The value of facilitation skills for HR and other professionals

Facilitation is an important skill set that everybody has to some degree of proficiency. However to be able to apply it to achieve results with different groups of managers requires having both a good tool kit of techniques and a good understanding of when and how to intervene.  These enable the facilitator to have the appropriate impact in helping the group or unit or department produce valuable results. It is a valuable additional weapon for the armory of HR professionals especially when they are stepping into a business partnering role.

So what are the keys to being a good facilitator?

PRACTICE. A skilled facilitator will use and apply her or his skills regularly and will reflect on what worked and what could have worked better and how it could be done differently the next time to have a better outcome. Taking the opportunity to facilitate meetings often builds your skill in being an effective facilitator provided you take time to get feedback and reflect. Skilled facilitators ask for and use the feedback to refine their skills.

CONTRACTING. Clearly understanding and responding to the needs of the client or stakeholder for whom you are facilitating is paramount to a successful partnership. A clear, open and thorough discussion with the client or stakeholder is the key to success.  It is important to understand his/her expectations in terms of outcomes and process as well as clarifying clearly the facilitators role in the process.

STRUCTURING. Careful preparation and structuring of the meeting process is also important as it allows identifying the right process with the right degree of flexibility to deliver the required results. The order in which the topic or issue is addressed including which pieces to tackle and discuss first and which to address later is important. A well designed process provides an important anchor point especially when the participants get deeply involved in the discussion and details of the issues and lose sight of the overall process. It provides a road map to a successful outcome. The process selected also requires having a degree of flexibility if the points surfacing clearly indicate that an alternative approach is required.  One of my colleagues demonstrated an excellent example of this when working with a senior management team who perceived that they were being corralled into a particular direction by the CEO. A direction and intent into which they had not had the opportunity to give input. Realizing what was surfacing she choose to jettison the agenda and provide the management team members with the opportunity to voice their reservations and opinions. This led to a very positive outcome with the team being more fully engaged in the direction, an outcome that the CEO wanted. A second very good example of this was with the HR team of a leading company. In this case the facilitator realized that there were some significant issues not being raised by a sub group from within the team that had a major bearing on the value of the outcome and the commitment to make it happen.  She changed the agenda to create an opportunity for the issues to be surfaced so the whole group could deal with them including some significant concerns about speaking openly which would have derailed a significant culture change.

MODELS & FRAMEWORKS. It is also important having a tool box of models and frameworks which provide a useful and meaningful structure for tackling the issue or challenge under discussion. Models and frameworks are very valuable in providing a structure to a group or meeting discussion. The skilled facilitator will be able to introduce a framework which provides the participants with a route to producing a useful product from a discussion. It is important to build up a repertoire of models and frameworks to draw on as this gives you a powerful tool kit to use in facilitating different teams and groups. The really skilled facilitator can create frameworks, seemingly out of thin air, based on the issues the group needs to address. A commonly used tool for structuring a discussion of the implications of a strategic intent or direction is the McKinsey 7 S model. This provides an easily understandable framework that groups can use to develop an holistic view. There are a multiplicity of simple and more complex models and frameworks. Another model that is very valuable for helping organisations and teams address change is the CAP or Change Acceptance Process or Change Acceleration Process developed by General Electric and now widely used across many industries. This provides a set of frameworks for any facilitator to use who needs to mobilise a team to lead change or needs to mobilise an organisation to change. Dave Ulrich author of “Human Resource Champions” and “A new Mandate for Human Resources” was part of the development team of GE’s Change Acceleration Process. The skilled facilitator builds up their library of frameworks and introduces them when needed.    

INTERVENTION SKILL. Finally it is about the skill of facilitation, knowing when to intervene and when to let the discussion evolve. How to guide the discussion without being dominant yet making sure that all relevant opinions and points are heard and considered? Equally importantly it is about knowing how to intervene. What is the right way to intervene? Is it with an open question? Is it with a blocking statement and changing the direction of the discussion? Is it with a summary of the recent discussion? Is it to silence a person who is being overly dominant or is it to draw in the group to give feedback to a particular question?  Practice helps to build experience in intervening you can accelerate your competence building by following a good training in facilitation skills.  
A very powerful process for achieving significant and immediate business results is “Work Out” developed in General Electric in the 1990’s. This is a structured process requiring strong facilitation to identify quick hits in process improvements across the business. It brings together a diagonal cross section of stakeholders from different levels of a unit or department who are tasked to address a specific business process or activity and identify concrete actions to take out work that consumes energy, time and resources but does not add value to the customer. It is a very tightly structured process that produces dramatic results in terms of positive energy and cost reduction. It requires strong facilitation to succeed.

Facilitation in Action – Work Out

We have been working with one of our clients for a number of years in helping them develop their leadership team both in terms of team working and also leading a significant culture shift in how they managed the business and middle management. A key element in making a significant step forward was to eliminate non value adding work and free up people resources to focus on the things that will really execute the strategy.  

But achieving a significant step in taking “work out” to release resources required facilitating both major and minor “work out” sessions throughout the organisation. The HR organisation was neither resourced nor equipped skill wise to make this happen. Therefore we supported the development of an internal team of facilitators, including the HR professionals, to be able to facilitate in a professional and skilled way and to lead “work out” sessions with a strong understanding of the process to generate the results desired.

HR and other professionals need to increasingly step away from an expert role and step into a role of facilitating business decision making. These skills are critical to add to your professional tool kit.