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How to Facilitate Smart People and Prevent them from Becoming a Dumb Group


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Managing Teams
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By Tom Davidson

Facilitation means more than going to the flip chart or whiteboard and picking up the pen. Contemporary organizations get most of their work done through work teams, and successful leaders need to know how to step into the role of facilitator, not just scribing notes for the rest of the team but also helping accomplish their goal with finesse.

The facilitator’s job is unique in that the leader is there to create an environment conducive to open dialogue, questions, and creative thinking. The work of the group also has to be documented so that it can be shared and applied later, but that’s not the most important function of the facilitator.

Rarely should the facilitator voice an opinion, as that marks that person as possibly having his or her own agenda. So as a leader, be careful when you are the formal leader and when you are the facilitator. To participate fully, consider bringing in an outside person to facilitate the meeting.

When you choose to facilitate a team or work group, here are more than a dozen practical principles that everyday leaders should know, use, and teach others.

  1. Come prepared with questions that will focus the conversation on the goal of the event. These won’t be your only questions, but they will serve as a springboard for the conversation and get it off on the right track.
  2. Don’t assume everyone understands the objective the same way. Clarify the central objective of the meeting, and write it down where people can see it and you can refer to it as needed.
  3. State a few “ground rules” (i.e., norms of behavior) for the session (i.e., want to hear from everyone as equally as possible, no need to criticize any idea but OK to ask questions for clarity, be as succinct as possible to save time and allow room for others’ ideas), and ask if the group would like other ground rules as well. A few ground rules go a long way.
  4. State a few “ground rules” (i.e., norms of behavior) for the session (i.e., want to hear from everyone as equally as possible, no need to criticize any idea but OK to ask questions for clarity, be as succinct as possible to save time and allow room for others’ ideas), and ask if the group would like other ground rules as well. A few ground rules go a long way.
  5. Do your best to capture ideas in the participants’ exact words. When capturing ideas, you may need to restate what you heard if it is not succinct, but check with the author of the idea or suggestion before recording it. Otherwise they may think you are putting words in their mouth or changing their idea to yours.
  6. When asking questions, use the open-ended variety that start with “what” or “how” to dig deeper (e.g., “What do you mean by that exactly?” or “How would you say that in a few words?”) and closed-ended questions that invite “yes” or “no” to narrow down options or check agreement (e.g., “Is this what you are saying?” or “Is that the most important issue?”).
  7. Role model what you want the group to be and do. If you want high-energy and fast-paced, then be high-energy and fast-paced. If you want thoughtful and reflective, then be thoughtful and reflective. Generally, the group will reflect the facilitator as they often do the leader.
  8. Acknowledge ideas with regularity by saying “Thank you,” “Great input,” or “That’s just the sort of thing we’re looking for.”
  9. Never inadvertently make anyone feel “wrong” by saying, “That’s not what we’re here for” or “That’s a side trail.” Try saying, “That’s a great point, now what do you think about x?” or “Let’s put that on the agenda for next time.”
  10. Post the rules of brainstorming and review them briefly. Not everyone knows what these are, or they may have a different interpretation. Here is a one-sheet on brainstorming that might help.
  11. Consider that the group is likely to have a mix of extraverts (who think out loud) and introverts (who think before they speak). One technique for this is to give everyone a minute or two to write down their thoughts on the given question or subject, and then open the floor for discussion. A related technique is to “go around” the circle so that everyone gets “a turn” and the extraverts don’t overwhelm the group.
  12. Don’t just do something; stand there! There are times when the best thing to do is be quiet, especially if the group is on a roll without your help. This is also important for letting people think, without you responding or asking a question too quickly. In addition, this helps the introverts gather momentum to say something, and it allows the group to be less dependent on the facilitator to drag everything out of them.
  13. If the group is stuck, you don’t have to have all the answers. You may have to ask the group for help by saying something like, “What do you think we should do here?” or “We seem to be getting off track a lot, what does the group suggest we do?”
  14. Employ the “parking lot,” which is a separate and plainly visible list of items, issues and concerns that cannot be answered or discussed without going too far off track.

Work teams are often teaming with great ideas and needed perspectives, but group dynamics, strong personalities, and competing agendas can turn a room full of smart people into a “dumb” group if they are not well facilitated. You can prevent this from happening but not without the mindset and the skill sets of a facilitator. It’s the nature of teams, and it’s the nature of leadership.


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