What’s it take to be a ‘leader as facilitator’, enabling collaboration?


Many leaders have learned coaching skills to liberate the best from their people. Now, leaders need to learn facilitation skills to liberate learning, new answers and change in groups or teams – anywhere that collaboration is required. The simple act of providing a facilitated environment shapes a system that encourages engagement and collaboration.

This article is not about addressing why collaboration can be difficult, but rather about one skill that can help aid it – facilitation. Like coaching, not many managers learn facilitation skills in their MBA because it’s not a part of the curriculum; however, it should be.

Why is facilitation necessary within team meetings?

True teams can be thought of as a unit of work, just like individuals are considered a unit of work. A whole that works together to produce outcomes together. However, when individuals think through a challenge together, they often don’t even understand the problem in the same way, let alone think through to a decision in the same way. If we mapped the thinking process of each team member, each path would be different. The different thinking patterns are at the heart of groups feeling like they are talking in circles at times.

Compounding the confusion created by different thinking pathways is the inability of teams or groups to capture or harvest the outcomes or decisions that emerge from the conversation.

A facilitated environment breaks through these barriers to generate a more productive space for genuine collaboration. We can create a facilitated environment by understanding and assigning three different roles within the team; facilitator, scribe and timekeeper.

The role of facilitator

To facilitate means “to make easy”. Within a team, we are usually trying to promote a conversation that is about making a decision, agreeing on a plan of action, identifying learning from past work or generating change from that learning. So, within that context, you are trying to make the conversation and generation of desired outcomes, easy.

So what do you need to do?

1. Provide processes (or tools) that make it easier. For example, decision-making models. A common coaching agenda, GROW is helpful for nearly any discussion. Creating a timeline for a plan on a whiteboard is helpful. A particularly helpful website is associated with the book “The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures”.

2. As the facilitator, your focus is on the process. Think of yourself as the guardian angel of the process, rather than the content. I stress the angel along with the guardian. Try to avoid becoming combative or so protective of time, that you don’t allow the space for the conversation that really needs to happen. As a facilitator, you don’t need to know the content of the discussion; you need to observe how team members are engaging and guide them to stay on track with the process.

3. Being a guardian angel of the process is a challenge in itself because as a team member or the team leader, you may have definite ideas to add into the conversation. If that’s the case, ideally get someone else to facilitate – or learn to monitor yourself. Learn to hold your role as the facilitator, and then state when you are taking that hat off to become an active participant for a moment. Then return to your role as facilitator. This self-regulation takes practice, but you can learn to do it. It is essential that you do learn to ‘hold the space as a facilitator’ because otherwise you will be perceived as manipulating the process and outcome.

4. Your team members will participate, fully and enthusiastically, when the process is fair and transparent. That is when they get an equitable opportunity to influence, and the outcome is not predetermined.

5. A balanced and open process requires the team leader to be clear about the decision making. Is the process one of gathering ideas and then the team leader will make the decision – or is the team making a decision together? Be clear up front. My experience is that people will accept either – they just need to know.

6. All of the above points mean that team members need well-developed communication and interpersonal skills. To improve the way they listen and manage their triggers to speak over the top of someone else when they are in the grip of feeling passionate about the topic. As a facilitator, you need to point this out to them and help the team notice when they do interrupt each other.

The role of the scribe

The scribe’s role is vital. If you are a well-practised facilitator, it is possible also to be the scribe – but it is often more useful to separate these roles.

1. The scribe’s role is to capture critical phrases that represent a summary of different parts of the conversation as a summary of that conversation. The whiteboard or butcher’s paper employed (so that everyone can see it) enables the whole group to track their discussion to date. It allows then to use the same process, step by step, to think together.

2. The scribe must listen deeply. Then using the speaker’s words, capture relevant ideas and suggestions for each part of the process. It is not the role of the scribe to decide about what will happen and only scribe what they think is the outcome. If in doubt about what to capture – ask the team.

3. The scribe, like the facilitator, needs to develop self-regulation to scribe but not become so personally caught up in the conversation that they forget to scribe or only capture their personal views.

4. Try to write legibly. Link ideas with dots. Using different colours alternately for various suggestions or stages of the process can also help.

The role of the timer

Before the conversation begins, the team can decide how long it wants to devote to this conversation. The timer’s function is simply to keep track of time and advice the facilitator when the deadline is, for example, five minutes away. It is for the facilitator or team to decide whether to wrap up within that five minutes or extend it. The timekeeper does not manage the time- merely monitors it.

If another team member does not fulfil the roles of scribe and timer, then the facilitator needs to perform these roles too.

Download my Team Facilitator Checklist to help you – I hope that this pre-thinking will help you develop your facilitation skills – to enable more collaboration.