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If It Was Rocket Science: Effective Group Facilitation

Reos Partners
June, 2011


All of us have spent time in groups. We spend our family lives, our educational lives, and our working lives in the company of others. Groups are extremely complex beings. American psychotherapist Arnold Mindell once said that behind any of the world’s problems you’ll find groups of people who don’t get along. What he meant is that groups that are dysfunctional in one way or another lie at the heart of our biggest challenges.

But what does it mean for a group to be functional? And if a group is dysfunctional, how can it change to become functional?
A Process Approach
Our work at Reos involves figuring out how to support groups of people to be effective at achieving the goals they set for themselves. We do this through focusing on what we call “process”, or the “how” of accomplishing objectives. Over the last 15 years of doing this work with many thousands of people and many hundreds of groups, in an incredibly diverse set of settings, my colleagues and I have learned a few things about how to support groups in being effective.
As our worlds become more complex, the old ways of working with groups have become ineffective and outmoded. Ineffective because we now have a much better understanding of what motivates people to do their best, and outmoded because the context in which we operate has changed. Previously, the majority of organizations relied on command and control approaches, but these are proving less and less useful today. People have more rights and options than before. They are working less with their muscles and more with their minds.
As the pace of change speeds up, so too does the need for responsiveness. Frontline staffers need to take the initiative and cannot wait until headquarters gives them permission to react to threats and opportunities. Lines of command are becoming strained and breaking. Small, autonomous groups with decision-making power are increasingly common.
Over the last decade and a half, our approach in our work has been largely expert driven. We are experts at forming and supporting effective groups. People hire us to help them improve their responses to complex situations. We do our jobs and go home.
That was then. We are now finding that people have an increased appetite for doing this work for themselves. People from diverse professional backgrounds are saying to us, “How can I do what you do?” In response to hearing this question again and again, we have become trainers. We have started codifying our work, writing handbooks and manuals, and designing training courses to support people in their learning.
What Is Facilitation?
Our latest offering is a short course called “Effective Group Facilitation”. In this course, we teach a set of practices that lie at the heart of our work, that is, facilitation.
What is facilitation? One understanding of facilitation is that it’s the work of supporting a group of people in getting from one place to another. Sometime a group knows where it wants to start and where it wants to go. More often than not, groups aren’t clear on or disagree about where to go.
Imagine if you will a group of people that has come together to scale the icy heights of a mountain. First question: Is there a map? If not, then the nature of the journey becomes very different.
In the work that we do most frequently, there is no map. Therefore the success of the team becomes highly dependent on group member’s ability to work together, support each other, and reach the top.
In professional contexts, where the consequences of mistakes often seem less dramatic than those that can happen when climbing a mountain, we usually don’t pay enough attention to the nature of our teams. That is, all too often, we throw people together with the instruction to achieve a result and then hope for the best. This is an expensive way of working. Ask yourself, how many teams have you worked on that were dysfunctional or ineffective? How much time have you wasted banging your head against the proverbial brick wall at work?
Picture a rowing team. A good rowing team cuts through the water smoothly, leaving barely a ripple in the water. A bad rowing team will splash through the water, leaving a huge wake. In other words, a bad rowing team wastes a lot of energy. When we throw people together and tell them to get to work without supporting them to actually become a team, we are almost guaranteeing that there will be lots of splashing about until they figure out how to work together. If they figure out how to work together. Imagine if they could short-circuit this process and more quickly figure out how to collaborate effectively.
Amping Up Team Effectiveness
Effective Group Facilitation builds a set of practices to support teams through such journeys. In particular, EGF focuses on bolstering the skills of people who play a supporting role within their teams. Sometimes this role is formal and sometimes it is not. In either case, we guide the burgeoning facilitators in exploring questions such as: How does our team make decisions? How does it deal with issues of power and conflict? How do members remain motivated in the face of hardship or risk? How does our team learn from its mistakes? By building deep, clear, and sharp responses to such questions, a team amps up its effectiveness and better positions itself to achieve its goals.
In the short time that we have been teaching EGF, we have had the privilege of supporting people from many professional backgrounds. A number of them have been experienced consultants who want to facilitate for a living. We have also trained people who work with social change projects in places such as Colombia, public healthcare, utility companies, mining companies, communities, and many other industries and settings. At the recent EGF in Johannesburg, an entire firm of architects showed up, wanting to learn how to better facilitate effective collaboration among all the stakeholders involved in their building projects.
Each person obviously takes different things away from the course. Some leave with a foundation in how to work effectively with groups. Others gain the courage to step into facilitation roles. Some develop a deeper understanding of their own beliefs when it comes to teams. Still others feel that they have gained a new way of seeing group dynamics, and so on.
As we end the first decade of the 21st century, we at Reos believe that effective groups hold the key to solving many of our most complex and intractable problems. We need many, many effective teams, in all domains and realms of society. Our commitment is to continue to sharpen our practice and share it with as wide a group of people as possible. After all, if it were merely rocket science, it would be easy.
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