Facilitation is a process in which a trained and experienced facilitator, who is not himself or herself a stakeholder, plans, develops, and conducts a structured and effective meeting that produces a clear result that is commonly understood and supported by all participants. Most any session that involves at least a handful of people – whether it is part of a larger project, involves strategic planning, looks to improve basic performance, seeks to resolve specific issues, aims to plan a particular business or social event, or concerns any other subject that is important to the participants – benefits from having a facilitator.
The process begins with an advance meeting between the facilitator and the project's or session's sponsor, who sets the overall purpose of the meeting and who, later, will open the session, demonstrating the sponsor's personal support for the effort ahead. Together, the facilitator and the sponsor will identify specific, realistic expectations as to what should come out of the session. This meeting also will serve to identify a planning sponsor or planning team leader with whom the facilitator will work to further develop the session's agenda and its implementation.
Next, the facilitator will interview the participants, usually individually but occasionally in groups. During these interviews, the facilitator will gain important insight that will assist in the planning process and in conducting the session by probing matters such as concerns about the project or its purpose, pre-formed biases or views, individual ideas regarding the subject of the session, potential pitfalls, etc.
This planning and groundwork then leads to the session itself. At the outset, the clear purpose of the session is established, the ground rules are set, the goals are defined, and the agenda is revealed. The steps that the session will follow are clear from the beginning and are reflected in the agenda. These steps support a logical development for each goal: The participants observe current practice and note specifically how it falls short of meeting the goal; analyze how current practice might be modified to better serve the goal; and develop a plan on how to implement agreed-upon changes that are created by the group and accepted by all attendees.
During the session, the facilitator guides and motivates the participants, keeps them focused, builds a "team" atmosphere committed to achieving the goals and meeting the session's purpose, and helps the participants harness their various views and ideas into a consensus. Every participant leaves the session fully understanding the "deliverables" – who, specifically, is responsible for doing what.