As project teams look to make the most of their limited resources by rounding out the Project Team’s skill set, facilitation is often low on the priority list. Sometimes seen as a soft skill, a strong facilitator actually has the power to move projects forward like few other competencies can. But most people working at the level of an expert facilitator—those with the experience necessary to support successful projects—have moved up past the project groups and are in more senior positions. For this reason, they can be expensive hires and not necessarily a position every Project Team can justify. Retaining the support of a facilitator through an outside consultancy, a route that often requires fewer expenditures in the long run and gives the project team greater flexibility in using its funds, may offer the right combination of cost and skills availability.
Expert facilitators are highly skilled professionals trained to, among other things, improve communication—between team members, with stakeholders and sponsors, and across business partners and all other groups involved in the project. If your project office has decided to seize the opportunity to work with an adept outside facilitator, a few strategies can help you make the most of the experience.
First, understand that the outside consultancy is there to help better control project communications. Whether the team is experiencing unproductive conflict, meetings that don’t generate useful action items, or stakeholder groups that aren’t communicating as fully as needed, the facilitator can help drill down to the root of the issue and get information and ideas flowing again. Their participation in a range of project phases, from developing project charters to brainstorming solutions to critical-path problems, is important to ensure that information transfer is happening the way it needs to across the entire project spectrum. They may also identify communication choke points you didn’t even realize were in place.
Also, acknowledge that strong facilitators have the expertise to extract exactly the right information to move the project toward a successful completion. They’re able to ask questions that get straight to the heart of the project and determine which deliverables are the most critical to track. They may ask uncomfortable questions. They might drill down to a level of granularity you don’t expect. It’s possible they will spend some time focusing on issues or aspects of the project that you hadn’t previously identified as priorities. If you don’t understand the facilitator’s approach or have questions about what information they’re trying to gather, feel free to ask them to explain their methodology. It’s a better tactic than pushing back or attempting to redirect the conversation, both of which will waste time and could deny your team the strong communication channels it needs to achieve success.
In addition, prepare your team, sponsors, end users, and other collaborators to communicate openly and candidly with the facilitator. The full participation of everyone involved in the project will help to support the overall process. Encourage the team to ask questions. They should offer the data they have available whenever possible, along with details about the methodology used to gather or analyze it if appropriate. Remind all those working on the project, both within the Project Team and as end users, sponsors, etc., that the facilitator isn’t there to find fault for previous problems or project failures. If project team members have ideas about improving task relationships, questions about how the scope is being developed, or concerns about difficult stakeholders, they must be made to feel comfortable voicing them without fear of reprisal. Team members shouldn’t be shy about sharing information because they’re worried about finger pointing.