Phil Preston is CEO, the Collaborative Advantage, and a professional facilitator.
It’s likely that you run sessions where a facilitator is required, such as strategy off-sites, forums at events or difficult meetings with stakeholders. What factors should you consider when weighing up an internal versus external facilitator?
The primary reason for appointing a facilitator is to help you articulate and meet your session objectives. I’m sure you’ve experienced some or all of the following problems:
• Conversations going off on tangents for too long
• Dominant personalities taking over
• Participants bringing “baggage” into the room
• Poor session design and structure
• Low levels of energy and inspiration
Getting people together is an expensive exercise, so there’s a lot at stake if the opportunity isn’t maximised. On top of this, all the planning in the world won’t account for all the twists, turns or alternative scenarios that could develop and your facilitator will need to guide you through those situations.
To make a decision, you need to weigh up the likely additional return on investment you will get from an external versus an internal facilitator.
The facilitation task can be broken up into what should happen before, during and after the session. Using a strategy offsite as an example, the following checklist is what I use in the planning and preparation process:
1. Before the session
• Forming a relationship with sponsor or chair
• Checking whether there is a theme to build in
• Identifying the contact point for general arrangements and logistics
• Background reading and research on the organisational context
• Locking onto session objectives and defining measures of success
• Helping to design, refine and make suggestions about the agenda
• Mapping out possible scenarios and preparing for them
2. Facilitating the session
• Setting the scene and introducing themes
• Framing out issues that could hamper the session
• Ensuring there are balanced contributions
• Stamping authority when needed to ruthlessly pursue the objectives
• Expect the unexpected – constantly reassessing and guiding the best way forward
• Being practical – make a note of follow ups and keep moving
• Summarising the key themes, next steps and commitments
3. After the session
• Recording vital information or insights that may be valuable to the sponsor
• Checking in immediately with the sponsor to debrief
• Optional: Delivering a summary report and suggestions
• Optional: Convening a check-in every 1-3 months to gauge progress against commitments
An internal facilitator will likely have an advantage in terms their level of inside knowledge of the people involved, familiarity with the topic and grasp of technical issues that may arise. On the other hand, they may be too familiar, partial or emotionally attached to the issues being discussed. They may also struggle to control the session to deliver an overall professional service.
A key advantage of an external facilitator is their independence and detachment from the people involved – allowing them to ruthlessly pursue the agenda. They will likely have a toolkit of exercises and approaches to boost and energise the process and are well placed to ask the hard or obvious questions that others are avoiding. Assuming they are experienced and professional in their approach, you should be more confident of meeting your objectives.
Not only should you weigh up the increase in quality of outcome that you could gain from external facilitation relative to cost, you also need to consider the opportunity cost of getting bogged down in the same-old discussions and struggling to make headway on key issues.
There are times when you will need to seriously consider external facilitation and I trust the checklist and discussion provided here will help you in your endeavours.
You can contact Phil via firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website (www.philpreston.co).