, or avoiding influencing a discussion with your own bias, crafting your language is essential to the whole facilitation process.
A facilitator knows the difference between an open ended or a close ended question. When to clarify, probe, or get consensus to move on.
Curiosity is key in the facilitator’s toolkit. Don’t just go through the motions of ‘listening’ without really understanding the message.
Through both your verbal and non-verbal signals, you must make it clear that you value what people are saying, and you’re keen to dig even deeper.
Give clear instructions
Remember those unproductive meetings (groan!) and unsatisfied employees that we talked about above? 9 times out of 10 the root is unclear instructions.
It’s the responsibility of the facilitator to make sure the whole team understands the what, how and why of each exercise. By reducing unnecessary options, giving clear context, and repeating & condensing the most important information, you’ll 10x results.
Manage time & energy
Again, keeping the team informed so they know what to expect is key. Facilitators take charge of limiting and managing time for each exercise, and knowing when to jump in to cut a circular discussion.
It’s also your job to be conscious of points where you may need to inject calm, bring focus, or re-energize the atmosphere, through strategic techniques.
Create an inclusive environment, for all types of participant
To be a facilitator is to be a multi-tasker. You have to consider the needs of a diverse group of people, as well as constantly survey the situation for potential interruptions and other disruptors.
Fostering an environment where everyone feels safe to share their opinions without judgement, and has a chance to work in a way that suits their personality and needs, is a delicate balancing act that takes skill and practice.
Setting expectations and ground rules, and building the agenda as a group, is what makes all players feel fully invested and ensures equal participation.
Above all, be yourself! If you’re not bringing an authentic mindset to the table, you can’t expect the other participants to do so either.
How to get started with facilitation: Essential tools & structures
Now we’ve explored the value of facilitation skills, let’s touch on the practicalities.
Our aim with this Facilitation 101 article was to show you that being a great facilitator doesn’t mean switching careers or suddenly adding facilitation to your job title. It’s about adding skills to your toolkit to excel in your current role, and open infinite doors for your future career.
If you think your company could benefit from a boost of facilitation skills, check out our Training Sprint services for teams and organizations. Or if you’d like to uplevel your career path, you can sign up individually on our next intensive Facilitation Training – choose remote or in person.
And if you’re eager to get started, smart small. Any meeting can be an opportunity to get facilitation practice and build your confidence.
The next time your team is facing a challenge, why not propose a simple workshop. A highly structured meeting or session, where you as the facilitator guide the group through a series of predefined steps to arrive at a result that everyone creates and agrees upon.