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What is the Power of Facilitation, and Why is it Important?

“Never doubt that a small group of committed people
can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”

Margaret Mead

From the beginning of human history, questions about how we organize ourselves, create and innovate, strategize, make decisions and resolve disputes have been considered by philosophers, academics and thought leaders. From Plato’s writings on a just society to Aristotle’s methods of inquiry; from Chester Bernard’s Functions of an Executive to Peter Senge’s theories on leadership, the foundational belief is that humans have the capacity to interact and think together. And when we do, we can achieve amazing results. The power of facilitation is exactly that. Creating the space, the time and the conditions for people to think together, create together, solve problems together and design a brighter future together. The emphasis is always on “together”.

“Once a society loses this capacity [for dialogue] all that is left is a cacophony of voices battling it out to see who wins and who loses. There is no capacity to go deeper, to find a deeper meaning that transcends individual views and self- interest. It seems reasonable to ask whether many of our deeper problems in governing ourselves today, the so-called ‘gridlock’ and loss of mutual respect and caring…might not stem from this lost capacity to talk to one another, to think together as part of a large community.”

Peter Senge

There are many examples in history of how misinterpretation, miscommunication and misunderstandings have led to catastrophic results. Wars, takeovers, failures, etc., prove what can go wrong when we do not think together effectively. But what about all of missed opportunities to achieve amazing results. What about the cure that never became mainstream medicine, the invention that never saw the light of day, the youth centre that never got built or the process improvement that was never seen by senior management? We should not just learn from the colossal mistakes. We must also consider the ‘what ifs’, those lost opportunities that we don’t yet know about.

This book is designed to explore how the power of facilitation can help us think together more effectively for better results. It provides examples of how the power of facilitation can help avoid the ‘misses’—misinterpretations, miscommunication and misunderstanding. Facilitation has the power to ensure all voices are heard, all possibilities are explored, and no opportunities are wasted.

So, what is facilitation anyway?

One question we are often asked is, “What is Facilitation? Is it a philosophy, a skill, a process or a profession?” The short answer is “Yes, it is all of these.”

“Meaning is all we want. Choices are all we make. Relationships are all we have.”

Sandy Schuman

Facilitation is a Philosophy. It is the fundamental belief in the innate ability of people to collaborate. It is the philosophical underpinning of all civilized societies and most political movements. It is the belief in the wisdom and abilities of people. It is also the belief that not only are two heads better than one, but that when groups of people share ideas 1+1+1≠3. It is the understanding that when three people share their ideas, they build on each other’s concepts, expand their own and each other’s thinking and create new ideas. It is the deep-seated conviction that 1+1+1=infinity.

Facilitation is a Skill. While everyone has the ability to enter into authentic and intentional conversations, we don’t always do it. In fact, the examples of the power of facilitation provided in this book are unfortunately the exception rather than the rule. Facilitative skills are a prerequisite for leaders, communicators, educators and politicians. Facilitative skills are, however, often overlooked, passed over, ignored or forgotten in our race for efficiency, perfection, innovation and indoctrination. Facilitative skills are often seen as simple techniques that don’t actually need training or practice, techniques that are an obvious extension of a leader or manager’s positional ability. That fact, we argue, could not be further from the truth. As with any skill, facilitation needs to be understood, learnt and practised.

We often over-estimate the importance of the leader and downplay the importance of leadership.

Facilitation is a Process. In order to help people exercise their innate facilitative abilities, specific processes have been created, and continue to be created, to support people to think together. These processes have been developed using concepts from the behavioural sciences and anthropology. The processes are based on an understanding of the creative process, of group dynamics and of the generative power of original questions. Often these processes are simple and easy to apply, once their phenomenological basis is understood. Other times they have very subtle requirements that, if not managed expertly, can hinder more than they help. Some of these processes are described in this book. Some take years of study and practice to perfect. But as the body of knowledge in facilitation expands, we hope that the understanding and appropriate use of these processes will also expand.

The Power of Facilitation frees people to speak and explore their views and ideas. It allows results to emerge rather than be orchestrated.

Facilitation is a Profession. Individuals who hold the philosophy of facilitation, sometimes like a religion, have created the profession with the requisite body of knowledge, code of ethics, competencies and professional certifications, with an international body to hold it all together. This body is the International Association of Facilitators (IAF). Its members dedicate themselves to the art and science of facilitation and see it exactly like that—an art AND a science. Professional facilitators are specialists in harnessing the power of facilitation to help individuals, groups, organizations and societies engage in intentional conversations, solve unsolvable problems, resolve deep-seated conflicts, innovate, improve and thrive.

“Organizations are no longer static, hierarchical structures that need managing and controlling, but rather are dynamic, fluid networks of interconnected players that must be engaged by mission and opportunity.”

Ming Zeng in Smart Business

While facilitation is still a rather amorphus concept, harnessing its power is not rocket science. Facilitation brings people together and gives them the time and space to interact with themselves and others. It empowers the magic of collaborative human ingenuity. In our experience, facilitation has the power to profoundly transform individuals, groups and teams, organizations and communities, and even whole societies. Even for those of us who already fanatically believe in the power of facilitation, we are continuously amazed at its ability to create positive, powerful and lasting change.

This book seeks to illustrate the power of facilitation by sharing stories and examples of how facilitation has made a lasting impact in achieving a variety of goals, and in a variety of contexts around the world.

 What’s in this book?

This book was a collaborative effort of global thought leaders in facilitation. Each chapter looks at the power of facilitation in the different aspects of business, community, life and society. It gives examples of how it helps people think together to achieve amazing and impactful results. It also gives examples of how to use its power to think better on your own.

“What gets co-constructed…will be valued and valuable to the human system for one overarching reason: the quality of the ‘relational space’ from which the new constructions of the future are nurtured makes a difference that makes the difference.”

David L Cooperrider

The chapters are organized starting with how the power of facilitation can help to create positive, sustainable change in organizations, help organizations think strategically and critically and help resolve conflicts. The final few chapters look at how the power of facilitation can do more than solve specific problems or achieve specific goals; they reflect on how facilitation can be used to help individuals, teams and society as a whole to think together, grow and innovate.

“Working with groups can be difficult in innumerable ways, but working without groups is nearly impossible.”

Sandor Schuman & John Rohrbaugh

The first chapter focuses on the power of facilitation in strategy development and implementation. There are hundreds of books about strategic planning with copious tools and templates explaining how to determine your envisioned future and strategic priorities. What those books don’t tell you is how to authentically and practically engage key people in a way that results in better outcomes and more transformational impacts. This chapter focuses on a collaborative push-and-pull process, based on the abundance mind-set, with a clear bias towards action and innovation. The power of facilitation can help ensure your Strategic Plan or goals are backed and implemented by cheerleaders both inside and outside your organization.

“The thing I hate about an argument is that it always interrupts a discussion”

G.K. Chesterton

The second chapter explores the power of facilitation in successful change and organisational transformation initiatives. The authors take us through three success stories that demonstrate that change comes about one conversation at a time and organizations become world class one person at a time. They also examine the benefits of an abundance mind-set in growing facilitation skills across organizations. They show how expanding people’s understanding of the power of facilitation helps the entire organization transform through sustainable and positive change. Creating deep and lasting change requires commitment from all levels and corners of the organization. This chapter shows how the power of facilitation can make that happen.

The third chapter looks at the power of facilitation and critical thinking, and examines how questioning assumptions and reasoning through logic and diversity of thought can help individuals, groups, organizations and communities reach more sustainable conclusions. The author reminds us that successful companies begin and end with the people inside and outside the organization. He examines how critical thinking, in concert with communication, collaboration and creativity/innovation, can amplify the power of facilitation.

“The discipline of team learning starts with ‘dialogue’, the capacity of members of a team to suspend assumptions and enter into a genuine ‘thinking together’. To the Greeks, ‘dialogos’ meant a free-flowing of meaning through a group, allowing the group to discover insights not attainable individually…[it] also involves learning how to recognize the patterns of interaction in teams that undermine learning.”

Peter Senge

The fourth chapter explores the power of facilitation in resolving conflicts. Using Mary Parker Follett’s famous quote, “All polishing is done by friction,” this chapter shows how the power of facilitation ensures the friction polishes rather than destroys human relationships. Examples from the field, including large-scale societal conflicts, show how facilitation can be an enabler of positive public dialogues and crucial conversations. Facilitation enables individuals, groups and societal factions embrace the notion of constructive conflict—moving from ‘beat and defeat’ to ‘together we can’.

“It is strange that for every new piece of technology, we get a manual on how to use it. Except for humans. We come into this world to face the puzzles of existence without any manual called, How to Be a human Being.”

R. Brian Stanfield

The fifth chapter examines the power of facilitation in growing high performance teams. The author explores how process facilitation can help a disparate group of individuals, together for a short period of time, fruitfully collaborate like a high-performance team. The chapter looks at how facilitative processes can impact the development and interaction of the group, how it accelerates performance and how it can help groups evolve into teams.

The sixth chapter examines the interface between facilitation and communication and how the power of facilitation can help spread the message and help expand understanding, for both the originator(s) and the receiver(s) of the message. The authors examine what it takes to align people behind change, the importance of context and how a big picture can help avoid analysis paralysis.

The seventh chapter is about the power of facilitation in promoting personal and professional growth. Many people mistakenly think that facilitative thinking is only something you help others do. This chapter explores the use of self-facilitation for personal reflection and for charting your own journey and it aims to strengthen your understanding of the power of facilitation in creating big, meaningful lives. Three different creative personal planning processes are discussed in detail with examples with which to experiment.

The eighth chapter wraps up our exploration of the power of facilitation by examining the benefits of living a facilitative lifestyle. The authors make a case for facilitation and a case for you. They purport that as humans perpetually evolve, we will need to make sense of what emerges. We will need to keep coming together to make collective meaning of new realities and from that, prioritise our actions. This thought-provoking chapter brings us back to first principles and reminds us of the potential the power of facilitation can have in our lives.

The Appendices at the end of the book are meant as references for readers. Appendix A provides descriptions of the facilitation processes discussed in the chapters in the order in which they appear. Appendix B provides recommendations for further reading, important references and suggested blogs and websites that the authors recommend for those who want to learn more about process facilitation and collaborative processes.

Why now?

A global pandemic, economic upheaval, leadership changes and system level changes that rival those not seen since the First and Second World Wars. But whether we think back on this as a time of growth, chaos or disruption, it is what we do next that will define the outcomes.

Today, maybe more than any point in our history, facilitation—the philosophy, the skill, the process and even the profession—is critical to our continued evolution as individuals, as groups, as organizations and as societies. To survive and thrive, we need to harness the power of facilitation to help us hold the authentic and intentional conversations that will help us understand ourselves, each other and the world around us. Thinking together is the only way we will be able to grow through the chaos and disruption and end up in a better place.

Our collective purpose of writing this book was to inspire you, the reader, to discover and unleash the power of facilitation in yourself and in others. All solutions start with a conversation. This book is intended to help you begin your own very interesting conversations and our hope is that this book will act as the catalyst to help you do that. We also hope that you will be inspired to weave facilitation and facilitative principles throughout your life, your interactions, your thinking, your decision-making and your actions. But most of all we hope that you will take the ideas, examples and concepts described in the following chapters and apply them in your groups, organizations and communities.

Happy reading!

By Martin Gilbraith

Certified Professional Facilitator | Master, ICA:UK Associate, #FacPower author, FRSA.