We have all experienced it in one form or another. A problem solving or idea generation workshop that results in minimal results thanks to ineffective group discussion and lack of progress. Sure the pastries were tasty, but as a participant it feels like a wasted half day. As a facilitator, it feels like failure. While we can plan a workshop until the cows come home, the fact is, at the very crux of change and innovation is the unpredictable human.

A group’s ability to effectively solve problems and innovate relies heavily on the role of a facilitator. It is not a role to be taken lightly, and is becoming increasingly important. The greater the imperative for an organisation to innovate, the greater the need for effective group work. Despite this, the facilitator skill set is typically not prevalent within organisations. So, if you want to be that needle in the hay stack the CEO is looking for, the good news is you can develop this unique and important skill set!

For some basic rules of thumb, I’ll borrow from The Skilled Facilitator, written by organisational psychologist, Roger Schwarz. Schwarz says that the facilitator’s role is to improve a group’s performance and overall effectiveness by improving group structures and processes. Processes refer to ‘how’ group participants interact and work together. Structures refer to ‘what’ is done through stable recurring processes such as group roles and systems. You may be wondering about the content side of things – what the group is actually working on. While the content is important, it is something to tread gently around as a facilitator during a workshop.

In the context of facilitating an idea generation or problem-solving workshop, here are a few things you can do to embrace your inner facilitator:

  • Support group process, for example: use tools for problem solving, decision making and group interaction such as ‘shifting’.
  • Create group structure, for example: carefully select your participants; ensure the roles and purpose of the workshop are clear; plan your agenda of activities and ensure adequate timing.
  • Tread carefully with content: for example, avoid intervening directly on content during group discussion. Doing so could abandon your neutrality, which is an important part of successfully playing the facilitator role.