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The Skilled Facilitator Fieldbook
By Roger Schwarz
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7879-6494-8
Chapter OneThe Skilled Facilitator Approach Roger Schwarz
The Skilled Facilitator approach is a values-based, systemic approach to group facilitation. It is designed to help groups (1) increase the quality of decisions, (2) increase commitment to decisions, (3) reduce effective implementation time, (4) improve working relationships, (5) improve personal satisfaction in groups, and (6) increase organizational learning. This chapter provides an overview of the approach.
WHAT IS GROUP FACILITATION?
Group facilitation is a process in which a person whose selection is acceptable to all members of the group, who is substantively neutral, and who has no substantive decision-making authority diagnoses and intervenes to help a group improve how it identifies and solves problems and makes decisions, to increase the group's effectiveness.
The facilitator's main task is to help the group increase its effectiveness by improving its process and structure. Process refers to how a group works together. It includes how members talk to each other, identify and solve problems, make decisions, and handle conflict. Structure refers to stable recurring group processes, such as group membership or group roles. In contrast, content refers to what a group is working on-for example, whether to enter a new market, how to provide high-quality service to customers,or what each group member's responsibilities should be. Whenever a group meets, it is possible to observe both its content and process. For example, in a discussion about how to provide high-quality service, suggestions about installing a customer hotline or giving more authority to those with customer contact reflect content. However, members responding to only certain members' ideas or failing to identify their assumptions are facets of the group's process.
Underlying the facilitator's main task is the premise that ineffective group process and structure reduces a group's ability to solve problems and make decisions. By increasing the effectiveness of the group's process and structure, the facilitator helps the group improve its performance and overall effectiveness. The facilitator does not intervene directly in the content of the group's discussions; to do so would require the facilitator to abandon neutrality and would reduce the group's responsibility for solving its problems.
To ensure that the facilitator is trusted by all group members and that the group's autonomy is maintained, the facilitator needs to meet three criteria: (1) be acceptable to all members of the group, (2) be substantively neutral-that is, display no preference for any of the solutions the group considers-and (3) not have substantive decision-making authority. In practice, the facilitator can meet these three criteria only if the facilitator is not a group member. Although a group member may be acceptable to other members and may not have substantive decision-making authority, the group member has a substantive interest in the group's issues.
By definition, a group member cannot formally fill the role of facilitator. Nevertheless, a group leader or member can use the Skilled Facilitator principles and techniques to help a group. Effective leaders regularly use facilitation skills as part of their leadership role.
KEY FEATURES OF THE SKILLED FACILITATOR APPROACH
The Skilled Facilitator approach is one approach to facilitation. Often facilitation approaches represent a compilation of techniques and methods without an underlying integrated theoretical framework. The Skilled Facilitator approach is based on a theory of group facilitation that contains a set of core values and principles and a number of techniques and methods derived from the core values and principles. It integrates the theory into practice to create a values-based, systemic approach to group facilitation. In doing so, it answers two key questions: "What do I say and do in this situation?" and "What are concepts and principles that lead me to say and do this?" Exhibit 1.1 identifies the key features of the Skilled Facilitator approach and their purpose.
The Group Effectiveness Model
To help groups become more effective, you need a model of group effectiveness to guide your work. The model needs to be more than descriptive-that is, it needs to do more than explain how groups typically function or develop because many groups develop in a way that is dysfunctional. To be useful, the model needs to be normative: it should tell you what an effective group looks like.
The Group Effectiveness Model (GEM) identifies the criteria for effective groups, identifies the elements that contribute to effectiveness and the relationships among them, and describes what these elements look like in practice. The model enables you to determine when groups are having problems, identify the causes that generate the problems, and begin to identify where to intervene to address the problems. When you are creating new groups, the model helps you identify the elements and relationships among the elements that need to be in place to ensure an effective group.
* See Chapter Two, "The Group Effectiveness Model," page 15, and Chapter Fifteen, "Using the Group Effectiveness Model," page 135.
A Clearly Defined Facilitative Role
To help groups, you need a clear definition of your facilitative role so that you and the groups you are helping have a common understanding about and agree on the kinds of behaviors that are consistent and inconsistent with your role. This has become more difficult as organizations have used the word facilitator to define many different roles. Human resource experts, organization development consultants, trainers, coaches, and even managers have sometimes been referred to as facilitators. The Skilled Facilitator approach clearly defines the facilitator role as a substantively neutral person who is not a group member and who works for the entire group. Still, as I describe in the next section, even if you are not a facilitator, you can use facilitative skills.
The Skilled Facilitator approach distinguishes between two types of facilitation: basic and developmental. In basic facilitation, you help a group solve a substantive problem by essentially lending the group your process skills. When your work is complete, the group has solved its substantive problem, but by design, it has not learned how to improve its process. In developmental facilitation, you help a group improve its process by learning to reflect on and change its thinking and behavior so it can solve substantive problems more effectively.
* See Chapter Eleven, "Basic Facilitation," page 115, and Chapter Forty-Three, "Developmental Facilitation," page 339.
Useful in a Wide Range of Roles
Although I have described the Skilled Facilitator approach in terms of a substantively neutral third-party facilitator, the approach also recognizes that everyone needs facilitative skills. So the approach encompasses additional facilitative roles: facilitative consultant, facilitative coach, facilitative trainer, and facilitative leader. All are based on the same underlying core values and principles as the role of neutral, third-party facilitator.
* Chapter Three, "Using Facilitative Skills in Different Roles," page 27, has basic information on the different facilitative roles. Many of the chapters in Parts Six and Seven explore how the different roles work in practice.
Explicit Core Values
All approaches to facilitation are based on some core values, explicit or implicit. Whatever the approach, core values provide its foundation and serve as a guide. They enable you to craft consistent new methods and techniques and to reflect continually on how well you do in acting congruently with them. But if you are to benefit most from a set of core values, they need to be explicit. The Skilled Facilitator approach is based on four explicit core values, and the principles that follow from them: (1) valid information, (2) free and informed choice, (3) internal commitment, and (4) compassion. (The first three core values come from the work of Chris Argyris and Donald Schon, 1974.) Valid information means sharing all the relevant information that you have about an issue in a way that others can understand the reasoning. Free and informed choice means members make decisions based on valid information, not on pressure from inside or outside the group. Internal commitment means each member feels personally responsible for the decision and is willing to support the decision, given his or her role. Compassion means adopting a stance toward others and yourself in which you temporarily suspend judgment.
As a facilitator, you need not only a set of methods and techniques but also an understanding of how and why they work. By using an explicit set of core values and the principles that follow from them, you can improvise and design new methods and techniques consistent with the core values. Without this understanding, you are like a novice baker who must either follow the recipe as given or make changes without knowing what will happen.
Making the core values explicit also helps you work with groups. You can discuss your approach with potential clients so that they can make more informed choices about whether they want to use you as their facilitator. When clients know the core values underlying your approach, they can help you improve your practice, identifying when they believe you are acting inconsistently with the values you espoused. Because the core values for facilitation are also the core values for effective group behavior, when you act consistently with the core values, not only do you act effectively as a facilitator, but you also model effective behavior for the group you are working with.
* See Chapter Four, page 33, "Understanding What Guides Your Behavior," for an introduction to how assumptions and values guide behavior. For some applications, try Chapter Thirty-Four, "Being a Mutual Learner in a Unilaterally Controlling World," page 287, and Chapter Forty-Four, "Guidelines for Theory-in-Use Interventions," page 349.
Ground Rules for Effective Groups
As you watch a group in action, you may intuitively know whether the members' conversation is productive even if you cannot identify exactly how they either contribute to or hinder the group's process. Yet a facilitator needs to understand the specific kinds of behaviors that improve a group's process. The Skilled Facilitator approach describes these behaviors in a set of ground rules for effective groups. The ground rules make specific the abstract core values of facilitation and group effectiveness (Figure 1.1).
* See Chapter Five, "Ground Rules for Effective Groups," page 61, for an introduction to the ground rules. For practical detail on using them, try Chapter Fourteen, "Introducing the Ground Rules and Principles in Your Own Words," page 131; Chapter Twenty-One, "Ways to Practice the Ground Rules," page 189; Chapter Twenty-Six, "Ground Rules Without the Mutual Learning Model Are Like Houses Without Foundations," page 217; and Chapter Thirty-Five, "Introducing the Skilled Facilitator Approach at Work," page 293.
The behavioral ground rules in the Skilled Facilitator approach differ from the more procedural ground rules that many groups use ("start on time, end on time"; "turn off your pagers and cell phones"). Procedural ground rules can be helpful, but they do not describe the specific behaviors that lead to effective group process.
The Diagnosis-Intervention Cycle
The group effectiveness model, the core values, and the ground rules for effective groups are all tools for diagnosing behavior in groups. But you still need a way to put these tools to work. Specifically you need to know when to intervene, what kind of intervention to make, how to say it, when to say it, and to whom. To help put these tools into practice, the Skilled Facilitator approach includes a six-step process called the diagnosis-intervention cycle. The cycle is a structured and simple way to think about what is happening in the group and then to intervene consistent with the core values. It serves to guide you into effective action.
* Chapter Six, "The Diagnosis-Intervention Cycle," page 69, is an introduction to the diagnosis-intervention cycle. For more on applications, see Chapter Eleven, "Basic Facilitation," page 115.
To help groups become more effective requires that you constantly try to make sense of what is happening in the group. You watch members say and do things and then make inferences about what their behavior means (an inference is a conclusion you reach about something that is unknown to you based on things that you have observed) and how it is either helping or hindering the group's process. For example, in a meeting, if you see someone silently folding his arms across his chest, you may infer that he disagrees with what has been said but is not saying so.
The kinds of inferences you make are critical because they guide what you will say and they affect how group members will react to you. To be effective, you need to make these inferences in a way that increases the chance that you will be accurate, enables you to share your inferences with the group to see if they disagree, and does not create defensive reactions in group members when you share your inferences.
The Skilled Facilitator approach accomplishes this by focusing on what I refer to as low-level inferences. Essentially, this means that you diagnose and intervene in groups by making the fewest and the smallest inferential leaps necessary.
By learning to think and intervene using low-level inferences, you can increase the accuracy of your diagnosis and your ability to share your thinking with others, and reduce the chance that you will create defensive reactions when you do so. This ensures that your actions increase rather than decrease the group's effectiveness.
* See the Ladder of Inference sidebar in Chapter Five, "Ground Rules for Effective Groups," page 61, for an explanation of how we make inferences.
Exploring and Changing How We Think
Facilitation is difficult work because it is cognitively and emotionally demanding. It is especially difficult when you find yourself in situations you consider potentially embarrassing or psychologically threatening. Research shows that in these situations, most people tend to think and act in a way that seeks to unilaterally control the conversation, win the discussion, and minimize the expression of negative feelings (Argyris and Schon, 1974). The same problem that reduces your effectiveness as a facilitator reduces the effectiveness of the groups you are seeking to help. Like the facilitator, the group members are also unaware of how they create these problems for themselves.
The Skilled Facilitator approach helps you understand the conditions under which you act less effectively and understand how your own thinking leads you to act ineffectively in ways that you are normally unaware of. It provides tools for increasing your effectiveness, particularly in situations you find emotionally difficult. This involves changing not only your techniques, but also how you think about or frame situations, including the core values and assumptions that underlie your approach.
The Skilled Facilitator approach is grounded in a way of thinking and acting calling the mutual learning model. In the mutual learning model, you think that you have some information and that others have other information; you think that others may see things that you don't just as you may see things that they don't; you consider differences as opportunities for learning rather than opportunities to show the others that they are wrong; and you assume that people are trying to act with integrity given their situations.
Excerpted from The Skilled Facilitator Fieldbook by Roger Schwarz Excerpted by permission.
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