Effectively Leading Groups: The Invisible Facilitator

Someone observed recently that I was invisible as a facilitator in their session.  I appreciated the comment because it told me I was doing my job – that is, being helpful without intruding.

That started me thinking about how often facilitators get into the fun of Compression Planning and forget the client’s agenda.

Our job as facilitator is to help a group be effective. To do that we must have our egos screwed on tight enough to let the group succeed or fail on their own.  After all, their success or failure ultimately is up to them.  The issue is the total group’s responsibility, not the facilitator’s.

This is not to devalue the facilitator’s role, but for me it sets the stage in a different way.  In the early days I would get such a kick out of Compression Planning that I would forget that my purpose was to help the group achieve their purpose.  Never have I seen a planning session where the purpose was to make the facilitator look good.  So why invest energy worrying about such a thing?

Another insight came recently when I discovered some basic principles.  This wasn’t an aha experience.  It was more like “yeah, that really makes sense.”  These are the insights:

  • In a small group where everyone is passionately involved in the content, you need to negotiate at the start who and how long one person will facilitate before the role is passed on to someone else.
  • You must have a CP Design for the session and there has to be “client sign-off” that the design is the direction they want the group to pursue.  You need to have a “client” and get his/her expectations stated as concretely as possible.  Check with them periodically to confirm that those expectations are being met.
  • When the group is exhausted but the work has to be completed, the facilitator must make sure people are listening.  Listening is hard enough when everyone is fresh.  It is critically important when the pressure is extreme.

Here are some other recent “re-realizations”:

  • Take breaks and stay energized.  Don’t let the pressure of the moment push you off the process.  The tougher the task, the more you need all components, props and tools of the Compression Planning process.  Don’t go longer than 90 minutes without giving at least a 10 minute break.
  • Skilled groups can be incredibly fast and effective but there are also groups that need “soak time” – hours, overnight or even a few days are need to “think and process” before the group can move on.  Don’t be surprised if people ask for time out…and don’t be reluctant to give it.
  • Never stop short of closure in a planning session.  Always resist when someone says “I’ve got it…we can stop here.”  When we are facilitating, we always push to cover every step in the Master Planning Model – Explore/Ideation, Focus/Decision-Making, Action Planning, Communication and Debriefing.  This thoroughness is a sure sign of a complete facilitator.

This issue brings to mind the analogy of the surgeon who removes your gallbladder, stands over the incision and says “Well, that’s enough.  We have solved the problem.”  Sewing things up cleanly and directing the patient on a path to recovery is just as much a part of the operation as laying on the scalpel.

Anything less than the total Compression Planning process doesn’t fully serve the project or the participants’ needs for closure.  Stopping short leaves people open to deeply felt but often unexpressed frustration.

The planning process partly done doesn’t teach people how to work effectively or to use Compression Planning so that it is more powerful than just “another exercise.”  Stopping short of the job doesn’t set the high expectations for accomplishment that are required to translate ideas into long-term, meaningful results.


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