The Value of Facilitation
May 29, 2017 | Facilitators
by ExperiencePoint

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Facilitation guru Michael Wilkinson once said: “You can achieve more effective results when solutions are created, understood and accepted by the people impacted.”

As one can imagine, there are a number of ways to educate, enlighten and empower people to create solutions meant to drive positive impact in the world. We often reference the importance of the “what to do’s” and “how to be’s” when taking a human-centered approach to both creating and realizing those great solutions. 

“How we get there” is an equally important consideration. From our point of view, the most effective vehicle to build capability that results in lasting impact isn’t a consultant, designer or teacher, but a facilitator. 

This isn’t just semantics; it’s a word we use deliberately. While facilitators, consultants and teachers all play important roles, they’re different roles.

To understand why ExperiencePoint relies on facilitators to deliver our programs, it’s helpful to take a closer look at the primary function each of these roles serves:

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Consultants are brought in to lend their expertise and insights. It’s typically a short-term engagement with a finite outcome—they’re there to solve your problem. They might inspire you with their ideas, but the main goal is to come up with the ideas and solutions themselves. You pay consultants for their insights.

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Teachers focus on setting you up to succeed by giving you examples, constructive models, a point of view based on their study of the subject and solutions when you get stuck. Essentially, they’re there to “drop some knowledge.” You pay teachers to give you the answers.

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Facilitators focus on setting you up to learn. They do that by asking questions and conducting activities that reveal your natural behaviors—behaviors that might be getting in your way. They’re there to help you recognize your mistakes, discover how to get past them and develop the confidence to try again. You pay facilitators to build capabilities.

Each of these roles serves a purpose and comes from a place of good intention. For example, the consultant’s good intent is to inspire you with their ideas. When you’re stuck or struggling, they’ll tell you, “Here’s what I would do.” But since they come up with the insights themselves, it’s not something you can reproduce on your own. You have to go back to them again and again when you have new challenges or need new ideas.

With their good intent to set you up for success, teachers approach their clients differently. They’re giving you the benefit of their depth of knowledge. If you’re stuck or getting off track, they’ll say, “Here are some more examples of how people have handled these kinds of situations.” But providing answers and others’ solutions to challenges doesn’t break down the counterproductive behavior barriers that could be getting in your way. This is why constructive models don’t always get you very far; if you don’t have the opportunity to learn from your failures, you’ll keep tripping up.

With a goal of building your capabilities, facilitators take a different approach when you’re stuck with a problem. They’ll say, “Let's look at the work you've done thus far," and then offer some reproducible structure—often in the form of a question—that helps you recognize where your challenge comes from and how you can navigate that challenge.

Facilitators encourage you to try (and potentially fail) again in order to elevate your confidence and allow you to make your own connections. A facilitator’s mindset is that the knowledge doesn’t necessarily live within you, but the capability does.

If what you’re delivering doesn’t require breaking down bad behaviors—a course in programming, for example—then teaching might be the best way to go. If the organization needs a quick, one-time result, a consultant might be the best option. But if they ever want to be able do it themselves, they need a facilitator.

Failure and Capability Building

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When we talk about failure, people can get a little worried. Failure sounds like a pretty risky thing. But a good facilitator knows how to mete out failure so that a person can benefit from it, and how to make it “safe” to fail. Yes, the intent is for people to learn from their mistakes, but it’s not just about setting people up for a fall, over and over again. The art of effective facilitation is in finding the right mix. So while facilitators ask questions and conduct activities where failure will happen, there is a scaffolding in place and a provocation that starts with the knowledge the participant already has.

This is also why the “safe spaces” of the ExperienceChange and ExperienceInnovation workshops and simulation environments are so crucial. Participants get to experience what failure is like without having to face massive risk or damage to the ego.

In fact, failure is key to both of these learning experiences. ExperienceChange, for example, is all about closing the knowing-doing gap. Having knowledge, examples and models of how to lead change doesn’t mean you’ll do it effectively. Only after someone has failed and then recognized and broken down their limiting behaviors does it make sense to introduce a constructive model. 

And it’s almost impossible to separate facilitation from the ExperienceInnovation simulation, which is “an assault on what you think you know.” Practice is central to the experience, and the value of practice is in learning from mistakes.

With both, the facilitator’s role is to allow people to demonstrate their natural behavior and then hold it up to a mirror for reflection so they can realize what’s standing in their way. As participants try, fail and then recognize their mistakes, the facilitator says, Here are some ways to get past it; now try again. Because the participants develop confidence and make their own connections, the end result isn’t just a one-time outcome. It’s the capability to keep delivering good outcomes again and again.

Maintaining a Facilitation Mindset

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Many people think they’re facilitating when what they’re really doing is teaching. Here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Be aware of your reflexes. When someone asks a question, do you instinctively answer?

  • Unlike a teacher, a facilitator is responsible for extracting knowledge from the room, not “dropping knowledge.” The facilitator’s bias is towards learning, not instructing.

  • Setting people up to fail isn’t easy, but remember, the goal is to stretch, not break. Give them opportunities to do well, and acknowledge it when they do well.

  • Make it clear that failure isn’t a catastrophe, and encourage a healthy respect for the humility that’s present in the learning process. As one of our clients recently shared with us, “We have long been a successful knowing organization. We can maintain that mindset and be a broke knowing organization. Or, we can become a learning organization."

It’s often a lot easier just to lay out the answers for people, but don’t get seduced into teaching or designing. A great facilitator facilitates.