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Jobs of the facilitator


What are the jobs and roles of the facilitator?

There is so much to learn about being a facilitator so where to start?  If you're anything like me, it's at 30,000ft.  This blog post will look at the key jobs of the facilitator and how we can understand the role of the facilitator in each job, using metaphor.

I recently purchased and read a magnificent book on facilitation for more experienced practitioners, especially MG Taylor practitioners: 'From the Front of the Room' by Dan Newman.     

There are many excellent things about Dan's book which I will reference in other blog posts. Perhaps the best for me is how he has such great language to describe what the facilitator does. For this blog post, I'll refer to how Dan describes six jobs of the facilitator but will summarise these into five jobs!

1. Scoping and session definition

Spending a lot of time with your client to properly understand and unpack the challenge they're facing and then defining and clarifying the real purpose and boundaries for their collaboration session. 

2. Design

Designing an agenda which delivers on the purpose of your session.

3. Preparation

Getting all the detailed logistics in place, such as venue, catering, supplies, content, equipment and invites.

4. Facilitation

The standing in the front of the room and waving your ams around bit!

5. Value capture

Capturing participant work and the actual event journey through photo, video, graphics and writing so that it can be packaged and then shared back to participants and wider community.

Now, even if you're not an MG Taylor practitioner I imagine most facilitators would do these jobs in different ways for their own group sessions. 

So this is a view of the jobs of the facilitator and each of these are entire topics and sub-topics in themselves.  Indeed entire blog posts will be written about these jobs.  But for now, we think the way to ease into this deeper level of understanding is to share useful metaphors that illustrate some of the core the mindsets, skill-sets and toolsets required for each of these jobs.

So here are each of the 'jobs', re-cast as 'roles', using metaphors.

1. Scoping and session definition

The most useful metaphor to understand here is Facilitator-as-Doctor.  Scoping and definition is about deeply understanding both what IS and ISN"T been said.  It's also about mapping your client's symptoms, with underlying root causes.  A Doctor will go through a process of diagnosis by initially asking open-ended questions and performing simple tests on a patient.  They'll listen and ask more questions, sometimes these are more closed in nature e.g. "Does it hurt here?".  All the while, the Doctor is establishing a hypotheses about the patient's condition and possible tests and treatments.  A good Doctor will also look for what's not being said and what is sometimes conveyed through body language rather than spoken word.  Sometimes the patient can't, or doesn't want to, communicate what they're really feeling or thinking.  The challenge for the doctor is to be able to surface these unspoken needs in a way that is respectful to the patient and moves towards a proper diagnosis.  For the facilitator this is about deep listening, observation, note taking and empathy.  One of my favourite resources on the topic of empathy is this excellent, short animated-video by Brene Brown.              

2. Design

There are several great metaphors for session design, but two that we will use here are Facilitator-as-Architect and Facilitator-as-Author.  

Session design is like architecture in that we need to be able to translate the needs and desires of a client into a blueprint and a model which externalises these needs and desires.  The model we create needs should provide greater shared clarity between the client and the architect in terms of what is and isn't desirable, feasible and viable.  The model should facilitate iteration of the design based on interaction and testing of a model.  And ultimately the model serves a means of translating the client's desires into language and formats that can be used by those who need to actually build the structure.  Without a real model we're left with words and ideas which are really hard to translate into reality.  In session design, this model is typically the agenda with details about activities, timings and logistics.

Session design is like being an author in that we are writing a story.  The story has a structure e.g. opening, complication, resolution.  It has characters and it has a setting.  Dan Newman shares his understanding of stories as not being a linear progression of events, but rather as a series of choices that are presented to the main character in a story (the protagonist).  How the protagonist responds to these choices reveals a lot about his or her character.  These choices are pivotal, transformational events in the life of the protagonist and to the story in general.  So what?  The key point that we like here is that session design as an activity shouldn't isn't linear. Where possible it should produce session designs which present the participants with relevant challenges and how they respond to these challenges reveal a lot about them and their business.  

3. Preparation

Two metaphors I like to use here are Facilitator-as-Pilot and Facilitator-as-Chef.

Preparation is like being a pilot in that before departing, the pilots will systematically go through a series of detailed procedures to ensure that the aircraft is safe and ready for the departure.  This will involve coordination with cabin and ground crew who also play critical roles in preparing the aircraft for a safe and on-time departure.  Having systems like to-do lists, defined roles, skilled facilitation crew and team coordination protocols are essential for preparing for a successful session and this need increases with the scale of the session.

Preparation is like being a chef in that chefs will systematically do all their 'mise-en-place', or prep before a meal service.  They will arrive early to ensure that all supplies have been fulfilled, that the brigade of chefs and front-of-house staff understand the menu and the jobs to be done for the service ahead.  They will then organise stations to do all the prep required for each item on the menu.  The outcome from strong mise-en-place is not only partially prepared food components that only require a final cooking stage or assembly, but also that the chefs themselves are mentally prepared for the madness of food service.  When preparing for a session, and especially one with a facilitation team, the facilitator will work to ensure work and role clarity, that all supplies and equipment are in place and ready and will put in place systems and procedures to ensure that this work is coordinated and contributes to a shared vision.  

For both these metaphors, it's about balancing an eye for the overall picture with an eye for detail.

4. Facilitation: 

Now this is a big topic for which to find a handful of useful metaphors!  The two that might be most useful are Facilitator-as-Guide and Facilitator-as-Storyteller.

The session design process generates a map of the terrain to be navigated, but it must be remembered that this map is not the terrain. What this means is that the conditions that the Facilitator encounters during the actual session may not match the assumptions that were modelled in the session design and that he or she must adapt accordingly.  So like a guide, the facilitator must help his group of participants make an adventurous but safe passage across what might be quite treacherous terrain.  Maybe a massive tree has fallen over a trail and the group must decide how, with the appropriate tools and support from the facilitator, they will overcome this barrier. HOW this is done is probably a lifetime of trial and error.  A few things that help here include: listening and observing for signals that the energy in a group or their conversation is changing and then calling this out, having a plan B in your design if conditions don't pan out as expected, being ready to have participants decide what the best course of action to take is and then supporting them with strong process and resources.

It's fitting that if Facilitator-as-Author is a metaphor for session design, that Facilitator-as-Storyteller is an apt metaphor for the actual Facilitation job.  Dan Newman describes storytelling as one of the most important roles of the facilitator.  He goes on to say that the facilitator's skilful use of stories and metaphor provides participants with new language and new vantage points from which to view, make sense of and then to talk about their problems.  Quite often stories and metaphor also provide a safer way to talk about difficult topics.  The important thing here is to have a story, or stories, at hand that speak to the key themes that relate to the purpose of the session but in a new way.  A good story should transport participants to a different time, place and context before returning them to their current reality. Have a read about the 'Voyage and Return' basic plot here.  I think this is a key story plotline for a good collaborative session. 

5. Value capture:

A journalist captures raw stories using audio, video, photo before editing them and then sharing them, via an editor and a news medium, to an audience.  The journalist, and the editor, are constantly seeking for that interesting and relevant angle that will resonate with their audience.  The news is collected and then curated.  Similarly the facilitator is constantly listening to what is, and isn't, being said by participants and taking extensive notes.  What are the key ideas and words that keep popping up?  The facilitator parses what is being said through the lense of the session purpose.  In addition to written notes there are other media at the facilitator's disposal for capturing the work, the conversation and the experience within a session.  These are typically video, photo and graphic scribing. All of this raw media is captured, indexed, processed, edited, formatted and then fed back to an audience using an appropriate medium.   A final word from Dan Newman who uses the engineering metaphor of 'signal-to-noise' to describe the mindset for value capture. There is plenty of 'noise' that's produced in a session - irrelevant or less useful data - and our job is to filter out the 'signal' - the relevant and useful bits.  Doing this requires having a strong sense of the purpose of the session and in particular what ideas will make the impact of the session endure over a longer time horizon. 


What do you think about the metaphors we've used?  Do they make sense?  What other metaphors might you use to describe the roles of the facilitator?  Please share them in the comments below!