Friday, August 21, 2009

Closing the Deal

As a process consultant, I frequently get asked what are the greatest challenges that a facilitator faces. I think they fall into three major categories. Here they are, listed in the order in which you will probably need to grapple with them (luckily, all don't make an appearance with every topic; in fact, blessedly, with some topics, none of the three show up).

First, managing non-trivial emotional distress. When a topic triggers upset, you often have to deal with it as a pre-condition to making meaningful and lasting progress on the issue. That means you need to have an idea about how to do that, plus the chops to carry it off—typically in chaotic conditions. This is not a simple skill, yet an important one. For more about handling conflict, see my blog series on conflict: March 21-April 2, 2009.

Second, once you've cleared the air, the next major alligator to wrestle with is flushing out all the factors that a good solution needs to take into account—all to be accomplished before you start fielding proposed solutions. As facilitator, the hard part here is keeping the group sufficiently disciplined to stick with brainstorming the factors, before some folks jump to answers.

Even after the well has run dry on surfacing reasonable factors, there are still two more steps to creating a solid platform for problem solving: vetting the brainstormed factors for those appropriate for the group (as distinguished from personal preferences), and checking to see of there should be any prioritization of the factors (for example, when creating a pet policy, child safety appropriately comes ahead of Fido's preference to be unleashed).

The third challenge—and the main focus of this blog—is facilitating the group's consideration of how best to balance the factors you've just identified, polished, and blessed in the preceding step.

If the topic is complex, I suggest aggregating elements of the solution piece by piece, demonstrating to stakeholders how their concerns have been adequately reflected in what’s being proposed. In general, you’re better off checking first with the stakeholders you think might have to stretch the furthest to feel included—on the theory that if you can’t hold them, you probably don’t have a viable solution and you might as well know that from the get-go.

The trick here is steadfastly steering the group away from the advocacy that was featured in the preceding step (when you were identifying factors), and repeating to the group the mantra: "How well does this suggested solution balance the factors we came up with?" When a person feels their concerns have been left out of a proposal, ask them what would work better. Invite everyone to be a part of the solution, rather than a naysayer.

You are trying to create an atmosphere of inquiry and collaboration rather than survival of the fittest. Often, the facilitator—who is actively looking for the creative solution—will see a good way to balance disparate factors sooner than others, who tend to be more oriented toward protecting turf.

Caution: if, as facilitator, you offer up a solution that you think would work well, you have to gracefully stand down in the presence of resistance. It's all well and good to help the group move along; it's not OK if you're fighting for your ideas, as it will tend to undercut the neutrality that is the backbone of your license to operate.

The key to selling your idea to the group is showing how everyone's core concerns are being addressed. If someone feels left out, they'll be reluctant to get on board and you'll have to try another tack. If everyone can see how all players are being held and at the same time being asked to give a little, your idea will be more palatable.

When closing the deal, a crackerjack facilitator is part cheerleader ("We can do this!"), part magician (you're apt to see solutions others miss, especially if you're the only one in the room looking at the glass half full), and part sheep dog (continually urging the group to move in the direction of the corral—that will hold everyone—and away from protecting isolated ideas).

No comments: