A facilitator is a person who helps a group identify and solve problems by structuring the discussion and intervening when necessary to improve the effectiveness of the group's processes and outcomes. Facilitators, sometimes called moderators, maintain a neutral approach to topics and issues and serve the whole group in an unbiased manner.
The word facilitator is derived from the French word faciliter, which means to make easy or to simplify. Indeed, the goal of the facilitator is to make a group's decision-making process easy, efficient, and effective.
In the mid-1970s, Doyle and Strauss, authors of How to Make Meetings Work, argued that facilitators were "neutral servants" responsible for making sure participants were using the most effective approaches to problem solving and decision making while reaching consensus efficiently. The role of facilitators in business has grown dramatically in the past few years. A number of recent books published on the topic describe the responsibilities of a facilitator as well as approaches for developing facilitation skills. The distinction is often made between facilitators who are external to the organization or the group and facilitators who are internal. Both external and internal facilitators focus primarily on a group's process. In fact, some facilitators have minimal subject matter expertise.
Facilitators set the agenda for a group meeting or discussion, monitor the group's process in discussing agenda items, and help the group reach consensus, make decisions, and set action plans. Effective facilitators bring out a variety of opinions and ideas, at the same time ensuring that all participants feel they are valued contributors to the discussion. Facilitators monitor how the group works together by encouraging participation, protecting individuals from attack, and minimizing dominance by one or two participants.
Facilitators begin by clearly defining the role they will play and the strategies they will use. In addition, facilitators help set ground rules for how group members will interact with each other, how long and when group members will speak, and how the group will make decisions.
Facilitators use a number of strategies to help groups achieve their goals. Focusing on consensus building, facilitators help participants discuss issues so that the end result is an outcome that all participants can support. Voting might be used to assess the depth of agreement or disagreement, but final group decisions are reached by consensus.
Facilitators can be most effective when groups are discussing future-oriented tasks such as developing mission statements, vision and value statements, or conducting strategic planning. Facilitation is also useful when groups are discussing complex or controversial issues that require an outsider's unbiased attention to structure and process.
Typically, facilitators use flip charts, electronic boards, and web conferencing tools to capture ideas generated by group participants as well as the flow of the discussion. This visual reminder of the group's ideas, decisions, and action plans provide a "recorded" memory for the group during the discussion and the notes following the group meeting.
Advantages for groups that use facilitators include a well-structured meeting, focus on a common goal and a common process, record of the group's discussion and decisions, and an efficient way to reach consensus and productive outcomes. Facilitators provide strategies to handle conflicts between members as well as other nonproductive participant behaviors that impede the group's process. They also absolve group participants from the responsibility of handling the discussion or staying neutral.
Disadvantages can occur when facilitators are not effective. If a facilitator loses objectivity, the group may feel manipulated by the facilitator's approach. Also, if the facilitator does not manage the group's process effectively, the group will either waste time reaching consensus or in some cases may not meet their goals at all. Finally, groups can become overly dependent on a facilitator and may not learn the skills and strategies necessary to make decisions.
While facilitators are usually not members of the group since they are required to remain neutral, there is a trend toward managers and team members developing facilitation skills that they can use in meetings and discussions. Managers who assume the role of a facilitator, by definition, are not neutral. Yet, through facilitation managers can lead teams in managing change and achieving work-related outcomes. Specifically, managers as facilitators provide clear expectations of the work to be done, monitor the team's process to increase team productivity, and manage the boundaries that can affect the work of the team. The manager as a facilitator empowers team members to make decisions and resolve problems.
For frequent, regular meetings, groups may rotate responsibility for acting as facilitator among team members or meeting participants. This spares any one person from always bearing the responsibility for focusing discussions, following the agenda, and enforcing time limits.
In a business world marked by rapid change, the role of facilitators will continue to expand as the need for managers and teams to solve complex problems also grows.
Mary V. Herman
Revised by Wendy Mason
"GP Business: Resolve Conflict for the Best Team Effort." General Practitioner 12 November 2004, p. 30.
Kremer, Dennis. "Rules for Improved Meetings. (Viewpoint)" Fairfield County Business Journal, 20 December 2004, p. 38.
Rees, Fran. How to Lead Work Teams: Facilitation Skills. San Diego: Pfeiffer and Company, 1991.
Schwarz, Roger. The Skilled Facilitator: Practical Wisdom for Developing Effective Groups. San Francisco: Jossey–Bass, 1994.
Weaver, Richard, and John D. Farrell. Managers as Facilitators: A Practical Guide to Getting Work Done in a Changing Workplace. San Francisco: Berrett–Koehler, 1997.