The Art of Facilitation

It was impossible to get a conversation going, everyone was talking too much.   - Yogi Berra

As I went through Lean Six Sigma training, I was lucky enough to take a course called Lean Kaizen Facilitation – which was as much about facilitation as it was about the principles of Lean. The instructor was so engaging and knowledgeable on both topics, and I can say that I use what I learned in that class on a daily basis.

Facilitation really is an art – similar to asking questions – and they go hand-in-hand.

As a project manager, you will need to facilitate many discussions, meetings, and workshops that have specific goals – which you set beforehand in the agenda. Those goals could include updating your team about project details, obtaining feedback from team members, solving a problem, or securing a decision to keep the project moving, among other things. It may sound easy, but it really does take a lot of time and practice to facilitate a conversation successfully.

Here are six things that I have learned in that Lean course and through my years as a project manager about the art of facilitation.

  • Prepare! Prepare! Prepare! – I think those were the exact words my instructor used years ago! In order to have a productive conversation, you need to understand the objective, the key stakeholders to include, the required support documentation, and the outstanding questions to help facilitate the conversation. Your job is to do your homework so you make it as easy as possible for the team to achieve its goal.
  • Keep your “facilitator hat” on – You wear multiple hats as a project manager. You are a leader, a listener, a planner, a contributor, and in this case – a facilitator. Having your “facilitator hat” on allows you to control the conversation, ask questions (especially ones that are not popular), and push your team to make decisions or come to an agreement. Make sure everyone understands what your role is at the start so you can be tough when you need to be.
  • Ask a lot of questions – See my post from a few weeks ago about asking questions. It is so important as a facilitator! By asking questions, you will get to the root of the issues and help the whole team understand all of the factors being discussed.
  • Keep the conversation moving – You are also the timekeeper when you facilitate. You have set your agenda and know what your goals are for the discussion. When time is running low, your “facilitator hat” allows you to respectfully interrupt people to stay on track and on topic. It is common for the team to go down rat holes during the conversation, so have a parking lot or key takeaways list ready so that you can document the issue and move on.
  • Know when you can be flexible – At the same time, if the rat hole that your team is crawled into is actually a productive conversation, you need to know enough to allow that conversation to continue and reprioritize what you need to accomplish during the discussion if time is an issue. If you do not know if something is a rat hole or not, your “facilitator hat” gives you permission to simply ask the team if the conversation is productive or not.
  • Have fun! – This one is so important that I usually put it on my agendas or in the meeting objectives, especially for workshops where you are asking people to spend an extended period of time with you. You spend so much time at work and with your team, you need to inject a little fun into the mix! When you create a positive environment for your team, they will be more apt to do their part to succeed.

Now, it will take some time – and perhaps some awkward moments – before you become an expert facilitator. Eventually, you will be able to manage both small and large crowds, becoming comfortable with long silences, heated debates, polite interruptions, and crowded agendas.