When was the first time you heard the word facilitation?
For many people, it’s hard to remember when they were introduced to facilitation. When pressed, though, first contact is often the act of being facilitated. Maybe it was a conference or a workshop where they were learning something, and realized it wasn’t training or teaching per say, but something more supportive, and yet also detached. Or perhaps it was at an offsite where work that usually felt contentious and hard, was productive and constructive.
If the facilitator was doing their job well, they both stood out as a guiding light and blended into the background. They pushed you to ask hard questions while creating a safe space for exploring them. Like the friend who asks you a lot of uncomfortable questions that help you deconstruct how you feel about your ex, instead of saying “you’re an idiot if you get back together.” When effective, facilitators are magically potent drivers of good work and wellbeing, and they leave a mark on those they facilitate.
But where do facilitators come from? The origin stories of professional facilitators are circuitous and varied, and it’s tough to pin down a job description – there are no facilitation degrees, no one in my high school career counseling ever mentioned it, and 10 years into my facilitation journey, it remains hard to explain to both five year olds and grandmothers. But, more and more, facilitation is gaining traction as a mainstream capability, necessary for effective teams and a critical leadership skill.
And while facilitation has made it to the management bible and one can be certificated from top educational institutions, there is still a lot of opacity around what, exactly, facilitation is and how, exactly, to engage with it.
In terms of definitions, there are many good ones out there to debate between, and I recommend you check out some of the great articles on Mural's blog to dive into (in my biased opinion) the very exciting world of facilitation. But for the purpose of this article, I want to dive deeper, so let’s start by defining facilitation as — an individual taking responsibility for supporting a group doing collaborative work, who focuses on process (like activities, agendas, and outcomes) and interpersonal dynamics (like communication and balancing voices heard), so the group can dedicate more brain and emotional space to doing their best work.
🚀 Pro Tip: What type of facilitation does your next meeting need? These six questions will help you decide.
What do you do with a definition?
While definitions are fine and good, what do you do at a tactical level in the face of “needing facilitation?” Do you immediately get to work on finding (and finding the budget for) an external expert facilitator at roughly $250 an hour? Maybe ask that lady from marketing, the one who can really hold a room, to do it? Are you going to get a full-time facilitator for your organization? Is that even a thing? (Yes, it is a thing.)
Even after facilitating thousands of sessions, I rarely know what to do without first doing some digging. I’ll admit it took many years to develop a reliable nose for assessing facilitation needs of clients. Once I honed this skill, though, there have been many facilitation projects I have turned down. Why turn down perfectly good facilitation gigs? Because the reality in those situations was the client just didn’t need an expert facilitator for their facilitation needs.
Because what’s true, more often than not, is “that lady from marketing” would do a fine enough job of facilitating with some simple planning and facilitation tools, moral support, and a webinar or two.
Before going further, I want to address why I define facilitation in this article instead of facilitator. It is because the act of facilitation and the behaviors of facilitating, are more important than the title, pedigree, or experience level of the facilitator.
Becoming an expert facilitator takes, at a minimum, growing through countless failed facilitations, the ability to receive and process complex information in real time, and a preternatural motivation to be infectiously excited about decidedly not-exciting things (keep that room energy up!). But becoming a strong facilitator is well-within the grasp of almost anyone of any profession who has a knack for reading people and cares enough to learn, falter, and keep getting back on the facilitation horse.
The 4 meaningful levels of facilitation
With that in mind, I want to get into the four levels of facilitation that are meaningful to discern, from highest to lowest skill level:
• Expert Facilitation
• Strong Facilitation
• Light Facilitation
• Facilitation Scaffolding
The work done by seasoned professionals. Expert facilitation is executed by people who spend much of their waking hours practicing, studying, innovating on, and/or evangelizing the art and magic of facilitation. They may be full-time facilitators, or facilitation might be a core responsibility in their role. They are often expensive to hire. Even less experienced facilitators working in the non-profit space can easily cost $150/hr.
Expert facilitation is a practice of experience design. Those capable of expert facilitation are skilled in researching, understanding, and predicting complicated group needs and leading experiences that satisfy them. Expert facilitators design a complicated web of interactions through combining tools, time, talking, and turbulence to help people do their best work in tough environments. People practicing expert facilitation tend to be specialized in certain methods or approaches — like conflict resolution, design thinking, participatory budgeting, design sprints, Nonviolent Communication, or the Agile method — and tend to participate in professional facilitator communities, formally or informally.
Key Expert Facilitation Behaviors:
• Creating and leading smooth large group collaborative sessions (>30 people)
• Designing and managing complicated engagements that span multiple places, times, or technologies
• Planning and executing experiences that make complex power dynamics constructive, and conversation in conflict productive
• Working successfully with executives and other high-impact stakeholders
• Effectively facilitating groups working in complex or Wicked problem spaces, or working with specialized approaches (Agile, Conflict Resolution, design thinking, etc…)
• Iterating complex agendas in real time to adapt to emergent group and project needs
• Innovating on facilitation activities and creating new facilitation frameworks and methodologies
• Leading and coaching less experienced facilitators
• All of the cumulative behaviors of Strong Facilitation, Light Facilitation, and Facilitation Scaffolding
With practice, honest feedback from participants, and some self-directed study, most people can become practitioners of strong facilitation. In organizations, strong facilitators often take the form of colleagues or leaders who are known for their ability to step in when groups get stuck, or who seem to lead their work and teams such that getting stuck never happens. They make others feel heard and safe in meetings and always manage to get through their agendas on time. They are the go-to for leading important meetings or a client workshop. Depending on the organization, they might have facilitation as a part of their formal role or known skillset.
Having strong facilitation creates reliably effective conditions for the kind of collaboration needed to address the most common challenges organizations face. Strong facilitation can:
1) Address the process and interpersonal needs of most important meetings
2) Resolve the typical types of conflict that arise from diverse teams and solving difficult problems
3) Drive progress and motivation through the normal energy dips and pivots that come with working in a hybrid work model.
Key Strong Facilitation Behaviors:
• Creating and leading smooth moderate-sized gatherings (<15) and participating in the facilitation of large group sessions (>30) with support
• Managing moderate power imbalances (i.e. an extrovert taking too much air time)
• Leading, driving, summarizing and synthesizing group discussions
• Keeping unruly people on task in a way that feels safe and effective for the group
• Practice and model healthy feedback practices
• Designing experiences that require a group to do prep work
• Making small changes to agenda or activities on the fly
Not to be mistaken for lazy facilitation, Light Facilitation is still active and attentive to a group’s purpose, energy, needs, and next steps. Light Facilitation is sufficient for most kinds of collaborative work, and the increased productivity and deep thinking a team can achieve when they’re allowed to just focus on the work, is substantial. In the most successful teams I’ve seen, everyone on the team is willing and able to step up and practice light facilitation when needed.
Most teams and workflows benefit from regular Light Facilitation. Who facilitates is flexible. I’ve seen teams be successful in approaches that range from internal team members taking turns, to recruiting facilitation enthusiasts from other departments to step in and facilitate when the team has challenging collaborative work to focus on.
Key Light Facilitation Behaviors:
• Creating and communicating agendas
• Setting Ground Rules for group participation and interaction, and modeling it
• Keeping time, both for each activity and for the larger session
• Giving clear instructions for activities
• Making time for and documenting next steps, those responsible, and anything else the team needs to make them actionable
This refers to the best practices teams have in place that allow them to do their best collaborative work. They include, among other things, creating and sticking to effective agendas, assigning and completing pre-work, and making time for and documenting next steps and those responsible. It is these best practices that most facilitation works towards establishing and maintaining in a collaborative group.
But, the most high performing collaborative groups have routinized them to the extent that they are ingrained in workflows and part of the team culture, making a facilitator redundant in most instances. This means their regular work practices around process are so automatic and bought into, they don’t have to spend detractive time and energy focusing on process during the session. This leaves time and brain space for the team to focus on their more deep-focus work.
Teams with comprehensive Facilitation Scaffolding still sometimes need facilitation, but only when things get really tricky. Examples might be harmful interpersonal conflict, major changes to an industry or team or project, or remarkably complex moments in the regular workflow where the team needs all of its members’ brains unencumbered by process.
Key Collaboration Scaffolding Behaviors:
• Articulating effective purposes for collaborative sessions
• Creating and sticking to effective agendas
• Assigning and completing pre-work, implying there are strong asynchronous work systems
• Scheduling appropriately timed sessions and regular breaks
• Uses “icebreakers” or “connection” activities at most collaborative sessions to build trust and vulnerability across the group and set the right mindset for different work modes (brainstorming, analysis, etc … )
• Makes time for and documents next steps and those responsible
• Healthy and regular feedback practices across group (positive and constructive)
How to use the levels of facilitation
Being able to discern levels of facilitation in a meaningful way does at least two important things.
First, for immediate use with your next collaborative session, it means being able to assess facilitation capacity. It means understanding the needs of your next session. Most importantly, it means making more informed decisions that provide your work with the right kind of facilitation that helps your collaborators soar.
Second, for those looking to build facilitation skills, at either the personal or organizational level, this can act as an evaluative tool and a rubric for where you are, where you’d like to be, and what skills and behavior gaps you must close with experience and skill-building.
Wherever you are in your facilitation odyssey, I hope this framework can be a window for you into this often opaque world, a way to make better judgements and decisions. But mostly, I hope it encourages you to use facilitation – to just start doing it, this week, today, right now and experience the powerful advantage facilitation affords those brave enough to try it out.
About the authors
About the authors
Founder | Principal at Staircase Strategy
Ryann is the Principal and a Founding Partner of Staircase Strategy, an innovation firm that supports organizations creating complex solutions to the world's complex problems.