Facilitation Skills for Project Managers
By Star Dargin, PCC, CPCC
A skilled facilitator reduces white collar crime. Research shows bad meetings cost the U.S.A. billions of dollars in productivity annually — and that is a crime!
Facilitation is a specific skill that is used in project meetings to bring out the best and resolve the worst in a group, in service of a project goal. The meeting is a tool that advances the project goals by balancing the needs of the project and the people. Facilitation and meetings go hand-in-hand, and one can't exist, or exist effectively, without the other.
A project manager should consider a meeting to be a tool that is used to get a job done, and one that is best run like a project. A meeting, like a project, allows something new to be created; it has a start, an end, it is temporary, and it should produce clear deliverables. A meeting is one of many tools a project manager uses to achieve project success. Meetings are easy and familiar and overused, and often are not the right tool for the job. This article explores using meetings as a tool and offers some key facilitation techniques and skills. Facilitation is an art and science and can be learned and improved upon with practice. It is a required skill for project managers.
Meetings as a Tool
Meetings are a tool that the project manager uses to advance action and to achieve project success. However, meetings are not always the right tool to use. Until the goal of a meeting is clear, don't have a meeting. Instead, time planning before the meeting to get clarity on the meeting's goals. As Zig Ziglar said, "A goal properly set is halfway reached."
A popular teaming model approach called GRPI (an acronym related to the dimensions characterizing a team; goals, roles, process, and interpersonal relationships) states that 80% of team conflicts are due to unclear goals. The majority of ineffective meetings are that way because there is no clear purpose. Simply by ensuring that the meeting goal is clear before or at the start of the meeting dramatically improves the chances for a successful outcome.
Project status meetings are notorious for being inefficient. Some simple questions can help determine if a meeting is the right tool to gather status information. For example, what status information is needed, by whom, by when, and how often? A new goal may arise from those questions, perhaps revealing that the project manager is the only person who needs to know if a task is on time or what the updates are. Hence a meeting would not be the right tool in this instance.
A 10-person project team that spends two hours a week in meetings to report status and get updates costs 20 labor hours. If a project manager spends four hours a week gathering status and update information instead of holding a project status meeting, the project has saved roughly 16 project hours. If the project team establishes an online tool and uses it to report status and updates, more savings are possible.
The unspoken and intangible outcomes of meetings, however, cannot be overlooked. When team members regularly interact, it inadvertently helps to create team bonding and sparks ideas and solutions that can be very productive. If the team bonding and informal team interactions are an important goal for project success, then it's vital to create that type of interaction, which may or may not be accomplished by holding a meeting.
Meetings are great places to achieve these project-related goals: reaching consensus, making a decision, brainstorming, resolving issues, sharing important updates, and achieving team building. Alternatives to meetings are one-on-one discussion, shared threaded online discussions, or team events. The bottom-line questions here are: Is there clarity on the purpose of the meeting, and is a meeting the right tool to achieve this purpose?
Facilitation: Hunting for a Goal
A great facilitator is like a hawk hunting to achieve a goal. The hawk has eyes on either side of its head. The hawk starts the hunt sitting up high in a tree or circling around in the sky; it has a wide, panoramic view of the whole situation. The project manager must be able to see the big picture – the company vision, the industry, the current project situation. When a hawk spots its prey, he become ultra-focused and dives down to get it. As he dives and is zooming in on the prey, he is continually scanning the area for risks as he gets closer. If he detects a threat or challenge on his way to the prey, he will make a decision at some point in the descent, no matter how close to the prey he may be, to back off and reassess. He reviews the challenges and finds a new plan to get his prey. He may wait for the risk to pass or determine a new approach and then re-engage with the prey. He may realize that the first prey is not currently attainable and so choose to leave it for now and find an easier target. He is relentless in getting his prey.
Like the hawk, the facilitator has the larger view of the terrain and knows when to zoom in on the goal of the meeting. The facilitator adjusts to the situation as it develops real-time. The facilitator is relentless in achieving the goal of the meeting. The facilitator moves the meeting forward and will acknowledge if a meeting goal is unrealistic, adjusting on the basis of that. The facilitator adapts, adjusts, and connects to the participants while bringing them forward as one to achieve the meeting goal. Like the hawk, the facilitator is in a constant scanning and taking-action mode in service of the goal and the participants.
Facilitation Skills and "AND"
A facilitator uses many techniques and skills at different times in the meeting. It's not always clear what skills will be needed and when. The challenge is to figure out in real-time which skill to use when and for what group, all while keeping a focus on the goal of the meeting. Many of the skills needed appear to be in contradiction with each other, such as the ability to see the big picture and the details at the same time. Yet both are needed. The key is finding the right balance; a facilitator expands the range of what is possible by using opposites. A facilitator's technique is to use the "and" approach. Using "and" allows for expansion and inclusion. Here are some examples:
- See the big picture AND the details.
- Use focus AND a divergent path.
- Get clarity AND create chaos.
- Solicit information from everyone AND only from a few.
- Focus on the people AND the content.
- Be forceful AND be quiet.
- Intervene AND let it go.
Some key skills used in real-time that enable the use of the "and" approach are:
- Listening well, communicating well, asking good questions, managing conflict, and the ability to read body language
- Assessing individual and group behaviors and determining how to intervene in service of the goal
- Having an ability to summarize, organize, and get to the bottom line fast
- Being adaptable, flexible, and able to adjust the process on the fly
Facilitation — Taming the Behavior
People are the greatest asset and can also be the greatest challenge for both facilitators and project managers. People's behaviors are predictable and unpredictable at times, and different group dynamics elicit different behaviors from people. Some common group dynamics that cause behaviors that can get in the way of achieving the goal of a meeting are: the "elephant in the room" (the non-discussable), the impact a senior manager has, perceived technical competition among members, and the need to be right.
Each individual and group interaction presents a new and real-time challenge for a facilitator. Individual and group behaviors have common patterns and when identified can be dealt with. A good facilitator can recognize the behaviors and intervene quickly. A behavior is external and observable. It is a clue to what an individual, or the group collectively, may be thinking. However, it is important to not make assumptions from one single behavior what a person is thinking. An example is eye rolling. Eye rolling is a behavior that is externally observable. Eye rolling could mean anything from "that's stupid," "I've heard it before," "you're stupid," or "I'm stupid for not knowing." By putting the behavior into the larger context, it helps to sort out if the facilitator needs to intervene and how.
Here are two contexts showing when to intervene and when not to for eye rolling.
- A senior sponsor in the heat of a discussion where the goal of the meeting had almost been reached, stops and rolls her eyes for no apparent reason. A facilitator may ask, "I noticed you rolled your eyes. Is it related to the conclusion that we are close to reaching?"
- A participant who is not involved in the conversation and who is known to dislike a co-worker who is speaking, rolls his eyes. The facilitator may chose to ignore this in the meeting.
By separating the behaviors from the person, it makes conflicts and adjustments less personal. It is about the behavior that is not being helpful in moving the meeting forward rather than being about the person. Addressing the behavior helps to keep emotion in check by depersonalizing it. Common individual behaviors that get in the way of a productive meeting are:
- Not paying attention
- Being distracted
- Not being respectful
- Not speaking up and participating
- Talking too much
- Talking off-topic
Facilitation Technique — Shifting: Acknowledge and Move
Shifting is a technique for intervening and redirecting the meeting toward the goal. If you have ever driven a manual transmission vehicle, you know you have to physically change gears for a smooth ride and for your vehicle to run efficiently. You can drive for hours in one gear on a flat surface and never have to change gears. Or you may find that you need to frequently change gears because of the conditions around you – frequent starting and stopping, other drivers, lots of hills, etc.
When first learning how to drive a manual transmission, most people rely on the tachometer, that gauge that measures the engine revolutions per minute. If it is too high or too low, you know you have to shift up or down. When the vehicle makes horrible noises, banging and grinding, an error had been made. A more experienced driver knows the subtleties of the engine sounds and road conditions and shifts unconsciously and effortlessly.
Shifting a vehicle is an acknowledgement that a change needs to happen and indicates that appropriate action has been taken. Shifting as a facilitator is acknowledging that something has happened in the meeting that is potentially blocking the group's ability to achieve the goal. Shifting acknowledges what is going on now, real-time, and takes action to move towards the goal. Here are six examples of how a facilitator can use the shifting technique after hearing a participant saying this potentially obstructing comment: "I hate when we use ABC to solve that problem."
Before putting any specific technique into play, the first step is to acknowledge what the person said. The most common method of doing that is to repeat their words back to them. The closer it is to what they said, the better. An example is, "I heard you say that you hate it when we use ABC to solve that problem."
The second step is to make a real-time assessment of the statement and how helpful or not it is to reaching the goal of the meeting.
The third step is to shift to take action. Here are six examples of different gears you can shift into, based on the person, the situation, and the goal:
- Alternative: What do think will solve the problem?
- Flip it: I have seen ABC work and be helpful and useful in cases which are similar to ours.
- Engage them: Is there anything good about it? Is there anything useful about it? What specifically won't solve this problem? Can it be used in any situation?
- Step over: I (the group, expert) believe it will solve the problem; let's pursue that for now until it proves that it can't.
- Engage others: Chris is the expert in ABC; Chris, do you agree? Chris is the decision-maker for ABC; Chris, should we discuss or continue? Raise your hand if you agree that ABC won't work.
- Get them to a YES: Can we acknowledge our differences about this and move on? Can we talk about it later? Can I put it in a parking lot?
Shifting is a skill that takes practice and good facilitators do it unconsciously all the time.
Summary: Facilitation – A Skill Worth Building
There are more tools, techniques, and skills that a great facilitator brings into play, such as pre- and post-meeting planning, basic meeting skills such as having an agenda, using ground rules, practicing time management, and using appropriate technology for the task at hand. It takes pre- and post-planning, knowing the challenges involved, constant scanning like the hawk, and adapting to the situation as it unfolds.
Shifting is one technique that can be applied in the meeting to move towards the goal. Most importantly, the facilitator must get clear on the purpose of the meeting. The meeting itself is nothing more than a tool that is run like a mini project in service of moving forward the larger project. The result is improved productivity.
A great facilitator can elicit unexpected and sometimes amazing results by tapping into the wisdom of the group through skillful facilitation. Some results of great facilitation are that ownership and results are created and the team is inspired and engaged. The result for the project manager is that there has been efficient and quality advancement towards project delivery.
About the Author:
Star Dargin, PCC, CPCC, is a trainer and consultant for Corporate Education Group. Star's client experience includes numerous industries, small businesses, learning institutions, state agencies, and independent workers. Star has also held leadership positions at several high-tech companies in roles such as director of engineering, director of project managers, and international program manager. Additionally, Star is an adjunct professor at Boston University where she teaches graduate-level courses on leadership and communication skills for project managers.