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What is facilitation and why YOU should be interested in it?

Mirjami Sipponen-Damonte
Mirjami Sipponen-Damonte
What is facilitation and why YOU should be interested in it?

I remember a few years ago, in a Facebook group focusing on clear Finnish language and writing, the Finnish word for ”facilitate” (fasilitoida) was voted as the most disliked buzzword. I understand this very well. The term ‘facilitation’ is widely used in the organizational environment, but its meaning is probably still unclear and ambiguous. What does it mean when a conversation is facilitated? When collaboration or a project is facilitated? When a strategy is facilitated?? It has sometimes been suggested to me to introduce alternative terms, such as assisting, enabling or enlightening. I think they all include a piece of truth but yet fail to capture the whole nature of facilitation. In this blog post I wanted to share my understanding on what is facilitation and – especially – why YOU should be interested in it.

Let’s start with why YOU should be interested in it. If any of the following rings a bell, you should.

  • People are not focused during the meetings, they may even multitask
  • The goals of meetings are not clear
  • We never get to cover all the agenda items during the meeting
  • People are passive during the meetings, it is difficult to get their input or create a connection with them
  • Some dominate during the meetings and no one does anything about that
  • There’s discussion, but no one has the courage to address the real issue
  • People leave uninspired, uncommitted to a change a to a new strategy

As consequence of these, quite usual everyday challenges, there are bigger problems:

  • A huge amount of wasted work time, multiplied by the number of people, due to inefficient meetings. Based on research by Steven G. Rogelberg, author of “The Surprising Science of Meetings”, only around 50% of meeting time is effective, well used and engaging. These effectiveness numbers drop even lower when it comes to remote meetings. A research made in Finland in 2015 by The National Meeting Barometer, in an organization of 100 persons the time wasted in unnecessary of inefficient meetings is yearly between €0.75 million-€1.5 million!
  • Strategies that remain in board room and on (hopefully at least nice looking) power point slides, but nothing happens in real life
  • Frustration and demotivation of personnel, due to lack of inclusion and lack of clarity, which may result even in changing job or in sick leave

I’m not saying that facilitation is the medicine to all the organizational problems, but I claim that with strongly embedded facilitation skills in meetings and in leadership, work would be smoother, more efficient, more meaningful and fun.

Traditional Meeting vs.Facilitated Meeting

So, what is facilitation? Here’s my definition that is aligned with the competences and Code of Ethics of facilitator by the International Association of Facilitators:

Facilitation is the goal-oriented guidance of group work in various group settings, such as meetings and workshops, so that all group members participate actively and equally. This is done through careful planning and a variety of group work methods, and by contributing to the creation and maintenance of a safe and inclusive atmosphere.

The purpose of facilitation is to utilise the hidden wisdom of a group and, at the same time, to help group members commit to achieving common objectives.

We can also outline the topic as follows:

  • Facilitation is the opposite of traditional hierarchical management in which the boss or management gives instructions and answers, expecting that their subordinates will act according to them.
  • Although the methods of facilitation can also be utilised in situations with an individual person, facilitation is above all a group process, the purpose of which is to take advantage of the knowledge of the group in order to reach shared objectives.
  • Facilitation is always goal oriented. A facilitated event is associated with the expectation of a concrete outcome, which could be a decision, a shared definition of an identified challenge, an action plan, a shared vision or, for example, jointly defined roles and responsibilities.
  • A facilitated event or process is at best a meaningful experience for individuals, but it is also intended to serve the wider organisation or society.

As a facilitated event, the group itself analyses the background to identified challenges, comes up with ideas, finds solutions to problems, makes decisions and concretises actions. In order to enable this, you need someone who has mastered group facilitation skills from many different angles – a facilitator. With a good facilitator, the members of the group have the opportunity to focus on the issue itself, and on bringing out the best in themselves. The facilitator ensures that, at each stage, the matter is dealt with using suitable methods that support the goal of the event.

Facilitation Activities

I see a greater need for facilitation than ever before, for three main reasons:

  • Managing diversity: As the operating environments of organisations have become more complex, the need has grown to make use of a wide range of knowledge in decision-making. No single individual or entity has sufficient expertise to manage in a rapidly changing world, so groups with a diverse range of skills are required to find new solutions. In an article published in Forbes 2019, Bernard Marr cites the ability to understand adversity and cultural intelligence as key skills for the future. Facilitation promotes genuine listening to and respect for different perspectives, and the clear communication of one’s own views and ideas, allowing for a more complete picture of the situation and the identification of the correct course of action.
  • Commitment and the ability to change: People expect to be involved in decision-making that concerns them. People who themselves get to influence and express their own views about common issues are also committed to working for those issues. Commitment promotes the rapid implementation of changes, thus speeding up the development of organisations and the changes to them. “Successful leaders during the 4th industrial revolution will see change not as a burden but as an opportunity to grow and innovate (Marr 2019)”. In addition to commitment, facilitation can also contribute to the rapid processing of emotions linked to changes, which helps individuals, groups or the entire organisation to be more agile for change.
  • The meaningfulness of work: Working life and life management in general are currently very demanding. This is evident in, among other things, growing numbers of people suffering from depression and absence from work stemming from mental health issues. The opportunities for employees to have a say in their own work, have their opinions heard, and manage their emotions in situations of change are important for the well-being of the individual. Furthermore, the possibility of influencing something greater through one’s own work makes people feel that their work is meaningful.

Facilitation therefore simultaneously serves both the wider organisation and the individuals involved in it.

So, a buzzword or not, I’d say it’s worth digging deeper to explore the essence, benefits and skills related to facilitation. Facilitation is on one part a role (that of facilitator) and it is a set of skills that one needs to master to facilitate competently and successfully. I see it also an essential part of modern, participatory leadership and a way to support self-directed teams. Maybe more on that in the next post!

What thoughts emerge for you from this post? Have you had a chance to observe the benefits of good facilitation? Or have you noticed challenges caused by the lack of facilitation skills? I’d love to hear your feedback!

The writer of this post is the founder and Managing Director of Xpedio, Mirjami Sipponen-Damonte. She has been working with facilitation and organizational development around Europe for the last 17 years. Get to know Mirjami better here.

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