It’s not just luck that helps professional facilitators be successful.  Professional facilitators know a powerful secret that every leader can benefit from both knowing and understanding how to use.

What makes it a secret?  It certainly is not the number of people who know it.  In fact, there are likely many who would say they are aware of the secret.  Yet very few truly understand how to use it.  Therein lies the secret.

The Fundamental Secret of Facilitation: If they create it, they understand it, they accept it, and they own it.

What makes it powerful?  If “power” is somewhat synonymous with “getting results,” then this secret is extremely powerful.  The secret can increase your ability to achieve results, simply because the secret is linked to effectiveness and human motivation.

How I Learned the Secret

I began understanding the secret during my career with the management consulting division of, what was then, one of the Big-8 accounting and consulting firms.  In the eight years I spent in that consulting practice we had a standard way of addressing a client problem.  We might be called in to review a particular department or activity.  We would arrive with our army of bright people, interview those whom we believed were the key stakeholders, develop a set of recommendations based on our interviews and experience, and create what might be called the “100% Solution.”  We would go away and come back a year later and perhaps, if we were lucky, 15% of the recommendations would be implemented.

In my final years with that organization, the practice in which I worked began taking a different approach.  We would come in with a smaller group of consultants and work shoulder to shoulder with client personnel.  Together we would convene group interviews (facilitated sessions) which typically included 8-20 people.  In the facilitated sessions, the participants would create the recommendations, not the consultants.   In most cases, they would only come up with what we might consider the 60% or 70% solution.  So we would float ideas based on our experience.  Some they would accept, others they would reject as “not beneficial” or “not implementable” in their environment.  When all was done, they might have created what we would consider “the 85% solution.”  Yet a year later, when we came back, amazingly 80-90% of the solution would be implemented!

Why wasn’t more of the “100%” solution implemented?  Why would the “85%” solution gained through facilitation achieve far greater success? That’s where the power behind the secret comes in.

Putting the Fundamental Secret to Use

How do leaders make use of this fundamental secret?  Let’s take one simple example. Let’s say you are the leader of a 120-person HR department for a large organization.  You have six direct reports who serve on your Leadership Team.   You also have established a 30-member Management Team that includes the Leadership Team along with the managers, supervisors and team leaders in your organization.  You want to undertake strategic planning for your department.  How do you do it?

Option A. Convene the Leadership Team to develop the plan and then roll it out to the Management Team who then rolls it out to the rest of the staff. This is perhaps the typical approach used by Leadership Teams; however “roll-out” typically results in people being “told” what to do and doesn’t get them creating, understanding, accepting and owning the solution.

Option B. Convene the entire staff to develop the plan.
An admirable attempt at inclusion.  However, developing a plan with 120 people in the room with different levels of understanding, abilities, and focus can be problematic.

Option C. Convene the Management Team to develop the plan and then roll it out to the rest of the staff.
Involving the entire Management Team in the development increases involvement, however, “rolling out” to the rest of the staff can still create the buy-in issues identified in Option A.

Our Recommended Approach

To maximize the power of the fundamental secret of facilitation, we would recommend the following approach.

  1. Hold a briefing with the Management Team to identify the critical issues and decide the strategy approach, including the approaches for staff involvement which might include a staff briefing, a staff survey, a strategy review session, and involvement in action plan development.
  2. Hold a briefing for staff members to ask them for the most critical issues to be addressed and to review the strategy approach and their role in developing the strategy.
  3. Use a staff survey to have staff define where they believe we are today and strategies we should consider in moving forward.
  4. Facilitate the Management Team through the strategy development process, including the development/refinement of mission, vision, guiding principles, broad goals, measurable outcomes, critical success factors, barriers, strategies and priorities.  The strategy development process ends with isolating the key priorities for the organization. Note that the Management Team does NOT develop action plans for the priority strategies.  This will be done with the assistance of staff to help increase staff buy-in. In essence this approach means that the Management Team defines what is to be done; staff is involved in defining how to get it done.
  5. Hold a strategy review session with staff to recall the issues the staff previously identified, walk through the plan, have the staff identify how the plan addresses each of the issues they previously identified, and ask them to volunteer to serve on action planning teams for the priority strategies.  Staff’s involvement in the action planning teams serves two purposes. Staff involvement in action planning increases their buy-in and ownership of the strategic plan. In addition, staff members’ knowledge of how things really work will help ensure that the action plans are realistic and take into account barriers and critical factors potentially unknown to the Management Team.

We believe this approach helps unleash the fundamental secret of facilitation – if they create it, they understand it, they accept it, and they own it.  As you think about the way you undertake other activities in your organization, are you using the fundamental secret of facilitation?
You can learn more powerful leadership approaches through our course, From Management to Leadership.

Michael Wilkinson is the Managing Director of Leadership Strategies – The Facilitation Company and author of The Secrets of Facilitation and The Secrets to Masterful Meetings.  He is a Certified Master Facilitator and a much sought after leadership trainer and facilitator.