We needed to bring our 120 staff together—for a celebration, but also to prepare for the future. The project had been passed around the organization. Finally, we took it on in the Communications Team. Still, many people were sceptical, saying that they we’re not going to go… And yet, we delivered a huge (multi-award-winning) success.
What made the difference? We brought in external help—and we used the power of facilitation to bring our communications and engagement strategy to life. We were able to take storytelling in the organization to the next level. People felt enabled to tell their own story: past, present and future. And we’re still talking about it today. We should do it again.Joanna Anstey on #ETF20.
Why Facilitation is Essential to the Communication Professional and Vice Versa
Listen! Listen to learn. Listen to be amazed. If you’re not learning, if you’re not feeling amazed—or at least perplexed—you’re not listening. Curiosity matters.Ginger D. Homan
In this chapter, we explore the power of facilitation as applied to the field of professional communication — and to a lesser extent also the power of professional communication practice as applied to facilitation. We believe there is a unique opportunity to apply these professional skills and competencies in partnership with each other. We will share stories of leaders who are doing just that, in their practices, in different parts of the world. We will share a set of case studies illustrating the power of combining these professional approaches, including some practical ideas that you can put to use immediately. Our hope is, in line with the introduction to the book, to reduce misinterpretations, miscommunications and misunderstandings and show the power of collaboration.
We hope at the end that you’ll join Kasha Dougall, one of the communications professionals we interviewed, in saying: “I can’t complete parts of my job without calling upon the services of a facilitator”—or perhaps you’ll decide that you’d like to be that facilitator!
We’ve included insights from over twenty international practitioners we talked to as part of the research for this chapter. Some of them also shared favourite quotes from a range of writers and thinkers, and we’ve interspersed some of these too.
Like many ideas in this book, we see this chapter as the beginning of a conversation, not the end—a learning journey. We encourage you to use the concepts we discuss as an opportunity to strike up a conversation with others about the power of facilitation in communications and engagement. In our experience communicating with others, through conversations, is the fastest way to deepen knowledge, create connection and enhance collaboration.
The Frameworks in Which We Work
What sets professions apart from other endeavours, arguably, is that they apply a consistent approach to the challenges that fall within their fields of expertise.
I am always surprised about the huge difference in the quality of reflections and dialogue a skilled facilitator makes. I attend many meetings every day and many with little results because of unclear objectives, poor meeting facilitation and lack of clear conclusions.Pelle Nilsson
To the outsider, the cornerstone of professional practice is trust. It is the reason why people hire or engage other people. You trust that the accountant will do the sums accurately, that the doctor will diagnose diligently, and so on. Yet, different professional bodies use different terminologies to describe their competencies.
The International Association of Facilitators (IAF) has a well-defined competency framework. This helps to guide professionals as they go about their work—helping clients—through the practice of facilitation.i
The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) the Global Standard of the Communication Profession, where a set of principles are articulated—against which professionals can test their competence.ii
The Power of Partnership
To help demonstrate the power of partnership, we’ll use six practical examples to illustrate the power of facilitation in professional communications— one for each of the two constants and four principles of the IABC’s Global Standard also sometimes referred as #ECCASE:
- Ethics: How might you tackle a tricky challenge using the Power of Facilitation and the Focus Conversation method?
- Consistency: Is consistency the key to award-winning work?
- Context: Why it matters – from the boardroom to the frontline.
- Analysis: Can a big picture help you avoid analysis paralysis?
- Strategy: What is a strategy horizon and how can it help your organization?
- Engagement: How might you create engagement that matters?
Like with a good cookbook, don’t try all the recipes at once. Rather, dip in and out of this section for best results. Each idea is shared to help spark ideas and conversations. If you come up with new insights and examples, be sure to share using the #FacPower hashtag.
1. Ethics: How Might You Tackle a Tricky Challenge?
Communication professionals adopt the highest standards of professional behaviour.The IABC Global Standard
Ethics is the first constant in professional communication practice.
A code of ethics is a practical tool to help guide your professional practice. Both IAF and IABC have codes that are short and to the point—and which their members commit to uphold. Both are easy to find with a simple web search, or look for the links in the resource section at the end of the chapter.
We’ll focus here on how you can bring these alive in your own practice. That is because, while codes are useful on paper, they become really powerful when they’re taken into conversation. It is through questioning that real-life ethical dilemmas can be explored and negotiated.
There’s a tension within this idea though, which might come as a surprise to some facilitators who make a living working with questions! Communications professionals may be reluctant to approach this type of dialogue as they are often trained as spokespeople. An approach very different to facilitation. Why might this be? We spoke to an international expert on ethical business practice, Ruth Steinholtz (and incidentally one of our clients), about this. And as she observed:
Organizations tend to ignore or marginalize people who ask questions. They are labelled as not being team players.Ruth Steinholtz
You too might have found that yourself if you asked one question too many at an inopportune moment.
This is where the power of facilitation truly comes into play—because asking questions is the very essence of facilitation and allows groups to explore their answers for mutual benefit.
Here are some of the questions Steinholtz (and her co-author Professor Chris Hodges OBE) recommends for leaders wanting to implement ethical business practice:
- Have we defined the essential ethical purpose of our organization?
- Have we defined and consistently championed ethical values?
- Do our systems result in the right people being “on the bus” and in the right jobs?
- Are our leaders and board members able to challenge each other and hold each other to account?
Great questions. But they could be daunting, and difficult to answer (and ask), without some conversation to contextualize them. Being able to handle ethics is at the very core of the practice of both professions—in fact, for any profession. One way to help navigate those hard conversations is a proven technique known as the ‘ToP’ Focused Conversation method, built on a model of human behaviour known as ORID for short, reminding you of each stage of the process; Objective, Reflective, Interpretive, Decisional.
It is an integral part of the Institute of Cultural Affairs’ Technology of Participation (ToP) methodology, and it is described in Appendix A where you can also find more resources for exploring ethics and ethical dilemmas.
2. Consistency: The Key to Award-Winning Work?
Acting as the organization’s voice, a communication professional expresses a single, consistent story for internal and external audiences.The IABC Global Standard
After Ethics, the other constant in professional communication practice is that tools and techniques—and narratives—are applied consistently.
As Ron Fuchs told us when we spoke to him: “Comms has to be consistent and constant to work”. As he also pointed out “People often think that they can communicate once, and they’re done”.
In this section, we’ll look at the power of facilitation in the context of consistent practice. You may be sceptically thinking, “Doesn’t that conflict with the mantras about ‘change’ being the name of the game, and that in facilitation every intervention must be tailored to its particular context?”
To be clear, by consistency we’re not talking about what in outdated communication practice was called “cascading”—where a uniform message was expected to be repeated through the layers of the organization. See the reading list at the end for a useful book about this, titled From Cascade to Conversation by Katie Macaulay.
‘Change is the only constant’ sounds of-the-moment, but it is in fact an assertion from Heraclitus of Ephesus, made some 2,500 years ago. More recently, you might have come across the Cluetrain Manifestoiii (and the Agile Manifestoiv)—and again, you might be surprised how old they are too (relatively speaking).
So, what can facilitation offer in this context? Rebecca Sutherns, in her facilitation guide, Nimble: Off Script But Still On Track, has a useful model which speaks to this balance between orchestration and improvisation. She writes:
Masterful facilitation is actually invisible. Done well, people hardly notice facilitation— they’re just carried along, willingly and productively. They have found that sweet spot, where orchestration and improvisation offset each other beautifully.Rebecca Sutherns
According to the IAF competency framework, a facilitator must be able to “create appropriate designs to achieve intended outcomes” and also “adapt processes to changing situations and needs of the group”. This relates to the balance of orchestration and improvisation that Rebecca refers to as Nimble facilitation.
Comms people plan, plan, plan. Facilitators are sometimes perceived as relying on improvisation/letting go of the playbook, but ultimately planning and improvisation are two sides of the same thing.Charlotte Ditløv Jensen
What does nimble (yet consistent) communication look like? The first requirement is a clear organisational strategy that the communications can be aligned to. And then tools such as brand guidelines, tone of voice and values can be used to keep the delivery consistent yet flexible.
Ultimately, in both professions, it is about the consistent application of the principles and frameworks available. Indeed, it is the path to award-winning work. Work that is well-structured, yet vibrant. We’ve included links to some of the relevant award programs at the end.
To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.Søren Kierkegaard
3. Context: Why it Matters, from the Boardroom to the Frontline
Advocating successfully for the organization [also] depends on a thorough understanding of its political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal context—and of how to interact with representatives of other organizations.The IABC Global Standard
With the constants of Ethics and Consistency covered, we can now turn to the four principles of the IABC Global Standard, which help communications professionals address each challenge they come across. The first is context.
Why use facilitation for this? As Katrine Kent told us: “It can bring out the best in people—and the context people are in—when it relates to a vision, goal or other desired outcome.” Moreover, contextual analysis is often based on desk research, which can lead to siloed thinking. A facilitated participatory process, in contrast, enables you to learn from diverse viewpoints and gain unexpected insights. A few examples of facilitated participatory processes are Participatory Horizon Scanning and the ToP Historical Scan (or Wall of Wonder).
The following are two examples of how participatory approaches to understanding context helped one small and one large organization explore the context of their challenges and situation, in order to illustrate the power of facilitation in understanding context.
A Small Group: Mindapples
We gained clarity about our goals and objectives and developed concrete action points to take the charity forward.Richard Armes, Mindapples board member.
The board of Mindapples, a charity that helps people manage their mind, wanted to recalibrate their strategy. In order to understand the current operating context, we adapted the traditional ToP Horizon Scan – borrowing elements from the Historical Scan methodology.
A Larger Group: European Training Foundation (ETF) #ETF20
We used the power of facilitation to bring our communications and engagement strategy to life.Jo Anstey #ETF20
In the first stage of a two-and-a-half-hour session, twelve groups of ten were invited to brainstorm and share memorable events and milestones in the twenty year history of ETF and anticipate future events as well. Events were brainstormed and stories were shared at the personal and world level, as well as at the level of ETF itself, and written on cards and plotted on a timeline on the 10m “sticky wall” at the front of the room. Participants drew on their collected artefacts and mementoes for inspiration, and plotted photographs alongside their cards—creating a visual history which helped the group think about their work in a new context.
For the second stage of the session, new groups shared some of the stories that they had told and heard, and more, and began to discern impacts between levels and trends over time. Finally, the twelve tables shared stories and insights with each other in plenary, culminating in suggestions for what name to give to their shared journey of over twenty years. Stories and insights were captured in a publicationv and a videovi was made to communicate the spirit of the day.
4. Analysis: How a Big Picture Can Help You Avoid Analysis Paralysis
With rigour and discipline, a communication professional identifies opportunities and challenges both inside and outside of the organization.The IABC Global Standard
With context covered, we can now turn to more in-depth analysis before getting on with devising a communication strategy. Analysis is the fourth principle of the IABC Global Standard. Fortune favours the prepared, or as Ron Fuchs told us: “Dig as deep as you can into the business: your success is driven by your ability to understand the organization.”
Case Study: Big Picture
We talked to Mike Pounsford about his experience of bringing leaders from different organizations together for analysis. It illustrates how a visual approach to facilitation can help a group out of analysis paralysis. He told us the traditional top-down approach is hopelessly inadequate, especially in large organizations. He also said a cascade approach is too slow—in both directions—when there are multiple levels of management and a complex organisational structure. “Top-down” also contradicts the message that an organization needs to empower their people to take more responsibility for the delivery of satisfaction and productivity.
Achieving the kind of collaboration needed across an organization puts a premium on quality conversations—conversations that help people work out how they can support strategic direction. The kind of conversation that encourages people to challenge, work out what they need to do to support change, and feel a high degree of ownership of the outcomes.
In order to combat analysis paralysis, Mike invited the group to explore developments in technology that would affect their business in the next five years. First, using ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP) Consensus Workshop method, they grouped their answers into seven main themes. He then invited the group to draw these themes in a picture, using their insights and imagination to create a visual synthesis in real time.
This gave the organization a visual representation to their challenge, and what the organization needed to do to navigate change. To involve people in a conversation about how to respond to these challenges, such a visual approach provides an engaging starting point because:
- It invites people to interpret what is going on.
- It is easier to access (you do not need to understand jargon like “paradigm shift”).
- It provides information more quickly.
- It leads to a less critical and more curious audience (lists invite a more critical, skeptical response).
If you wish to communicate effectively and to influence others, you would need to understand them first. And understanding can only come from listening.Stephen Covey
What is more important than the visual are the conversations around it, and they must be well facilitated. The visual becomes the focus for a conversation whereas questions draw people out. Using the ToP facilitation approach and visual thinking tools such as Big Pictures, Mike found he could create the kind of collaboration needed to achieve a deeper analysis—which could then help people to actionable insights. This is essential for good strategy in general and also good communications strategy to support it.
5. Strategy: What is a Strategy Horizon and How Can It Help You Test Your Communications Strategy?
Addressing communication challenges and opportunities with a thoughtful strategy allows the organization to achieve its mission and goals.The IABC Global Standard
Strategy is the fifth principle of the IABC Global Standard. And it is a broad, deep and timeless topic. Lawrence Freedman, in his commanding volume, Strategy: A History explores the topic across some 768 pages. And elsewhere in this book Kimberly Bain has managed to cram lots of practical insights and actionable advice around strategy into less than a dozen pages.
Leaders in IABC will already be familiar with participative approaches to strategy development. The last two 3-year strategy cycles have made good use of many of the methodologies we’ve mentioned in this chapter. And this has helped the organization involve, and give voice to, even more of its 1,000+ leaders across the world. A powerful way of creating partnership and aligning intent with action.
Communications strategy is certainly different from other strategies, but it is also just a strategy. One that has to fit within and align to the organisational strategy. Which is also why broad input is so crucial to its success. Constructive input from stakeholders can help prevent many a mishap. It is about creating clarity. And agreeing (and aligning) the next steps, so that many people can put a shoulder to the wheel. And we believe a facilitative approach will beat a solo endeavour every time.
So here we’ll keep it short: focus on testing your communication strategy—and how it connects back to the higher level organization strategy. We encourage you to read Kimberly’s chapter and Freedman’s book as well as the works of Miyamoto Susashi, Sun Tzu and Von Clausewitzch and the rest of the classics. And some of the more modern takes by Christensen, Collins, Kagermann, Kaplan, Norton, Porter, Porras, Powers and Bill Staples of ICA.
Meanwhile, we also provide you with a few questions that can help you test your communications strategy. They’re probably a little bit different than what you might be used to, but that’s the point we’re getting at. Open dialogue can help minimize miscommunication, especially when formulating a communications strategy. It could be called a meta-activity.
Testing Your Communications Strategy by Casting an Eye Towards the Horizon
A good communications strategy works at multiple levels, and across time. The two-axis Strategy Development Horizons model plots activity levels against time frames and identifies questions you may want to consider.
In case this exercise throws up more questions than answers, it might be time to do a deeper dive with your communications colleagues. We’ve used the Focused Conversation format referenced earlier in the chapter with a range of clients. And using this two-axis approach to explore strategic horizons never fails to reveal new insights, whether we are working with a corporate, public sector or non-profit organization.
Our preferred methodology for developing strategy is Participatory Strategic Planning from the ToP toolset, detailed in Bill Staples’s Transformational Strategy: Facilitation of ToP Participatory Strategic Planning. This is a powerful and versatile long-range planning process, which incorporates the ToP Consensus Workshop method for building consensus and the ToP Focused Conversation method for effective group communication, and an action planning process for turning ideas into productive action and concrete accomplishments.
If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.Albert Einstein
How to do communication strategy is beyond the scope of this chapter. What we’re proposing is that you may be able to broaden, deepen and clarify your communication strategy development/approach with the help of facilitative processes.
6. Engagement: How to Make it Matter
A communication professional identifies and communicates with employees, customers, shareholders, regulators, government agencies and other groups with an interest in the organization’s activities. All these groups have the potential to change the organization’s results.The IABC Global Standard
This final principle of the IABC Global Standard underpins our argument—that the power of facilitation should be central to the work of communication professionals. It is both an objective to work towards, and something you do as you prepare.
As Kimberly Bain reminded us in the writing of this chapter:
Engagement is a collective group of purposeful conversations. It all starts with conversations, but those conversations must be intentional, purposeful.Kimberly Bain
If you get everybody involved as you go along, the implementation is more likely to happen organically. Kotter says in his book The Heart of Change: “Never underestimate the power of clever people to help others see the possibilities, to help them generate a feeling of faith, and to change behaviour.”
In other words, the short answer to the strategic challenge: ‘What does it take for people to align behind change?’ is…engagement. What does that mean in practice though?
During a past International Facilitation Week we brought together sixty nine facilitation, communications and change management professionals to explore this in a Twitter chat “#FacWeekChat”. And here we’ll outline the six top tips that were shared in response.
Our aim was to bring people together to connect with and learn from each other on a topic of mutual interest, and also to make connections and foster broader collaboration. Our experience of change included local and international work with large and small organizations in a variety of sectors and industries, including health, education, IT, faith and international aid and development.
What does it take for people to align behind change?
- The context must be conducive. People align behind change. “When external pressures have made the need for change evident.” “The facilitator as midwife can only help a client that is already pregnant!”
- High level vision and goals, and ideally values as well, must be clear and shared. Alignment happens when there is “a clear purpose… before a decision on what to do, a focus on energy and momentum for change”.
- There must be inclusive and authentic participation. “Holistic participation in co-creating vision is the key to create buy in.” “Co-design, co-creation, collaboration.” “Convene all with a stake in change.” “Everyone wants change, but no one wants to be changed.” Alignment does not happen “when people forget that changes requires the involvement of others” or “when change is imposed from above without proper consultation or facilitation.”
- Humility, patience and deep listening is required. “Be honest and transparent about the challenges that will be faced, otherwise when failure happens you lose people’s trust.” “Take time, constant process checks, take time, listen, take time, acknowledge resistance (did I mention take time?).” “Come to terms with the antibodies in the system and talk candidly about them.” “Pay as much attention to the intangibles amongst people as to what is explicitly being said.”
- Be open to what needs to emerge, while remaining focused on the vision. “Start with possibilities rather than a project plan” and “be aware of groups’ emerging needs…[allow] the group synergy to flow.” Alignment did not happen “when people didn’t respond to emerging needs, and when personal issues took precedence over common vision”.
- Nevertheless, leadership must also be clear, decisive and inspiring. “Be a leader that makes tough decisions. The notion of change is disruptive, but strong leadership can mitigate people-risk.” Make a “powerful invitation, expressed openly with integrity”. “Discussions about change are so often negative, that is, about failure. We need to inspire people, enable them.”
Conclusion: What can we learn from each other?
A lot, it turns out. We’ve drawn on insights from a range of international practitioners, inter-profession dialogues and case studies from both large and small organizations.
What can communication professionals learn from facilitation?
If you want to bring people with you, you have to involve others, and facilitation is a great way to do that. Facilitation can help transform communications “from cascade to conversation” and communication professionals can learn from facilitators about how to structure conversations once people are engaged. Communication professionals can use the many collaborative processes from facilitation to better prepare for that moment.
As Ginger Homan said:
Comms people sometimes think they know the answer. Facilitators, on the other hand, always know they don’t know the answers.” “As a consultant [working across both] I know the answers are in the heads of the people I work with—not mine. It is about building questions— and peeling away layers—it is exciting and inspiring when you get to the key insights.Ginger Homan
What can facilitators learn from communications professionals?
Our emphasis in this chapter has been largely on how communication professionals can benefit from applying the power of facilitation in their work. Facilitators also have much to learn from their colleagues in the communication profession.
For example, communication tools and skills are key to getting people “in the room” for facilitation, well informed and with appropriate expectations. They can also help to engage all those who will never be “in the room”…and to communicate the results. Communication professionals are also skilled and experienced in the good use of data-gathering tools, ways to measure or evaluate the outcomes of engagement work and how to draw out stories as they relate to the task at hand and use these stories for sense making.
And as set out above, we can benefit from each other’s professional standards and competency models. Yes, it can seem complex at first (maybe even complicated). Despair not. There is help at hand. Strike up a conversation. Put the power of facilitation to work for you. It can help you make change. And it can be surprisingly fun.
We spoke and corresponded with many more outstanding practitioners, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t share our appreciation—for their actionable insights, and for their generous sharing of resources and permissions for reproduction. We thank in particular Ginger Homan, Mirjami Sipponen-Damonte, Ron Fuchs, Zena Gabrielle-Hailu, Charlotte Ditløv Jensen, Bill Staples , Mike Pounsford, Sharon Hunter , Katrine Kent, Rebecca Sutherns, Ia Brix Ohmann, Kasha Dougall, Robin Parsons, Bent Sørensen, Anna Marie Willey, Neil Griffiths, Pelle Nilsson and Jonathan Dudding. We also appreciate the additional ideas the co-authors of this book shared, and from those who attended our webinar on the topic in the early stages of writing this chapter.
i. International Association of Facilitators. (n.d.). IAF Core Competencies. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://www.iaf-world.org/site/professional/core-competencies
ii. International Association of Business Communicators. (n.d.). The Global Standard of the Communication Profession. Retrieved April 25, 2021, from https://www.iabc.com/About/Global-Standard
iii. Searls, D., & Locke, C. (1999). The Cluetrain Manifesto. The Cluetrain Manifesto. https://cluetrain.com/
iv. Highsmithh et al. (2001). Manifesto for Agile Software Development. The Agile Manifesto. https://agilemanifesto.org/
v. Learn more. . . on the 20th anniversary of the European Training Foundation | ETF. (2014). European Training Foundation. https://www.etf.europa.eu/en/publications-and-resources/publications/learn-more-20th-anniversary-european-training-foundation
vi. European Training Foundation. (2014, July 15). ETF 20TH anniversary video [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVjcbO-KqUI