The Practicalities of Facilitation

This section was developed following a question raised by one of the visitors to the site. It attempts to provide some practical insight into the process of facilitation.

The sections below are as follows;

1.The Use of Facilitation - an outline of the situations in which facilitation can be used.

2.Answering the Sceptics - aspects of introducing a process approach

3.Delivering the Results - looking at the time and effort required

4.The Key Aim - looking at the most important aspect of facilitating a workshop

5.The Business Planning Process - an example of using a process

6.The Final Product - producing typical deliverables


Facilitation can be used in a wide variety of situations ranging from large organisations determining their policy and strategic thinking through to small organisations looking to develop specific plans. All meetings can potentially benefit from the use of facilitated processes as it offers a way of making them more efficient, of reducing the time spent discussing items not relevant to the task in hand and of creating a sense of achievement amongst the participants as they reach conclusions in a more rigourous and orderly way.

Facilitation can also be used across a range of different working environments and can show the greatest benefits in areas where traditionally the debate has taken place within an adversarial context. With time, within a group, the facilitators role should diminish as the group naturally operates using processes and tools and techniques to reach decisions. It is, however, important to see facilitation as only part of a wider process of culture change which includes openness, honesty, a blame free environment with benefits of teamwork fully realised (see related web pages).

Although each facilitated session is different because it potentially requires a different process with different aims there are a lot of similarities in the way in which a typical workshop or session develops. The sections below endeavor to give a feel for the practicalities of facilitating a workshop using the vehicle of the Business Planning Process by way of an example.


In each organisation there are frequently sceptics who see nothing wrong with the "traditional methods" or "maintaining the status quo". This argument is most frequently used where an organisation is currently very successful, however, continued lack of recognition that the world has changed will eventually lead to others overtaking even the most successful of organisations. If there is adequate experience available it can be useful to construct a simple graph at he flip chart to identify the future outcome of an organisation relative to others. In one real example on which this graph is based the overtake position was only five years away.

It is often difficult for people to fully appreciate the benefits of a facilitated process driven session unless they experience such an approach first hand. Few will, however, deny the use of a single day to experiment with an alternative way forward. A workshop can, therefore, be frequently set up on the simple basis that if at the end of the day the participants feel they have gained little they should return to their old methods. Experience to date has shown that no one will wish to return to the traditional methods once they have had the opportunity to try the new approach.


The time it takes for a workshop to complete its task will depend on the aims of the session, however, many who are new to such methods seek some guidance as to how long they take in practice. A few examples will hopefully give an indication.

•A quick brainstorm to open up some new ideas - ½ hour to 1 hour

•A Quality Improvement Team resolving a problem - about 5 hours possibly spread over time

•A team trying to determine new methods of future working - a 1-2 day workshop

•A business planning workshop - 3+ days

To each of the above a period of time needs to be added to write up the material, however, if the flip chart output is retained in a logical order then the task will not be two onerous requiring about a day and a half for one person to write up and prepare graphics from the output of a 3 day workshop. In addition to this a short period will be required before any workshop for the leader of the group and the facilitator to get together to discuss the basis on which they are going to proceed.


The key aim during a typical facilitated workshop is to maintain the "buy-in" of all those participating. Once a participant is no longer in agreement with the way forward the session is effectively lost. To achieve the necessary "buy-in" the facilitator should start very slowly ensuring that the overall aims for the workshop are agreed. It is not uncommon to be given an aim by the leader only to find that the group disagree with the fundamental aim - proceeding down the original route would simply have led to wasted time and effort. Determining the aim is often best achieved by placing the initial aim on the flip chart and then seeking alternative phrases which can be listed, adjusted and added to the original aim with other elements taken out as the discussion proceeds. As with all of the workshop the facilitator must remain totally neutral.

Following the aim the process for the workshop should be agreed. Frequently this can be done by the facilitator suggesting a possible process such as the business planning process illustrated on the web site. The participants should then be given the opportunity to suggest variations. In general the participants often accept the proposed way forward, however, there can be sessions where someone will suggest a completely different process and the group will confirmed that they prefer to take that route. The facilitator then needs to quickly adapt to the new process! Most of the development of the business planning process has come from suggestions of participants at various workshops and the facilitator frequently benefits when someone challenges a process as this often gives an insight into possible alternatives for future use.

There is frequently a lot of discussion amongst facilitators on the question of the extent of intervention in a session by a facilitator. Experience has shown that the extent of intervention needs to vary considerably from one session to another. With a group that is not used to facilitation there will need to be almost continuous guidance from the facilitator, while a group who are used to process techniques may only require the occasional intervention to help keep them on track. Irrespective of the extent of intervention the facilitator should ensure that;

•all members of the group participate on an approximately equal basis

•the process is not so rigourously applied that it stamps out lateral discussion of potential use

•the group does not feel over facilitated

•the leader is able to play their role in ensuring the group is meeting is deliverables


The notes that follow are based on experience from workshops using the Business Planning Process identified in elsewhere in the web pages, however, as noted above there are likely to be similarities between this and any facilitated session. The various tools referred to below are all covered within the web pages on Facilitation, Tools and Techniques.

The Vision:

The business planning process begins with the Vision. Following and explanation of what is meant by the Vision, a brainstorm can be used to identify possible key words and phrases to go into a Vision statement. These can be grouped and participants asked to suggest phrases which encompass the spirit of the words within the groups. If there is obviously too much material some form of reduction needs to place through ranking and rating the suggested groups. Combining the phrases begins to create the final vision where participants can then be asked to suggest ways of reducing the word count to make the Vision as succinct and memorable as possible. It is possible for alternative Visions to emerge from this process in which case they will need to be analysed by the group using one of the available analysis tools such as Force Field or Black Ball analysis. Using these tools it is possible to determine which one of possibly two opposing Visions should be used. The "buy-in" of all participants will still be maintained because each used the group to determine the basis for making the judgement and then uses their own scoring to determine the outcome.

As discussed, throughout the entire business planning process "buy-in" needs to be maintained. As part of this the participants should be advised that if at any time they consider the Vision is leading them down the wrong path they can ask to review that Vision. This can be required in some cases where the group, some way into the process discovers that their original Vision was too broad or too narrow or too detailed.

The Mission:

A similar process can be used to develop the Mission, however, since it must flow from the needs of the Vision the number of options is likely to be more limited and the process tends to flow somewhat more quickly. I always explain how the Mission needs to be short and memorable whilst providing a broad route map between now and the Vision. An example developed as part of a facilitated process was;

"To transform the way the UK process engineering and construction industry executes projects for the process and energy sectors."

The Goals or Aims and the Critical Success Factors:

Typically participants have great difficulty in initially differentiating between goal/aims and critical success factors (CSF).

Frequently the easiest way forward is to allow a brainstorm in which both of these elements are allowed. Once the list is in place the items on the list can be categorised often with a little help from the facilitator. It is often best as part of this categorisation to re-write the words onto new flip chart sheets under each of the headings. To distinguish between goals/aims and CSF a simple question can be asked;

"Is it desirable or essential?"

This provides a kernel of words under each of the headings which a new brainstorm can enlarge now that the meaning of Goals/Aims and CSF is fully understood. Once a list has been generated ranking and rating will determine which should be incorporated in the final deliverable. Obviously it is also essential to ensure at this stage that all Goals/Aims and CSF fit within a step on the way to the Vision and work within the overall approach of the Mission.

The Objectives:

Objectives re-define the Aims and CSF into specific items categorised by the way in which the organisation works. This is always the most difficult stage, but some simple examples may be useful.

If the aim is the elimination of waste through inefficient business processes then one objective may well be to eliminate waste in certain specific business processes to act as a trial. Objectives are likely to fall within the traditional functional areas such as communications, marketing, finance and so on. So an aim of improving customer relations could be translated into two objectives of (say);

•having customers understanding the workings of an organisation (which may have as a strategy the production of newsheets to be sent to customers)

•having in place a means of measuring customer satisfaction.

Either one of these objectives could meet in part other aims. Once objectives have, however, been defined it is essential to check back and establish that they will collectively meet the overall aims and CSF. Typically there would be one or two objectives for each of the key functional areas of an organisation.

The Strategies:

If the preceding stages have been rigourously completed the strategies always appear to be the easiest stage to facilitate. There appears to be a natural human tendency to answer how something can be achieved before identifying what is to be achieved. Frequently strategies are raised as part of the brainstorming session to identify the Aims and CSF and will need to be retained on a separate sheet until this stage of the process. The facilitator is likely to be required to further re-iterate at this stage the differences between what needs to be done and how it is to be achieved.

Participants need to be reminded that for each strategy there is always a risk of non completion and it is frequently useful at this stage to identify the likelihood of failing to complete a strategy, the impact of non completion or partial completion and mitigating or alternative actions. If the strategy relates back to a CSF then there is even more reason to ensure that there are mitigating alternatives.

The Planning and Subsequent Stages:

The tabular form shown elsewhere on the web pages is an effective if a little tedious. It, however, provides a rigourous method of arriving at a set of detail plans, resources and costs to meet the strategies. Each strategy needs to be identified and the specific actions determined along with an estimate of resources and costs as well as identifying individual targets / deliverables. The summation of the resources and costs allows for a budget check which can then lead to a review of the Vision, Mission and so on. The summation of the resources will also allow the structural requirements of an organisation to be checked and a communications map to be produced. Examples of these are included below, although the words are purposely left a little unclear as they are based on real examples.

This creates a full definition of the workings of the organisation. Undertaken to the full these final stages of the process will take 50% of the time, although by this stage it is usual to find that there is a willingness amongst the participants to keep the process moving apace as they begin to see the end in sight and full and clear plan developing.


The above process can produce a prodigious amount of information and it is essential that it is clearly charted as the process proceeds with flip chart pages hung in order round the walls. Experience has shown that the final plan can be derived from the output with little or no addition. The natural structure of the process leads automatically to a structured deliverable and most recipients appear to prefer a bullet point style of presentation with graphics re-drawn directly from the flip chart pages.

While the above is based on the Business Planning Process most facilitated sessions operate on a similar basis and, therefore require a similar approach. Where a group is new to facilitation extra time should be allowed for acclimatisation to the new way of working. With new groups, in particular, it can be very useful brainstorming a workshop or session charter before the real business gets underway.