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Using Facilitation to Achieve Success

The Leader's Role is Shifting

Leaders today face a dilemma: we are accountable for results and for making good decisions, but our work is so complex that it is the folks who work for us who have the information we need to make those good decisions. Increasingly, the leaders who know how to draw out the best in individuals and in the organization as a whole, who focus on the positive images of the future and guiding those images toward real results, are those who succeed. 


Leaders today need to be able to create meetings and work structures that close that gap between the information and the decision.They need to be able to focus on asking, instead of telling; on listening, instead of talking; and on building consensus, rather than dictating.

The Wunderlin Company has embraced this facilitation model for years and we are seeing more and more of our clients adopt it as a way to work. In this issue, we'll provide you with a look at some tools and techniques that make this model so successful.

Brainstorming: A Tool for Getting More and Better Ideas

By Debbie Galloway

Good facilitators have a full set of tools they use to create buy-in, generate active participation and empower people to take charge. One such tool that allows people to explore new ideas and challenge traditional thinking is called "brainstorming," and if used correctly, is guaranteed to generate a wide range of solutions for any given problem.

Brainstorming is fast and fun. It allows a group to put a full range of ideas on the table before decisions are made. It's free-form approach not only wakes up the group by getting their creative juices flowing, but it often results in some very original solutions to problems.

The premise behind brainstorming is that it taps into the thinking resources of the entire group. The ideas generated from a brainstorming session are likely to be far more numerous and more creative than those generated by traditional problem-solving techniques.

In a brainstorming session everyone is encouraged to freewheel their ideas. The more ideas the better, even if they seem silly or frivolous at the time. The rules are few and simple:

  • No debating and no judgment. No one is allowed to criticize another's ideas, not even with a groan, giggle or grimace.
  • Hitchhiking allowed: build upon the ideas of others.
  • Be humorous and creative.
  • Everyone participates.
  • Think in new ways. The more ideas, the better. The wilder the ideas, the better.
  • And finally, spelling and penmanship don't count!

Even though the rules are few and simple, running a brainstorming session requires some very specific facilitation skills. Here's a look at how to run a brainstorming session.

1. Introduce the technique and rationale.

2. Distribute the necessary materials for recording ideas. Our favorite way is to use markers and 5x7 cards. Instruct the participants to write one idea per card horizontally. Post the cards with tape or pins on a wall. (You can also use flipcharts, however you can only go as fast as the scribe can write and it makes it much less efficient during the sorting and prioritizing phase.)

3. Review brainstorming rules and write on a flipchart the question/issue on which the group is generating ideas.

4. Start the session. You will need to prompt, restate the question, urge participation. When people have run out of ideas, allow for a few minutes of thinking time and reflection. Sometimes the best ideas will surface on second thought.

5. Only after everyone has run out of ideas, should you discuss each idea in detail. Sort and combine them.

6. Agree on the final list of best ideas using criteria the group defines.

Remember, you must consciously follow the rules. Don't allow any criticism of suggestions during brainstorming. Ensure that all the participants participate. And most of all, remember to have fun!

Well-Timed Questions Can Help Your Group Learn from One Another

by Kathy McSweeney

A leader skilled in facilitating can play a pivotal role in how productively a group meets. The facilitative leader's responsibility is to create an environment in which the group's best thinking can be shared, creative solutions developed, and constructive decisions agreed upon. The responsibility may feel daunting, but leaders have a number of powerful resources from which to draw.

Well-timed questions are a core resource to the leader as he or she guides group discussion. In facilitating discussion, the leader is less often the expert; instead he or she is usually attempting to learn from one another and to help the group learn from each other. The leader may have to switch gears from his or her usual style, especially if that style is "take charge." Questions can enable that to happen.

Leaders have different types of questions available for guiding discussion. One of the most potent types is the OPEN-ENDED QUESTION, which is meant to stimulate discussion. An open-ended question can encourage participants not only to answer more fully but also to think more broadly or deeply about a subject. Open-ended questions are not answered with a single word or phrase. They often begin with words like "how", "what", and "why":

  • "How can we best spend the remaining meeting time?"
  • "How will the proposed solution affect you?"
  • "What happens if we take no action now?"
  • "Why is the project temporarily bogged down?"

Open-ended questions discourage participants from prematurely taking definitive positions on issues that have not yet been thoroughly discussed.

Related to the open-ended question is the GREATER-RESPONSE QUESTION. The leader can use this kind of question to gain understanding and to add depth to participants' involvement. Greater response questions typically begin with one of three words: "describe", "tell", or "explain":

  • "Can you describe how we typically handle telephone complaints?"
  • "Could you tell us more about the public's reaction to the policy?'
  • "Would you explain to us why our new system still costs more to operate?"

A participant will often ask questions of the facilitator as a follow-up to a remark made by the facilitator or another participant. If the question relates to the content of the meeting, consider redirecting it to the whole group. For example, a participant might ask you:

  • "Why is motivation so low at this point?"

As the facilitator, you might respond by redirecting the question:

  • "What does the rest of the group think about why people have been losing energy for the process? That question needs to be answered by someone who's in daily contact with the team. Joan or Robert, what are your thoughts?"

At times, the facilitator needs to bring closure or clarification to a topic being discussed. Before doing so, it's important that all participants are together in understanding where the issue stands. At such times, FEEDBACK AND CLARIFICATION QUESTIONS are appropriate:

  • "Eric, if I understand correctly, you are saying we should adopt Pat's suggestion?"
  • "Where are we at this point; will someone summarize our position?"
  • "Who can paraphrase the group's opinion?"

When you are looking for a brief response, use a closed-ended question, which can encourage a "yes" or "no" or another one or two word response. For example:

  • "Do we have his buy-in yet?"
  • "How many new customers are included?"
  • "What is the date of the meeting?"

Closed-ended questions can also bring a topic to conclusion and move to the next point:

  • "Who could summarize what we've discussed?"
  • "Have we reached agreement?"

When a participant has been offering wordy responses, you can help that person move toward brevity with a closed-ended question:

  • "Can we count on your support for the project?"

When facilitators are under stress, we may overuse closed-ended questions to reassure ourselves that the group is listening and engaged. If you hear yourself asking a series of quick questions, ask yourself if the discussion is advancing. If not, pause and ask an open-ended question.

Closed-ended questions are designed to shorten response. If relied on too much, they may frustrate discussion; well-timed, they help move discussion along.

It is important for facilitative leaders to refrain from LEADING QUESTIONS. Leaders are more effective in leading group discussion when they are aware of their biases and opinions. A leader may feel strongly about a subject and think it is important to communicate that opinion to the group. In that case, it is more effective to state one's opinion and follow with a question about the group's opinion. For example, "Don't you think . . . ?" or "Wouldn't you rather . . . ?" are actually pseudo-questions. Instead, the leader can say something like: "I think we should take the risk in this case. What does the group think about that?"

Even with skillfully constructed, well-timed questions, leaders have not completed the requirements of productive questioning. Giving the group time to consider the question and formulate responses is essential. This means that the leader must be silent for brief spaces of time, which may feel uncomfortable when first facilitating discussions. Silent pauses, however, provide valuable time for the facilitator to think and to observe the body language of the group.

So, ask the right question and then listen and observe. There's no telling what you and your group might learn!

Capitalizing on What is Working!

Applying Appreciative Inquiry in Daily Work Life

by Judy Futch and Doug Silsbee

What would happen in your workplace if the leaders of your organization or department asked questions that evoked new possibilities from the people being asked? What would happen if a critical mass of your organization systemically interviewed each other with questions like:

What were the peak times of organizational excellence — when people experienced the organization as most effective?

What were the unique factors that made our record earnings possible?

What things do you value most about yourself? The nature of your work? The organization?

What three wishes would you make to heighten commitment and enthusiasm in this organization?

A key factor is not only the inquiry but also the commitment to truly listen to the responses. Recently a friend's 4-year-old son confronted him. John thought he was successfully juggling several tasks at once. His son, demanding his attention, said "Dad, did you hear my words?" "Yes, son, I heard your words." "But Dad were you listening?"

Are we willing to listen to what gives life, health, and vitality to our organizations? The subtle shift would involve moving from focusing on what is not working to focusing on common values, empowering moments in our histories, shared aspirations for the future and the creation of preferred futures. This shift in focus is what Appreciative Inquiry is all about. It focuses attention on what is working within an organization.

The first step is to discover and value those factors that give life to the organization through an interviewing process. Second, you envision what might be — creating a positive image of a preferred future. Third, you engage in dialogue to move from individual appreciation to a collective appreciation, from individual commitment to a group commitment and to shared vision for the whole. Fourth, you construct the future through innovation and action. Because the ideas are grounded in realities (in the stories that were initially generated) there is the confidence to try to make things happen.

Organizational change begins with the first questions you ask. The questions asked set the stage for what is found, and what is found (data) becomes the material out of which the future is constructed. The outcome of this four- step process? An organization built on a commitment to valuing the individual and the whole, a future designed by innovation and openness to "breakthroughs" and a respect for past accomplishments and individual achievements. It all starts with asking questions to capitalize on what is working now!

On our Bookshelf

There are a number of excellent books on the subject of facilitation. Here's a list of some our favorites:

Bens, Ingrid. Facilitating With Ease. Sarasota, Florida: Participative Dynamics, 1997.

Dyer, William G., Team Building: Current Issues and New Alternatives. Reading, Masssachusetts: Addison-Westley Publishing Company. 1995.

Hammond, Sue Annis. The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry. Plano, Texas: Kodiak Consulting.1996.

Hunter, Dale; Bailey, Anne; Taylor, Bill. The Art of Facilitation. Tucson, Arizona: Fisher Books. 1995.

Kaner, Sam. Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision Making. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers. 1996.

Schwarz, Roger M. The Skilled Facilitator: Practical "Wisdom for Developing Effecitve Groups. San Francisco, California: Jossy-Bass Inc. 1994.

Thiagarajan, Sivasailam. Facilitator's Toolkit. Bloomington, Indiana: Workshops by Thiagi, Inc. 1998.

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