“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” The “godfather” facilitated that way according to Mario Puzo. Even though it is extreme when practiced by the Corleone family, facilitation is a tool used by effective project managers to gain resources, helping team members achieve goals, and solve disputes.
I am not suggesting a parking lot brawl to facilitate a decision or someone’s behavior, but rather encouraging cooperation by figuring out what each party desires and offering it in exchange for what you want. Other phrases used to define, facilitate include:
- To make easier
- To assist the progress of
- To increase the likelihood, strength, or effectiveness of
- To help bring about
- To free from difficulty or impediment
Why should a project manager also be a facilitator?
Project managers are responsible for achieving a successful end to a project. They also have a duty to the organization to enhance employee performance and to retain staff essential to reaching organizational goals beyond a single project. To be successful a PM is going to use the art of facilitation in many of the day to day tasks they perform: meetings, decision making, brainstorming, conflict resolution, problem solving and sometimes even team collaboration.
Looking at the last definition of facilitate, “To free from difficulty or impediment”, project managers are in a unique position to remove roadblocks to performance. Through effective planning and risk management, project managers ensure the placement of adequate resources or training in a timely manner to achieve project objectives.
Project managers improve their facilitation efforts by asking questions and listening to team members about the events, tasks, requirements, and tools that make their jobs difficult. A facilitator uses that information to acquire resources, training, or remove performance barriers.
Project managers have “been there, done that”. They know how to gain access to decision makers, retrieve information and supplies when time is critical — without going through channels –, and how to tailor a request for help that is more likely to succeed. Sharing that information with team members is part of training and mentoring.
Examples of facilitation that help a project and team members
Case 1: A junior developer is tasked to write a software module in a language with which he has limited experience. One project management strategy says “throwing him in the pool; either he learns or drowns”. However, a project manager who is also a facilitator requests funding for a training class and lines up an internal expert to be available to answer questions.
Case 2: The project team is analyzing performance data using a simulation to optimize processing speed over a range of options. The code simulation requires significant horsepower and waiting for results slows the team down. A less-facilitating project manager tells the team to work 24-7 to get the results. A facilitating project manager contacts an ex-classmate currently working in the organization’s R&D department and asks for time on their supercomputer.
Case 3: Two team members are at loggerheads over the best method to integrate a software module into existing code. The disagreement has deteriorated into email attacks and their animosity is negatively affecting the entire team. A poor project manager locks them in a room and decides the winner is the one left standing. A facilitating project manager calls both of them into a closed-door meeting. Ground rules are set about staying on subject, no personal attacks, and taking turns. Together they:
- Define the problem or issue
- Voice how they feel about the conflict
- Discuss past attempts to resolve the conflict
- List characteristics of proposed solutions (benefits and risks)
- Agree to try one solution within a specified timeframe and with measurement criteria for success
- Schedule a follow up meeting
Case 4: The project has reached a technical impasse and everyone is frustrated with no clear direction to go. There is fighting and name calling between functional groups on how and why they got here. The project manager calls a brainstorming session to facilitate problem solving. The PM uses facilitated techniques to bring all team members into the meeting and lead them to a consensus on how to proceed.
Conflict or dispute resolution is stressful and many project managers avoid facilitating these meetings between warring factions. However, unresolved conflict running beneath the surface of a project can have disastrous consequences that long outlive one project.
If you want to sharpen your skills here are a few resources I have in my list:
- International Association of Facilitators
- Book: The Skilled Facilitator by Schwarz
- Book: The Project meeting facilitator
- Presentation: Facilitation Techniques by Kathy Adams
- Tips and Tricks by Elizabeth Larson
- Book: 10 Steps to Successful facilitation
Please offer your comments on situations when facilitation by project management was helpful (or not).