“If as a project manager I try to facilitate decisions, then the project team will feel more impowered, but they see me as always biased to my own desired outcome.”
In this opening blog post, I briefly illustrate the need for facilitation within the project management effort, define group facilitation, and give an overview of the Skilled Facilitator approach. We also see the key elements and how they fit together to form a values based systemic approach to facilitation and the larger Integrated PM effort.
There is a gap in the literature around what is needed from the portfolio, program, or project sponsor. Oh yes, a great deal has been said about the need of the Sponsor. But the literature is sparse on how to be a good sponsor.
THE NEED FOR GROUP FACILITATION
Groups are becoming the basic work unit of organizations, as opposed to the individual. Increasingly, we turn to groups to bring together differing views, produce quality products and services, and coordinate complex world of projects. In doing so, we expect groups to work effectively so that the product of their efforts is greater than the sum of the parts. Yet our experience with groups often leaves us feeling disappointed or frustrated.
Project teams, or groups do not have to function in ways that lead to ineffective performance, make it difficult for members to work together, and frustrate members. Project teams can improve how they work. This blog post series is about helping project teams improve their effectiveness by using the facilitative skills of each other, the project manager and project sponsor. It is about helping all types of work groups: top management teams, boards, committees, work teams, cross-functional teams, interorganizational groups, quality groups, task forces, and employee-management or union -management groups. Anyone who works with others needs facilitative skills, not just the sponsor.
Organizational consultants, internal and external, need facilitative skills when they contract with clients, diagnose problems, and recommend solutions. Leaders and managers need facilitative skills to explore stakeholders' interests and to craft solutions based on sound data that generate commitment.
Because organizations change constantly, the need for facilitative skills to support change is always increasing. This applies to a merger or acquisition, or downsizing, and to efforts to improve the quality of products and services, empower employees, develop a shared vision, develop a self-managing work team, or develop an organizational culture that makes these changes possible.
Organizations typically use project teams to plan and implement change, and project teams typically need some form of facilitation. In addition, facilitative skills have become more important as organizations try to openly and constructively manage conflict arising from the change they try to create.
At the heart of improving project the team’s effectiveness lies the ability of project team members to reflect on what they are doing, to create the conditions necessary to achieve their goals. Project teams find it difficult to openly examine behavior on their own; they often need the help of a facilitator.
WHAT IS GROUP FACILITATION?
Group facilitation is a process in which a person whose selection is acceptable to all the members of the group, who is substantively neutral, and who has no substantive decision-making authority diagnoses and intervenes to help a group improve how it identifies and solves problems and makes decisions, to increase the group's effectiveness. In many cases, the PM is within the project team, and require someone outside of the team, such as the sponsor to facilitate project team performance.
The facilitator's main task is to help the group increase effectiveness by improving its process and structure.
Process refers to how a group works together. It includes how members talk to each other, how they identify and solve problems, how they make decisions, and how they handle conflict. Structure refers to stable recurring group process, examples being group membership or project team roles. In contrast, content refers to what a group is working on. The content of a group discussion might be whether to enter a new market, how to provide high-quality service to customers, or what each project team member's responsibilities should be.
Whenever a group meets, it is possible to observe both content and process. For example, in a discussion of how to provide high-quality service, suggestions about installing a customer hotline or giving more authority to those with customer contact reflect content. However, members responding to only certain colleagues' ideas or failing to identify their assumptions are facets of the group's process. Underlying the facilitator's main task is the fundamental assumption that ineffective group process and structure reduces a group's ability to solve problems and make decisions. Although research findings on the relationship between process and group effectiveness are mixed, the premise of this blog series is that by increasing the effectiveness of the group's process and structure the facilitator helps the group improve its performance and overall effectiveness.
The facilitator does not intervene directly in the content of the group's discussions; to do so would require the facilitator to abandon neutrality and reduce the group's responsibility for solving its problems. To ensure that the facilitator is trusted by all project team members and that the group's autonomy is maintained, the facilitator should be acceptable to all members of the group; this person needs to be substantively neutral- that is, display no preference for any of the solutions the group considers- and not have substantive decision-making authority.
In practice, the facilitator can meet these three criteria only if he or she is not a project team member. A group member may be acceptable to other members and may not have substantive decision making authority yet have a substantive interest in the group's issues. By definition, a group member cannot formally fill the role of facilitator. Still, a group leader or member can use the principles and techniques I describe in this blog series to help a project team. Effective leaders regularly facilitate their project teams as part of their leadership role.
To intervene means "to enter into an ongoing system" for the purpose of helping those in the system. The definition implies that the system, or group, functions autonomously- that is, the project team is complete without a facilitator. Yet the group depends on a facilitator for help. Consequently, to maintain the group's autonomy and to develop its long-term effectiveness, the facilitator's interventions should decrease the group's dependence on the facilitator. Ideally, the facilitator accomplishes this by intervening in a way that teaches group members the skills of facilitation.
The Approaches to Facilitation
This blog series will consist of the following posts covering the various approaches to facilitation, ending with the systems approach used within Integrated PM.
- The group effectiveness model
- A clearly defined facilitative role
- Useful in a range of roles
- Explicit core values
- Ground rules for effective groups
- The diagnosis-intervention cycle
- Low-level inferences
- Exploring and changing how we think
- A process for agreeing on how to work together
- A systems approach