A Facilitator’s Profile is Much Like an Innovator’s Profile (Design Thinker)

“Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t need weird shoes or a black turtleneck to be a design thinker . . .” so goes the article from Harvard Business Review June 2008 (pg 87).  The author suggests that five characteristics found in design thinkers (ie, innovators) that relate uncannily to core competencies required for effective facilitation.  Included (in alphabetical order) are Collaboration, Empathy, Experimentalism, Integrative Thinking, and Optimism.

Door of Opportunity

Door of Opportunity

Collaboration:  Increasing complexity of options and decision-making demands the involvement of many, rather than one.  Lone genius has been replaced with cross-disciplinary subject matter experts.  Select subject matter experts have the talent to succeed, the initiative and motivation to succeed, but frequently do not know how to succeed in a group setting.  Many are subject matters across disciplines with experience drawn upon multiple backgrounds and organizations.  At IDEO for example, they engage engineers, marketers, anthropologists, industrial designers, architects, and psychologists, among others.

Empathy:  Understanding that there is more than one right answer, seeking the best among multiple perspectives lends itself to creating an answer that did not walk into the meeting; rather one that is created during the meeting.  To support creation, empathy in the form of active listening with a neutral session leader becomes critical.

Experimentalism:  Challenging subject matter experts to make their thinking visible, from the heart, can advance the rationale behind their thoughts that breeds both consensual understanding and breakthrough solutions.  Through observation and questioning, session leaders can inspire and transfer ownership of the meeting output.

Integrative Thinking:  While analytical methods are certainly helpful, integrative approaches support innovation.  A neutral facilitator can help a group understand multiple perspectives and build a solution(s) to reconcile seemingly contradictory points of view.  For example, one participant may prefer black and another prefers white.  Instead of viewing them as opposing thoughts, how can we integrate both black and white?  Immediate answers include options such as two-tone, plaid, polka dot, shades of grey, etc.

Successful session leaders rely on confidence in method rather than expertise around content to generate higher quality solutions.  Practically speaking however, optimism and confidence come from experience, so don’t forget to try, practice, and some more.  There is usually more than one right answer.  You may not be the best facilitator in the world, but you are the best facilitator your group can find.

Trust that in the role of session leader, they need you more than anything else, to lead with Collaboration, Empathy, Experimentalism, Integrative Thinking, and Optimism.  Through method you can open the doors of perception that makes it easier for your group to develop breakthrough solutions.

Let us know what you think by commenting below. For additional methodology and team-based meeting support for your change initiative, refer to “Change or Die, a Business Process Improvement Manual” for much of the support you might need.

Become Part of the Solution, Improve Your Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Do not forget to order Change or Die if you’re working on a business process improvement project. It provides detailed workshop agendas and detailed tools to make your role easier and your team’s performance a lot more effective—daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify a facilitative leader.

Five Compelling Business or Organizational Reasons to Hold a Facilitated Session


The most important action most people take every day is to make choices, to decide.  Productivity is amplified if decisions are properly made about when to work alone, speak with one other person, or to pull together a group of people, typically called a meeting.

The advantages to a facilitated meeting or workshop include:

  1. Higher quality results: groups of people generally make higher quality decisions than the smartest person in the group.  Facilitated sessions encourage the exchange of different points of view enabling the group to identify new options, and it is a proven fact that any person or group with more options at its disposal makes higher quality decisions.
  2. Faster results: facilitated sessions can accelerate the capture of information, especially if the meeting participants (aka subject matter experts) arrive prepared with an understanding of the questions and issues that need to be discussed.
  3. Richer results: by pooling skills and resources, diverse and heterogeneous groups develop more specific details and anticipate future demands, subsequently saving time and money in the project or program life cycle.
  4. People stimulate people: properly facilitated sessions can lead to innovation and the catalyst for innovative opportunities because multiple perspectives generate a richer (360 degree) understanding of a problem or challenge, rather than a narrow, myopic view.
  5. Transfer of ownership: facilitated sessions are oriented toward further action by creating deliverables that support follow-up efforts.  Professional facilitators use a method that builds commitment and support from the participants, rather than directing responsibility at the participants.


Conducting facilitated sessions includes preparatory time, actual contact time during the session, and follow-up time as well.  Therefore, successful sessions depend upon clearly defined roles, especially distinguishing between the role of facilitator and the role of methodologist (that are also discrete from the role of scribe or documenter, coordinator, etc.).  Carefully managed sessions also embrace ground rules to ensure getting more done, faster.

Much effort may be provided before the session to ensure high productivity, including:

  • Researching both methodological options and content to be explored
  • Review and documentation of minutes, records, findings, and group decisions that affect the project being supported with this particular meeting or workshop session
  • Completion of individual and small group assignments prior to sessions

When conducted properly, meetings with groups of people are strenuous for everyone involved, which is why they may be called workshops or workouts.  Therefore, avoid an overly ambitious agenda and plan for at least two, ten-minute breaks every four hours. Use our FAST ten-minute timers to ensure that breaks do not extend to eleven or twelve minutes. Strive to provide dedicated resources, such as a facilitator professionally trained in structured methods.

Discourage unplanned interruptions, especially through electronic leashes. “Topless” meetings are increasingly popular, meaning no laptops or desktop devices (eg, smart phones) except for accessing content needed to support the session. “No praying underneath the table” is another expression used to discourage people from using their gadgets on their laps, presumably beyond the line of sight of others, when in fact, everyone can see what they are doing anyway. For serious consensual challenges or multiple day sessions, sessions should be held away from the participants’ everyday work site to minimize interruptions and everyday job distractions.

Become Part of the Solution, Improve Your Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify the skills of a facilitative leader.

When to Use Facilitative Leadership

We want you to see that facilitative leadership does not apply to all situations, but is ideally suited for projects and teams where the leader is coordinating the efforts of competent specialists whose requirements are not fully understood.  The best leaders are flexible because both modes of leadership have their place.

Participants should also come to understand that they could shift to a facilitative mode once their staff possesses the capacity to work independently and assume responsibility for outcomes.  Task-focused direction is required for the close oversight of tasks.  Structure-focused direction works best when leading teams of experts.

The following questions can be asked to determine if a project or team is best suited for facilitative leadership:

  • Are some of the team decisions extremely complex or sensitive?

    Questions to Ask

  • Are team members evaluated with different performance measurement systems?
  • Are the leaders operating without direct authority over some of the members?
  • Do the group decisions require broad support and commitment from stakeholders?
  • Does the situation call for a leader who is seen to be neutral by
    all parties?
  • Is the group dealing with historically hostile parties or complex bureaucracies?
  • Will the effort or project require initiative, creativity, and innovation?
  • Will the final solution require a commitment from a diverse set of stakeholders?
  • Will the team be communicating across time zones, cultures, and organizational boundaries?
  • Will you have strong subject matter experts who need to align around new goals or outcomes?
  • Will you need group members be self-motivated because they are working independently?
  • Will you need your group to perform as a cohesive team that meets periodically?

For additional facilitative leadership support, see your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST Professional Facilitative Leadership training  session offered around the world (see http://www.mgrush.com/ for a current schedule).

How to Design a Meeting Agenda that Helps Create the Output (Deliverable) You Need


To design a new meeting or  workshop agenda that will effectively lead a group to its deliverable, use these steps. Following them will increase your meeting success. Before we begin, let us remember the definition of a solid structured meeting (eg, FAST) agenda:

Agenda Design Steps

Agenda Defined

An agenda is a series of steps that structure a group discussion during a meeting or workshop.  The FAST technique’s pre-built or cookbook agendas provide solid versions of known and proven information gathering, sharing, and decision-making methods. The modifications you apply to basic agendas will enable:

  1. A facilitator (ie, the session leader) to lead the discussion, with . . .
  2. Subject matter experts (who are experts about content but NOT experts about context or  meeting technique), who build understanding . . .
  3. That extracts required information (ie, the meeting output or deliverable including for example, decision-making or prioritization), thus
  4. Enabling other stakeholders (ie, project team) to use the information and decisions to support and further advance project objectives and organizational goals.

Methodological steps to create a new meeting or workshop agenda are:

  1. Identify the purpose, scope, and deliverables of the meeting—what are you building and what level of detail is required?
  2. Codify the deliverables—what is the specific content for the output of the workshop, what is the optimal sequence for gathering it, and who will use it after the meeting is complete?
  3. Identify known information—what is already known about the project, problem, or scope?
  4. Draft your likely steps—compose a series of steps from experience or analytical methods that would be used by other experts to make this decision, solve this problem, or develop the required information and consensual view.
  5. Review steps for logical flow—walk through the steps to confirm they will produce the desired results.
  6. Identify likely meeting participants—determine the most likely participants and identify their level of understanding about the business issues and the method you have drafted for them to develop the information during the the agenda steps.
  7. Identify any agenda steps that the participants cannot complete—modify or eliminate the steps that your specific participants may not understand, will not value, or are inappropriate for their level of experience.
  8. Identify what information is needed to fill the gaps from step number seven above, and determine how to get this additional information (eg, off-line)—what information or analysis is required to substitute for the missing information identified in step number seven above, that your meeting participants cannot complete?
  9. Detail the final agenda steps to capture required information for the open issues—build the appropriate activities to produce the information without making the participants perform unnecessary activities (eg, do NOT do team building if they already function together properly).
  10. Review—confirm steps number one and two above and then carefully review the detailed activities to confirm that they satisfy the purpose and provide the needed information without over challenging or intimidating your participants.
  11. Perform a walk-through, including documentation format or templates, with other business experts, executive sponsor, and project team members.
  12. Refine—make any changes identified in the walk-through and begin to build out your annotated agenda as suggested by the FAST technique.

Facilitation Skills

The FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics mentioned above. Remember friends, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual or attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn 40 PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

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