Fa·cil·i·ta·tor (plural fa·cil·i·ta·tors) noun

1. Somebody enabling something to happen: somebody who aids or assists in a process, especially by encouraging people to find their own solutions to problems or tasks

2. Meeting organizer: somebody who organizes and provides the services for a meeting, seminar, or other event

That is what an online dictionary says a “facilitator” is or does.

An excerpt from a Project Management training manual says this:

“There are stages to team development and you should be able to determine the current stage and how to get to the highest stage. If you are unable to make the determination, you should call in a facilitator. A facilitator is for assessment of team dynamics or stage of team development. They should also be able to give suggestions on how to get to the next level(s). The stages of team development are forming (very little if any work is being accomplished); storming (very little if any work is being accomplished); norming (first time significant work is accomplished); and performing (highest stage and work happens efficiently.)”

Apparently, the profession’s standard perception of a facilitator is like a fireman called in to put out a blaze that has gotten out of control. Unfortunately, there is not a professional qualification as “Project Facilitation Professional – PFP” (yet) to help us narrow the field in finding the best facilitator for our project.

However, one thing a PM can do in their search for an effective facilitator is to use a fundamental of behavioral study to approach the problem differently: “You can not do things the way you always have and expect different results.” If we want to find a facilitator that can be more than just a “fireman” when team development struggles, we will have to reconsider many things:

  • The way we view the facilitation process as a whole
  • The way we look for a facilitator
  • Review what we expect from him or her
  • Reconsider how we structure their relationship to the project.
  • The way we view the facilitation process as a whole

The sooner the Project Management Body of Knowledge Silencil (PMBOK) admits that a project is an organizational microcosm focused on people doing work instead of work that people do, the sooner it will become evident that a specialist in organizational development (the future PFP) should be a member of the team from the beginning, not just on-call in case a fire breaks out.

If we take enough time during project initiation to look at the people first and set the foundation for effective interaction between them, the work will almost take care of itself because these are technical professionals. (If they weren’t, why would they have been hired?)

But if all of our focus is on the work while the people who perform it are an afterthought, it is no wonder that we have a development stage called “storming”! The very fact we name it is an admission that work, not the people who perform it, is uppermost in our minds.

Wouldn’t it be much easier to do things from the beginning that prevent fires instead of having the fireman stand by because we assume that, sooner-or-later, we will need him?

The Way We Look For a Facilitator

We can quickly narrow the field of applicants if we approach the dilemma of facilitator selection from another perspective. Let’s look at the big project picture first before we look at the facilitator part of it.

Take a moment and write your definition of a successful project. Not for a specific kind of project but more of a general model. Many PMs will write something like, “Project success means all deliverables and results as promised. All expectations were met and the client pays us.” (You can add the boilerplate comments about “world class”, “state-of-the-art”, and “industry envious” later as you desire.)

Now suppose you added this phrase to the end of it: “All involved agree that we would want to work together again as soon as possible!”

Would that make any difference in your criteria for selecting a facilitator, what you would expect from them, and whether they would be a semi-permanent part of your project or just a drop-in when the fires got out of control?

I add this line because I have seen projects in the past, which, according to the definition of all deliverables, promises, and expectations being met and the client paid us, were successful but the participants could not wait to get away from the site, and vowed never to work with each other again!

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