Develop your facilitation skills as a project manager

Are you a good facilitator? I believe you would be if you want to be a complete project manager. One of the main skills project managers and team leaders need to have is the ability to facilitate a team. Good facilitation requires knowledge of meeting tools and techniques, some teamwork, and considering human factors. Facilitation is about helping a team to act properly, to make good decisions. It is not easy because usually will generate debate, some issues and stretches people to think differently. However team discussions are always positive to learn among the team.

What do you facilitate? Perhaps you need to facilitate a workshop, a discussion meeting or a project status meeting.

In any case your team members need your help in order to follow a discipline to make things happen. For instance, running a good team meeting seems to be centered on written agenda, a stated objective, pre assigned discussion leaders, and a comfortable room. The assumption is that people know how to facilitate themselves, and as long as they follow the agenda and behave themselves, there is little possibility of a bad meeting. This is not always true.

Poor meetings do not result from bad agendas or bad behaviors. They result from poor processes. Knowing how to position and operate team meetings is the key to good decision making and high team performance. Operating a team with poor processes is like building a house with the wrong tools. The house may turn out okay, but the process of getting there will be slow, frustrating, and error prone. In order to build a high-performing team you will require the right tools.

Too much time is spent in the content: Team leaders tend to spend too much time on formulating content and too little time on formulating team processes. Developing a process strategy to execute a team’s work plan is critical. Here is a quote that I received from a team leader that captures the problem well: “I know the content of the meeting coming in and I know what I want coming out of it, but it’s the stuff in between that’s hard for me”. The “stuff in between” is process. Process is how things get done. Unfortunately, many people are process averse. They offer all kinds of excuses for not using processes: “It takes too long, we don’t need it”. This resistance to process is likely due to past failures where process has been misused. Poor processes are indeed the silent killers of teams, leading to poor behaviors and negative memories. Nevertheless, it is no excuse for giving it up. Process is far too important for a team.

Bureaucracy: I am not talking about bureaucracy. Process is a source of power for the team. It helps generate better ideas and solutions and maximizes output by organizing the team’s thinking into a form that helps the team see and understand the right issues. Getting a team of people to agree and make decisions is a challenging process. The key is having the right facilitative process to convert content into decisions and actions.

In team meetings the facilitator is the process owner. This person’s role is to focus on the process. The project team owns the content. Behaviors are managed by the facilitator and team members. The secret to good facilitation is channeling the flow of information and energy toward a desired outcome. In most cases, the desired outcome is team consensus. Getting everyone to flow in a single direction is not an easy task.

Facilitation takes time, some experience and knowledge, particularly in dealing with people who are not accustomed to working in structured team environments or facilitation process. A good facilitator does not control people but instead manages the flow of information and exchanges among people in a highly efficient and positive manner. Of the many facilitative tools and techniques that exist, here are some simple one that worked well for me:

  1. Spend some time organizing: Take the time to get things organized and clear before launching into the project. This early investment will enable the team to move faster, not slower.
  2. Be focused on only one process at time: Close a process before beginning another.
  3. Use a checklist: stop and check to see if the process is working. If it is not working properly, please review it.
  4. Agree on the Pareto rule: Do not spend 80 percent of the time trying to get the last 20 percent of a solution. A 100 percent solution is rarely required or achievable; 80 percent is close enough.
  5. Ensure the topic is relevant:  Learn to park issues. Ensure that the topic under discussion is relevant to the question at hand. If it is not, save it for a later discussion.
  6. Use thinking techniques: Know how to open and narrow thinking. Use the right opening and narrowing techniques to direct team discussions
  7. Have a plan B: Know what to do if the team cannot make a decision. The worst decision is not making a decision.

Do not wait for more time and make a plan to develop your facilitation skills for your professional career as a project practitioner. You need to work with people and facilitate teams. Developing facilitation techniques takes time and persistence, but you are a great project manager. Your professional development will never stop. Please do it, take this initiative now. Make a mistake and learn. The next time you will do it better.



Alfonso Bucero, MSc, PMP, PMI-RMP, PMI Fellow


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