The Facilitator’s Way: Plan Appropriate Group Processes
By Susan Peryam

Posted July 19, 2010

How do you select the processes, tools, and techniques that you plan to use to facilitate a group? Do you take direction from the client? Do you ask the participants? Since you are the expert, do you design away based on what has worked in the past?

This is the third in a series of articles that I am writing about the International Association of Facilitators Foundational Facilitator Competencies. These competencies were developed over several years by IAF members with the support of facilitators from around the world. The competencies include the basic set of skills, knowledge, and behaviors that facilitators must have in order to be successful facilitating groups of people collaborating for a purpose.

There are six competency areas and several sub-competencies. Competency Area B is Plan Appropriate Group Processes. The sub-competencies include:

  1. Select clear methods and processes that: foster open participation with respect for client culture, norms and participant diversity; engage the participation of those with varied learning/thinking styles; and achieve a high quality product/outcome that meets the client needs
  2. Prepare time and space to support group process: arrange physical space to support the purpose for the meeting; plan effective use of time; and provide effective atmosphere and drama for sessions

Keeping in mind that the initial work with the client is to clarify needs, determine purpose of the session, desired outcomes, roles and responsibilities, and logistics, it may be appropriate to gather some feedback about processes, tools and techniques. I use the terms process, tools and techniques as follows:

  • Process – the steps or activities that transform the Inputs (People, Information, Purpose) into the session desired Outcomes. Some types of processes include; strategic planning, action planning, problem solving, decision making, communication planning, etc.
  • Tools – the facilitation methods that enable a group to collaborate to achieve the outcomes of a specific step in the process. Some types of tools include; brainstorming, listing, grouping, prioritizing, etc.
  • Techniques – the way in which an activity (step in the process or tool) will be managed. Some types of techniques include: large group, small group, silent refection, round robin, etc.

Discover what processes have been used in the past. Certainly, if the client’s desired outcome is a strategic plan, I will ask what strategic planning processes have been used in the past. What worked well, what should change? Also, I will ask if the sponsor has any suggestions regarding processes, tools, and techniques. Usually some process ideas come to mind during this conversation, so I will test my ideas with the client and note the feedback. So…the answer to the question above- do you take direction from the client? My answer is yes…and. Yes, I consider input from the client, and I consider input from the participants.

Listen to your participants. My next step in creating a facilitation plan (plan appropriate group processes) is to conduct brief conversations with the participants. Typically, the conversation focuses on the purpose of the meeting, their expectations, and anticipated challenges. During this conversation I usually gather feedback about possible tools and techniques to use. Participants usually tell me that they like to work in small groups, that they like to change group make up and move around the room (especially for all day and multi-day sessions), and they will weigh in on whether or not they are comfortable being completely honest and if they think others will be honest. Lately I am hearing …please don’t use power point. In addition, I like to find out from the participants if they like team building, ice breaker, game type activities.

Apply your own expertise. Having collected information about the meeting design from the client and participants, now it is time for my expertise to kick in. I strongly believe that each session must be customized to meet the client’s and participants needs in order to maximize participation and buy-in and commitment to the outcomes. Sandwiched between an opening and close the bulk of the work happens and where the participants’ expertise (content) comes into play. There are many options for arranging process steps, tools and techniques to most effectively surface the wisdom and knowledge of the group in order to achieve the desired outcomes. Based on client and participant input and my knowledge and experience, I create a draft facilitation plan. I never underestimate the power of a strong opening that enlightens, engages, excites and energizes the group, and a strong close to maximize commitment to the outcomes. Even though I use a standard process for the opening and close, the tools and techniques are customized for the group.

Most of the time, my clients want to review the detailed facilitation plan. They appreciate the thought and effort that goes into the plan, and typically have a sense of success before the session begins. Also, I advise them that if a part of the process, tool and/or technique is not working for the group that I will be prepared to modify the plan on the fly. What about you – do you take direction from the client and participants when planning appropriate group processes? Do you customize all sessions? What seems to work well for you? I would like to hear from you.

My training partner and I developed and deliver facilitation training based on the IAF competencies to our clients on-site and to the public. During the three day Facilitation Basics training session participants learn and practice basic tools and techniques, and the standard components of great openings and closings. The one day Advanced Facilitation session focuses on developing a facilitation plan (planning appropriate group processes).

Posted by Susan Peryam