As I prepare to attend the International Association of Facilitators Conference in Denver (one of my favorite professional conferences!) I remember presenting at this same conference (but in Europe a couple of years ago) on the topic of Facilitation as a Key Intervention for Organizational Change.
So, I wanted to share a couple of thoughts on how group facilitation or dialogue facilitation is a key intervention for bringing about organizational change. One of the great business thinkers, Peter Block, said…”Change happens in the dialogue of the ‘why’ questions…looking for the meaning of things.”
Once I was working with the head of a large foundry. The place was old, the culture not conducive to high performance. It felt like I was walking into an 1800’s operation and they were in the process of implementing continuous improvement and needed help changing the cultural mindset. We had done some good, solid work with the team and were in the middle of a busy day when through a series of unexpected comments, a heated exchanged developed between a key division manager and this leader. The basic, non-emotional gist went something like this (although believe me it was emotional!)…
“You brought me here to make improvements, I’ve worked hard for the last three months and that one day that you came into my meeting and yelled, you undid all the good progress we had made…I don’t know what you expect me to do!”
“Well sometimes you have to &#$@%! yell when…”
It’s not necessary to mention further details…I can’t remember the details, all I can remember is everyone else was dumb-struck, dead silent, and all the eyeballs were on me! (like saying “do something!” or “you poor sucker!”). I also remember thinking…well, I have two choices…I can walk out and wish them well (I was an external guy anyhow), or I can stay, go out way out on the last little limb, hope it doesn’t snap, and try to salvage this thing!
Yes, I was foolish enough to stay! I had no go-by or manual or anything to tell me what to do on this one. So don’t ask me what exactly I did but basically I pushed the pause button on the thing after the emotions had come down a bit and then acknowledged something had just happened that presented an opportunity to learn as a group (that was one of the goals of the meeting). I asked for their permission (specifically the head of ops) to do something rather unusual for the purpose of not only solving the issue but to learn in the process. They agreed, even though I could still see steam coming out of some heads. It wasn’t pretty, it was messy, and frankly, in the end, I wasn’t sure I was satisfied with the result.
Many weeks later, the fellow that had brought me in to help the group (an internal continuous improvement consultant whom I knew very well), told me the rest of the story. As a result of that exchange and others that followed…
- The leader had come to realize certain things about himself that he didn’t know (that took some work, and that alone is organizational change when you consider how influential leaders are in organizations).
- The HR manager had taken a more proactive approach to help the leader change some of his behavior (before, she had been relegated to HR paper work).
- Others had become also more forthcoming in voicing their opinions and feelings in a more productive way.
That inelegant, unplanned, messy episode is an example of how group facilitation can not only change the dialogue of a group, but by extension, and in a real tangible way, can change an organization.
So, yes, facilitation is a powerful tool for change. Unfortunately, many organizations do not appreciate facilitation skills, or consider them as important. Some people don’t even know what they are! Even some facilitators do not recognize how influential they can be a change agents within an organization (they see their role as confined to the event of a meeting or an offsite).
Anyone who leads, manages, or deals with people can benefit from developing effective facilitation skills. Certainly those who lead change must have good facilitation skills because it is through people that change happens in organizations.