Monthly Archives: May 2013

Origins of Process-Based Facilitation

Process-based facilitation is, in a way, an approach to the intentional design of a facilitation event. However, even in an ad-hoc event the process-based facilitator uses the models, concepts, frameworks and process-based structures in much the same way. However, I am getting ahead of myself.

Back as early as 1983 I was introduced to the concept of facilitation in meetings held at the Fleet ASW Training Center in San Diego, CA. My senior chief actually did a very credible job of using facilitation for the first time in a training staff meeting.

I next experienced it almost 10 years later when I was at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA HQ) in Arlington, VA during the Navy’s Total Quality Leadership fad. I call it a fad because of the haphazard implementation many flag and senior officers gave it. Unfortunately, it never got all the way down to the rank and file civilian workers, junior officers or deck plate personnel before the next few fads came along and distracted the leaders attention. Yet, during that period I got a rough introduction to becoming a group facilitator.

The NAVSEA HQ Director of Quality, Donna Tierney, suggested that I start learning about TQL by taking the first course available, which was the Advanced Facilitation class held the following week. I later went back and took the Basic Facilitation Class. Unfortunately, neither provided the background theory or underpinning structures and I was left wanting.

Over several years I attended a dozen classes offered by a variety of organizations. Many of these classes were basic facilitation classes. I also acquired a rather large library on quality, facilitation, effective meetings and other Organization Development related books.

In taking the classes and reading the books I was looking for a model of facilitation that reflected what really happened in facilitation. In facilitation I saw a process that was, consistently, never the same. And no matter how hard I looked I could not find a model that reflected the facilitation process. The models I found were over simplified boxes that didn’t reflect a process. The closest model I found simply reflected the use of a few tools and techniques.

Among the many courses I took was the Effective Facilitator by Leadership Strategies. I felt that this was the first purely facilitation based course I had actually ever taken. Others taught me how to facilitate a planning session, problem solving or quality group. I learned a lot from this course but I experienced a breakthrough in the form of the structure of their model. Oh, their course was just like all the others in that they taught techniques, not a process. Yet, I believe that Michael Wilkinson in developing the model he used, instinctively understood that it encompassed a process but either didn’t go far enough to uncover it or simply focused his energies on techniques because that was how he learned facilitation. What grasped my attention was how he used a structure within the model to show repetitive techniques. I thought, if they can do this for techniques couldn’t I show a repetitive process in much the same way.

During this period I partnered with Charles D. Markert, PE, MPA, CPF and formed the Center of Excellence and Leadership in Facilitation or CELF. We later changed the business structure and renamed the business the Dynamic Leadership Consulting Group, DLCG. But Charlie and I worked together on parts of this for several years.

The issue now was to identify the proper steps of a repetitive process through which all facilitated events could be tracked. Or more to the point, present the minimum number of broad steps used in facilitation. So I needed a system that reflected the most basic process, that also reflected the work and language of facilitation and worked for all the things facilitators did with group. It is from this that four things were explored:

Chaos Theory – This concept teaches us about how systems in nature operate. It teaches us that systems are made up of repeatable patterns on multiple layers. In examining a process-based approach to facilitation the model I ended up with would need to reflect this natural pattern to be valid. So this was in the back of my mind throughout the development process.

Plan, Do Study Act Cycle – PDSA was originally designed by Dr. Walter Shewhart and made popular and updated by Dr. W. Edwards Deming in the 1980’s. It was my belief that the PDSA represented the simplest of systems and processes. It was some form of these four steps that the model of process-based facilitation needed to reflect. However, it was tied to the quality movement and didn’t make sense in the language of group facilitation.

Dynamics of Group Decision Making (Divergence and Convergence Model) – In searching for the root language of facilitation we turned to the work of Sam Kaner. The concept we used in transforming the PDSA into a facilitation-based model was that of the Dynamics of Group Decision Making found in “Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making”. Kaners’ concept, known as Divergence and Convergence, tells us that Facilitators helped groups diverge, by gathering data, on an issue and then converge, in processing the information, to generate understanding. We knew that these two steps must somehow be included in the four steps of our process represented by the PDSA. So we asked how would we describe divergence and convergence in a simplified way? What resulted was Gathering Data and Process Information.

Divergence and Convergence of the Dynamics of Group Decision Making.

Divergence and Convergence of the Dynamics of Group Decision Making.

The result of the PDSA transformed into our Agenda Activity Cycle (A2C) is described as:

¨      Plan: relates to Step 3, Focusing the Group. In this step we pull the team together and review the path we have been on, share the next branch of the path, and tell them about the destination. The facilitator provides detailed instructions, if needed, and gets the group to work. This Step is the application of the preparations done during Step 1.

¨      Do: relates to Step 4, Gathering Data. This step builds the base of information that the entire activity cycle works with. It is common for a group process to include, potentially, several data gathering activities before the team moves on to analysis steps. This is called “Divergence”. In it the group identifies, generates, and gathers data. We call what they gather data because we purposefully avoid analysis during this step. As the group enters this step they are all at different levels of readiness to do the work. Many are already past this point and ready to take action. But the facilitator needs to slow the action focus of the few to allow the others to catch up and the action-focused individuals to gather some data to inform their intent.

¨      Study: relates to Step 5, Process Information. This step involves the discussion and manipulation of the data for the purposes of understanding the relations and implications it has on the issue under study. We call this “Convergence.” In this step we generate an understanding of what the data means. We differentiate, integrate, narrow our thinking and converge on the right meaning to inform the action(s) we choose to take.

¨      Act: relates to Step 6, Decide. This step may require a significant decision by the group, a recommendation for others to take action, or at times, a decision to not make a decision, just a simple acceptance of the work and what it may teach us.

We display the Agenda Activity Cycle or A2C in our Facilitation Model as illustrated here.

The A2C is a cycle that is repetitive on several levels. At the highest level it reflects a significant portion of the facilitation process, at a mid-level it represents the overall design of an event, and at the lowest level it represents each activity of the agenda. In this way, I believe the A2C reflects the application of Chaos Theory.

In the next article I’ll take a look at and discuss the entire Process-Based Facilitation Model.

Group Process

In Organization Development (OD) the phrase “Group Process[i]” refers to the understanding of the behavior of people in groups, such as task groups, and the processes used to solve problems or make decisions. In this module I will discuss the structures used in group process.
A group[ii] is defined as “a collection of individuals that have shared common interests or experiences.” A group develops relationships and generates an energy, or identity, that is different together than when individuals are by themselves or with others.
When a group comes together they are primarily concerned with the contribution of content to achieve the purpose for which they were formed. Content is defined as the “substantive or meaningful part of something”. In groups, and group work, it is the substantive and meaningful part of the work they come together to do.
In addition to content groups must also consider structures and group maintenance as a part of their viability as a group. So if content is the subject matter of the work, structures[iii] are the constructs or things we put in place to help us perform, or do the work, and maintenance[iv] is the attending to the roles, responsibilities, and needs of the group itself.
Because traditionally everyone in the group is primarily concerned with the content, maintenance and structures, by which the work gets done, are often overlooked or are, at least, haphazardly considered. In general, this is where groups that meet over time run into problems and where a group process facilitator is extremely valuable.
In the “A Manual for Group Facilitators” by the Center for Conflict Resolution in Madison, WI, (ISBN 0-941492-00) the authors define group process as “the means by which group members interact, make decisions, handle problems, and develop roles.” As the definition implies there are several elements to a group process. Elements, which typically influence group proceedings, include process design, communication, participation, decision making and role fulfillment.
As the facilitator your vantage point provides a great opportunity to regularly observe how things are going. Depending on the frequency of meetings and an understanding of what to look for, you can be instrumental in ensuring group and individual success.
For the purpose of this article I am concerned with the “process that the facilitator designs” to help the group accomplish its purpose. In future articles I will talk about most of the areas related to group process. I began my work by researching processes for a number of different activities that groups engage in. By generalizing the elements of the processes I was able to identify Seven Common Steps of the Group Process. These are steps that the facilitator works through to help the group be more effective.
The illustration at the right portrays these seven common steps and are described as follows:

Seven Common Steps of the Group Process from Process-Based Facilitation Course

Seven Common Steps of Group Process from Process-Based Facilitation Course

Step 1: Focus on the Purpose – this forms the foundation of the work of a group and consequently, the work of the facilitator. Facilitators seek to help a group achieve its purpose or reason for being. So it must be clearly identified. That is often difficult to do particularly in problem solving when participants come to a group event seeing a problem from a completely different perspective. Yet the facilitator must clarify the purpose long before participants step foot into the room. Getting clear on the purpose is absolutely critical to achieving success for the group. Step 2: Plan Process – we help the group by planning a process that will achieve their purpose. It is during this step that other models, concepts and frameworks are brought to bear on the kind of work that is being done. If we are doing problem solving we must look at the kind of problem we are facing and we select and use a problem solving model as our guide to planning the event. There are many different types of problem solving models. I have explored eighteen (18) different models myself and created two (2). They all do basically the same thing. And when examined, you’ll note that they fit very well with the Group Process Model. If we are not doing problem solving and just want to explore, learn more, or understand someone’s plan, it works equally well, although there may be group process steps that we spend little to no time on. If we are developing a plan, like a strategic plan, it works equally well. The point I am making is that the group process model is one of the basic models within which nearly any other type of work or model fits within the shaded steps (3 – 6). Our job in this step is to figure out how to execute the that work under this framework. Step 3: Gather Data – data is just like a pile of sand you use to make a sand castle. We know that the sand will become a beautiful sand sculpture when it is understood and properly formed. But before we work it, it is just a pile of sand. So data is just information that is not reviewed or understood. Until it is assessed and reviewed within the proper context we do not know what it is really telling us or understand it’s impact. Step 4: Process Information – data is meaningless until it has been processed. This is where we process the data, through various tools and techniques to squeeze out its meaning and learn what it has to tell us. It is possible, and often likely, that we may decide to collect more data to confirm or complete our understanding of the situation. Steps 3 and 4 are somewhat iterative, meaning that a group’s activities rarely flow from one step to another in a simple, four step, clean process. We may need to gather data and process the information two or three times before we have enough information and understanding to look at options and make a decision. Step 5: Examine Options – in this step of the group process we ask what could we do about this? Examining Options not only assumes the development of the options but could also include the development of criteria used for assessing the value of those options to solving the issues or achieving our goals, and the actual assessment as well. Step 6: Make Decisions – finally, we have the information and understanding we need to make a decision. Decision Making is the act of choosing a course of action, determining what to do. In addition this step can also include the setting of priorities and action planning with success metrics and follow-up requirements. Step 7: Document Results – this is often a forgotten step yet it is extremely important for three reasons:

  1. Standardization: documenting the changes the group made will help with standardizing the changes into the process once they have been verified.
  2. Historical: in the future is issues arise in the same area having the documentation showing what steps the group took and what they learned can be invaluable when examining the issue anew.
  3. Recognition and Celebration: following implementation and verification of the successful project taking time to recognize the accomplishment provides a reward of sorts to the team. Allow them to be celebrated for the success they created. Documenting the results is critical to this process.

[i] Group Process: the understanding of the behavior of people in groups, such as task groups, and the processes they use to solve a problem or make a decision. [ii] Group: a collection of individuals that have shared common interests or experiences.  [iii] Structures: the constructs or things we put in place to help us perform, or do the work. [iv] Maintenance: attending to the roles, responsibilities, and needs of the group.

Facilitation is Process Delivery

5 fundamental structures from "The Meeting Leader's Guide to Facilitation"

Five fundamental facilitation structures from “The Meeting Leader’s Guide to Facilitation”

In the last article I discussed the distinctions between facilitation, facilitators, and facilitative. The point was that people in other professions may call themselves facilitators but are likely to be just professionals using facilitative methods to accomplish their primary job. The main distinction was recognizing where content and neutrality of roles crossed paths. In closing that article I mentions how important process was to the group facilitator. In this article I’m going to address that.

By definition a facilitator is someone who makes things easy. To the client work of a facilitator is often not much more than a plan that provides a pathway for the chaos to emerge through and be shaped or transformed into something useful and meaningful. To the participant the group facilitator is often someone that acts as a gateway managing the flow of chaotic thoughts and feelings, passing some and restraining others. They are someone that operates in the moment that is sometimes slowing the group to think, or dragging them to a new epiphany.

Facilitation is not magic. It is not something we are born to. It is a set of skills that help people communicate with meaning. Yes, some personality types take to it faster and with a natural ease than others. However, anyone can learn to be facilitative. Note the word, facilitative.

OK based on the last article we can assume the facilitator is neutral to the content [i]. That means that they don’t take sides, they don’t make decisions for the group, or even steer the group toward any of the options identified. We can also assume that there are specialized knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) that facilitators bring to the table. These are KSAs that everyone should have, but among facilitators these KSAs should be a little more predominant. Key among them are great listening skills, the ability to ask the right questions, keeping things concrete, present and visual to the group, and some sort of conflict management skills. However, chief among the keys, the master key if you will, is the use of models and frameworks to deliver designed group processes that meet the specific and changing needs of various groups they facilitate.

A facilitator that uses designed processes can appear to work off the cuff. They can appear to be some sort of magical savant that is just winging their way through a conversation. While they do this participants are actually hearing and thinking about what others are saying and they understand what was meant by the words used. Their questions are answered, often, it seems, without being asked, and their concerns are heard and considered. They are included in the conversation and decision-making.

Often, but not always, in one approach to facilitation the specific process used by the facilitator is known only to the facilitator. However, in another the facilitator uses their process to engage the entire groups and they try to pass along some of their KSAs to group members. By the way, these two approaches are called Basic and Developmental Facilitation and represent one of the highest level concepts of the way we approach our jobs as facilitators. I’ll discuss these two approaches in a later article.

But why do I describe facilitation as process delivery? Facilitators do their work with a group in the moment. However, what is not seen is the significant amount of time spent preparing for an event and the years of training and practice the facilitator underwent to bring them to that moment.

Some facilitation courses teach people basic techniques, some of which I mentioned above, Usually, a facilitation course will teach facilitators a process that wraps around the use of the tools [ii] and techniques [iii] Meaning they are taught specific methods [iv] to accomplish a process. For example, I once went to a course that was supposed to teach me the “WV Problem Solving Method” when what it actually taught was the techniques the instructor, or writers, associated with the steps of that model. To be more direct in teaching the model the instructor could have suggested or even requested input from the participants on tools and techniques that would accomplish the intent of each of the steps of a model.

Professional facilitators learn, and sometimes develop, several models and frameworks that they use on a daily basis. Examples include discussion methodologies; like ORID, FEMA, or What, So What, Now What, problem solving methodologies; like ICE or Adaptive Problem Solving and the Osborn Parnes Creative Problem Solving Models. Models and Frameworks exist for many of the things we do on a regular basis. I once wrote a short booklet around five of the most important and well used models and frameworks that I use as a facilitator.


The table above depicts the five models and frameworks. These models and frameworks represent elements of the process, big steps, that we design using various methods. So a big part of our job as facilitators is to determine what model is appropriate to the situation, then select the methods through the tools and techniques, to be used to ensure that model or framework is fully employed.  This is how facilitators are all about process delivery. Now, there are other things we do, but I’ll talk about them in future posts. _____________________________

[i] Content: substantive or meaningful part of something, the principal substance offered, substance, gist, meaning, significance, the substantive work of the group.

[ii] Tools: items with physical characteristics that are used to accomplish various things. Ex.: white board, flip chart, sticky wall, markers, sticky-notes, talking stick, note pads, gong, index cards, banner paper, etc…

[iii]Techniques: a designed, series of steps, part of a process, complete process or a workshop intended to accomplish a specific end.

[iv]Methods: the tools and techniques, in some combination, designed to accomplish a specific outcome or output.

Facilitation, Facilitator, Facilitative

Facilitation is defined by as “The act of making easy or easier…” Most of us experience it when we attend a group meeting and someone, we may or may not know, starts asking us questions and expecting responses.

Everywhere you turn now days we hear people calling themselves facilitators. A facilitator is someone that is trained in facilitation, uses facilitative techniques with individuals or groups to help them understand, and/or make a decision without an interest in the decision itself. Many training session in facilitation describe the facilitator as holding a neutral role with respect to the group. This neutral role, or position the facilitator maintains means that they have on interest in driving the decision in any specific direction. They are neutral to the content. Their interest is in the process of making the decision and the quality and openness of the interaction of those participating.

Anytime a individual has a stake or an interest in the decision being made or the conclusion of the group they cease being a facilitator because they no longer hold a neutral role. They have a stake in the decision so at the minimum they become a stakeholder.

So many things, today, are called facilitators. Yet, they are often some professional using facilitative methods to achieve their end rather than that of their customers. People are facilitative when they apply the tools and techniques of facilitation to what they are doing with others. Let’s examine facilitative sales for instance. The job of the sales person is to close the sale as quickly as possible. The job of a facilitative salesperson is to make the buying decision easier for the customer. They do this by applying facilitative techniques of asking questions and listening that focus the needs of the customer toward the product that will best meet those needs. If they don’t have exactly what the customer needs then whatever is the closest fit is what is offered. In a few rare cases the customer may be redirected to an associate organization with a product that is a better fit. But, that is rare since it goes against the job of the sales person – to close the sale.

The reason for discussing the sales person using facilitative practices is to highlight one of the primary differences between what I call a group facilitator and someone using facilitative practices in sales and calling themselves a facilitator. The key differentiator is what we call “content”. The sales person has a hand in the content and steers the customer decision toward their product or service. One might hear, “Based on what you tell me this is the car you are looking for.” I am not saying that this is wrong, it is simply a fact of the sales persons role. The customer came to them so they must want one of their products, here is the product that best matches their described needs. In this case the sales person is steering the customer toward a decision favorable to the sales person or the sales persons organization.

Let’s look at another example where people call themselves facilitators, but are simply another profession using facilitative practices to accomplish their own content objectives. Instructors, teachers, or trainers are people hired to deliver specific content around sharing or developing knowledge, skills or abilities in others. Many, now days, call themselves facilitators because they use facilitative practices while delivering their content. By doing this they make the training session interesting and learning often fun. This is great! Yet, they are not facilitators in the true since of the word because they hold and deliver that content. If they ask a question that doesn’t go where they expect it to go, they must step back and redirect until they get what they want. They must accomplish objectives that are established by an authority other than the group. When I train people in facilitation, I am a trainer using facilitative practices to teach people how to be facilitators. I have specific things to teach my participants so that they will understand facilitation, it’s practices, principles and values.

When I facilitate a group discussion, problem solving or strategy session my interest is in being true to the process that I bring to the groups work. The results of that work are based on what the group thinks is important and chooses to do about it, not me. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have opinions. I do, however, as a facilitator, my opinions are insulated from the group. I oppose opportunities to tell the group what they should do. I oppose requests to share my opinions when I am serving in the facilitation role. Sometimes I am hired as a consultant, a subject matter expert, that uses facilitation during my group sessions. When I serve more than one role, like consultant and facilitator, I am very obvious about from what role I am responding to a question. I have a physical separation between the facilitator, standing apart from the group, and consultant, sitting at the table as part of the group. I treat my comments as comments from someone else in the group. Usually, I avoid dual roles when working as a facilitator. When I do it is usually only with a customer that I have worked with for some time.

My point in this article is to discuss and separate the terms Facilitation, Facilitator, and Facilitative. First, I defined facilitation. Then I discussed the confusing practice of many professions calling  themselves facilitators event though they only use facilitative practices in non-facilitator roles. Finally, I discussed how process is key to facilitation and how a facilitator creates role differentiation when filling more than the facilitators role with a single group.

Next article I will discuss how process is the key to being a professional group facilitator.

Wayne Vick, MBA, CPF

Welcome to the Facilitation Center. I am Wayne Vick, MBA, CPF a professional group facilitator and planning consultant located in Springfield, Virginia, USA, just outside of Washington, DC. For the last 20 years I have served as a guide for leadership teams and groups working through facilitated sessions to create a desirable strategic future, plan an implementation, or solve perplexing problems. I work predominantly with small to medium groups and nearly everything in between.

Over the past year I took some time away from my groups to advance the design and content associated with Process-Based Facilitation. In addition to updating the model I also updated and expanded the facilitation course I teach, started writing a book, or maybe three, on basic, advanced and specialty practices in facilitation, researched and developed content on documenting an individual’s facilitation style called “Situational Facilitation Styles”.

On my old website I had over two hundred (200) articles associated with facilitation of groups and other topics of interest to professional facilitators and consultants. Because time waits for no one and progress must continue the structure of the website, which was 7 to 10 years old, was no longer compliant with current standards and I could not find a system that would easily transition it. So, over the next few months, or years, I will be transitioning the majority of the hundreds of pages and document that served as the baseline content for my work to this site. As I do I will create a series of categories to help structure the content and make it easier to use. I am also thinking of a new structure to align my website with the books that I am preparing to publish. I hope you find this useful and I welcome you comments.