Q & A: Facilitation

Q: Describe your work with facilitation.  How did you get started in it?

A: When I was working the tine Information Technology department of Reliant Energy in Houston, I noticed that there were many meetings going on for long periods of time, but little was being accomplished.  The more I sat in such meetings, the more irritated and confused I became.  There had to be some way to make these meetings moving more smoothly and quickly.

SO I began to just speak up during the meeting to re-route the process.  I’d say things like “I think what he’s trying to say is …” and reword the previous statement.  Or I’d say “Shouldn’t we perhaps ask her to draw a picture of her recommendation…the flow of the whole process?”  Or I might ask, “I wonder if we should take about a 10-minute break?”

 

 Well amazingly I noticed my suggestions and interruptions actually worked.  And some time later I noticed that I was often being asked to lead a meeting.  In preparing for each meeting, I developed processes, activities, role-playing exercises, and other techniques to make that meeting meaningful and productive.  From there, I did more psychological analysis of why people dominate meetings, what misunderstandings occur, and what “hidden agenda” as often present.

Soon I found that people were cornering me in the hallway or at lunch to say that they were having a problem running a meeting; would I spend some time with them to improve the meeting? 

 In response, I would suggest some of my techniques, applying it specifically to that person’s needs.  They would suddenly become positive about their coming session and say, “Gee that’s a great idea, and I think I’ll try that.”  After some time I was constantly asked to lead meetings, particularly ones involving top management that needed a more experienced facilitator.

Q: And didn’t that lead to your publishing a book?

A: Yes.  I actually had always wanted to write a book.  I started trying to write novels, but I never could come up with anything I liked.  Then I read somewhere that, if you’re going to write a book, you should be an expert in the topic of that book.  Realizing that I was quite successful in facilitating and that all of my ideas seemed relatively new and creative, that this would be a good topic for a book.

 

 In 2000 I wrote and had published by University Press a book called “Opening Doors, a Facilitator’s Guide.” It covered such topics as the philosophy of facilitation, the facilitator as servant, technical drawings that help understand business data and processes, and how to use games in a meeting to produce results.

Q: Could you describe your most challenging meeting, and how you handled it?

A: I think the meeting that first comes to mind first is one consisting of middle management folks who were set in their ideas.  Basically, the group was split right down the middle regarding centralization of services; about half were for centralization, while the other half favored decentralization.  And every person knew how every other person felt, since they had worked together for years.  My job was to facilitate the team such that one simple recommendation and plan were produced.  So I put on my “creativity” hat and asked two teams be formed, one for each side of the issue.  “This should not be difficult,” I thought to myself.  Then the two teams were instructed to prepare for a debate, where each side would present the “pros” of their position and the “cons” of their opponents’ plan.

So each team went to separate rooms and prepared their arguments.  They then returned to the main room and presented their ideas.  This was followed by another rebuttal session where they repeated that process.  The idea, of course, was to get people to listen to the other side’s arguments and have an orderly discussion.  The outcome was not beautiful or full of magic; the whole team was simply to recommend a sort of hybrid of centralized-decentralized that seemed a good compromise.

But I cannot finish this story without describing one surprise. (I didn’t find this out till much later in our session.)  It so happened that one of the persons that was well known to be FOR CENTRALIZATION joined the team that was FOR DECNENTRALIZATION--in order to spy on them and tell the centralization team what plan their opponents were cooking up.  This was quite a surprise, one that I had no control over.  And the only way I could deal with it was by keeping a sense of humor.

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Q: It seems that situations like that would be difficult and scary to undertake.

A: You could let that bother you as a facilitator, but you have to realize that (1). These are ordinary people like you and me who also have their own fears and insecurity and (2). Knowing that they’ve always had difficulty in producing an integrated recommendation, they strongly welcome the facilitator’s presence as a last chance to pull this together and come up with an answer quickly.  In other words, they were really on my side—sympathetic and understanding.