The Art of Top Level Facilitation

John Smythe's insights from facilitating at C suite and board levels

To historic Lainston House Hotel near Winchester where John Smythe recently facilitated a two day strategy session for a FTSE top 40 company with the main board,executive team and some Group executives;some 26 in total. They arrived from UK,Europe,USA,Africa and elseWhere.The client remains anonymous for obvious reasons.

The mission - to elaborate on and agree a long term vision and strategy

The role for John Smythe - to facilitate purposeful discussion,provide opportunity for everyone to speak up including the CEO and Chair who took the role of participant for the duration,and reach authentic agreement on the vision/strategy.

The challenges - balance the needs of many new board members with those who had sat for five plus years and balance the perspectives of the NEOs and the executive team. Flush out all the elephants,deal with them and note which remain unresolved for next time.

The scary bit - hearing over the informal night one dinner for the NEOs that they didn't want to do this or that,whilst I was sitting thinking 'oh dear that's exactly what we'll be doing' and having the resolve to stick to the plan,so not much sleep that night.

How did It turn out? The primary mission was accomplished with key questions outstanding like the prioritisation/sequence of investment and geographic scope.

Why use a facilitator? No human being Iknow can facilitate and participate simultaneously without tainting one or the other role,so if leaders want to participate they should consider external facilitation.(be they C suite, business or functional head). Besides few insiders will have or be able to retain the licence to square up to strong opposing forces, and at times deliberately flush them out When their retention is preventing authentic discussion and momentum.

Insights for effective facilitation - getting people out of operational, flight fight, office mode into reflectivity

All the foregoing and more are based on enabling people to shift from transactional/operational responses to breakthrough/breakaway thinking.

Conventional content heavy meetings with brief 'work at tables' sessions invariably produces noisy,incremental ideas of limited value. Equally unhelpful dynamics involve overst mulation of people drawn from the sales school of gatherings putting them straight back into operational fight mode.

Our job is to enable people into to pull back from quick fire emotional responses to offering considered reactions:
- Good planning is key,first identify the culturaland commercial purpose before designing the process
- Understand the previous patterns of similar meetings and figure out which elements fall into the bracket of 'we always do it this way' and plan to do it differently.For example if it is 'normal' to have place names, discard them and require the group to seat itself - explore every opportunity to ringchanges.
- Understand the sources of power in the group Which tend to result in cyclical discussions and unfinished business sometimes resulting in months of stasis
- Plan meeting dynamics which disrupt historic forces of repetition which keeps the facilitator one move ahead of the 'pack' - be ready to change dynamics if people are going off purpose or re-grouping into comfortable teams - dynamics that disrupt without a wordof censure be inguttered
- Use small techniques like getting the groups to stand especially at the beginning of the day and never allow any group to sit for more than 90 minutes
- Know the venue - for example at Lainston there is a lovely kitchen garden,beautiful summer meadows and an avenue of Lime trees planted in the 1700s - a few minutes cooldown in any can help.Make sure the delegates know about these hidden spaces of tranquillity
- Or organise a hawk display or other feature onnature to let minds wander - the natural angle is key especially if the groups travels fromcountry to country and at the same time pick up a sense of the locality
- At the outset of the meeting deal with process objections politely and ensure the chair/CEO legitimises the facilitator's role
- No power points/different ways of representation
- Use a journey log book of the meeting to enable people to follow instructions and make observations:in printed or electronic form
- A little light humour can do wonders to ground people

In practice here's a diary log of the strategy offsite:

Dinner Monday - catharsis

Dinner was a significant,but apparently informal part of the board as it served as a cathartic process allowing NEDs to talk out expectations and anticipated frustrations for the two days that followed. Put another way these views were better out easy in the process. The key expressions that night were:

  • That the vision be elaborated along with specific steps/sequence to attain it
  • A hope that the specific business spots were future focussed rather than historic reviews
  • Deep scepticism about 'surprising changes to dynamics

Day one process - giving everyone voice
We imposed a degree of order on day one in terms of small groups in changing dynamics to pump prime the plenaries that followed. The purpose of these was to maximise social interaction and more significantly, to enable individuals in the small groups to deliver an intellectual reaction when they returned to the large group. Too often the format of presentation followed by large group Q&A results in emotional/'first thing that comes into my head' reactions and grandstanding.

The small groups tend to give everyone voice. We also used the device of Green and Pink A5 'Post its' both in the review of the vision and reviews of the business units to impose a constructive agenda on the small groups. Thus they needed to find favour(green) as wellas fault or issues (pink).In plenary we used this to coral both avour and faulVissues and the green and pink walls grew during day one as people added further ideas.

John and the strategy team categorised and clustered the green and pink walls into an agenda for day two such that people could see what was being dealt with and what was still unresolved. Technology can be used but sometimes it helps for people to see how their ideas have built the conclusion- technology can occlude the evolution of solutions.

As the external observer/facilitator it seemed to me that most content issue/elephants were put on the table.The key here is to find ways to keep chipping away at issues that are still deliberately or tacitly buried. This will rarely if ever be achieved in a large group. Unusual groups of two or three are more likely to liberate the elephants.

Day two - conscious shift of captaincy to CEO/Chair
Having imposed order on day one we consciously and deliberately shifted the facilitator's power and influence to back   to the CEO/Chair - the group had adopted 'turn taking/giving' on day one and the pattern held forday two. Care has to be takenon When this judgement is safe - it may resutt in immediate reversion to less effective dynamics.

The role of a facilitator:

  • Enables power holders to participate
  • Maintains a group's focus on the primary outcome:a shared longterm vision in this case
  • Enables turn taking and constructive disruption
  • Enables both logical and intuitive interventions
  • Balances transactional contributions with searching inquiry to 'ripen' issues - President Lyndon B Johnson 'ripened' the race issue (ref: US politicalscientist Ronald Heifetz @ Kennedy school of political science)
  • Tries to enable insight aboutInner patterns and behavioural preferences s licensed to politely close down circular/repetitious behaviour) and outer influences
  • Encourages 'what If' and tabling of alternatives - what would a predator do with our assets?