Should You Have a Facilitator?

Developing Strategy: Should You Have an External Facilitator?

Facilitation happens every day in the business world. Chances are, you’ve facilitated a meeting in the past month – or even the past week.

According to Merriam-Webster, “facilitate” is a transitive verb that means “to make easier; help bring about.”

So facilitation is simply the act of facilitating. The role of a facilitator is to make everyone’s experience easier, and to help develop (or bring about) decisions and consensus among others. 

Most meetings don’t require an outside or external facilitator. Those weekly Monday morning staffing meetings where workload is discussed and staff hours assigned? A principal, operations manager, or project executive often facilitates. And the weekly or bi-weekly sales and marketing meetings? Perhaps a business development or marketing director (or president or principal) facilitates. 

These meetings often involve reporting and task assigning. There’s rarely conflict or disagreement. If a proposal is due on Friday, the proposal is due on Friday. You can’t dispute that! There may be some disagreement over who will do what (particularly the project manager that balks at developing the scope and fee because of other project workload), or whether or not to pursue a given opportunity, but in general the meetings run smoothly. And, if we’re being honest, these meetings are about as enjoyable as watching paint dry.

When talking strategy, however, there is rarely consensus. At least there shouldn’t be. Again turning to our friends at Merriam-Webster, “strategy” is “the art of devising or employing plans or strategems toward a goal.” Note that this is one of several definitions, and a stratagem often involves trickery. In the business world, a more focused definition could simply be “devising plans to achieve a corporate goal.”

Strategy cannot be developed in a vacuum. Effective strategy requires a team with varied training, experiences, and viewpoints. Strategy development should involve differing opinions to inform a stronger end-result. 

Strategy is also something that does not get enough attention within AEC firms, and too often strategic discussions are not as meaningful as they should be.

The standard model is for an executive to facilitate strategy discussions. Maybe the CEO or president, or perhaps another principal or partner. There’s nothing wrong with this approach for short strategy conversations or when there’s an obvious consensus as to the decisions that should be made.

But these executives can have strong personalities, and too often their opinions dominate the outcome. Perhaps the other participants don’t feel comfortable offering counterpoints or alternative ideas, or perhaps the executive facilitator exhibits a “my way or the highway” attitude. 

Nothing kills strategic discussions like a room full of “yes-men” or a leader not interested in the opinions of others.

This is why use of an outside facilitator makes sense. As Fast Company noted in 2017, facilitation is “key to the future of work.” 

Benefits of External Facilitators

Outside facilitators don’t have “skin in the game.” They are typically unaware of internal politics, nor have any preconceived notions related to “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” Ignorance can actually be bliss – or at least advantageous – because the outside facilitator doesn’t bring baggage to the conversation. 

Some other benefits of external facilitators:

  • Ability to engage all participants in the discussion, including pulling the quiet attendees into the conversation and “taming” the talkers who dominate the dialogue.
  • Specialized insight into current trends, industry insight, and/or best practices that can help inform the discussion and provide a perspective into what else is happening in the industry.
  • Knowledge of corporate strategy tools like SWOT, SOAR, STEEP, OKRs, and SMART, among others, to focus the conversation and create meaningful goals and metrics.
  • Skill at asking questions and digging deeper to surface the issues and help get to the root cause of challenges that need to be addressed.
  • Fresh outside perspective to counteract “groupthink” and frame the discussion in a different way.
  • Knack for gathering the most salient points and pulling meaningful summaries together to help create a plan of action for moving forward.
  • Neutral mindset with no preconceived notions as to the “right” or “wrong” answers or directions.
  • Unafraid to challenge assumptions or ask difficult questions when no one else will.
  • Elimination of facilitator bias inherent with internal facilitators working toward a predetermined solution.

Beyond these benefits, there are several advantages for the would-be internal facilitator, once they are freed from that responsibility:

  • Time to think and focus on the items being discussed.
  • Ability to actively and meaningfully participate in the discussion instead of focusing on facilitating.
  • Opportunity to be more spontaneous – not thinking about everything in advance and coming with preconceived notions.

An additional advantage is that the would-be internal facilitator cannot be accused of “railroading” the conversation or driving toward a specific decision. They become a participant in the discussion, but not the driver of that discussion.

Potential Disadvantages of External Facilitators

To be fair, there are some potential disadvantages with bringing in outside facilitators. The most obvious one is the additional expense. Strategic meetings and retreats are already expensive because you are typically bringing senior staff with billable hours – but they are not billing their time to clients during the strategy meeting, so there’s a significant opportunity cost.

There’s also the issue of knowledge base, which can be a double-edged sword. The outside facilitator will not come with preconceived notions or “we’ve always done it this way” thinking, but they also don’t have a deep understanding of the company, clients, challenges, culture, successes, personnel, relationships, and prior strategies. 

Additionally, there can be an issue of trust. Some people just don’t trust outsiders, and if they don’t approach strategic conversations with a totally open mind, they can become distrustful of a facilitator. This can be particularly true if the distrustful participant suggests an idea or strategy, and the group consensus goes in a different direction. They may – intentionally or inadvertently – come to believe that the facilitator is not “on their side.” 

Finally, because the facilitator is not part of the internal team, they will rarely be present for the entirety of the planning and implementation process, which can take months or even years. They’re engaged in the front-end – either through a single meeting or series of meetings – but the implementation of any decisions is often left to others. A facilitator may be brought in at defined intervals for updates and revisions, but they don’t “live” the decisions that are made throughout the process.

Do You Need an External Facilitator for Your Next Strategy Meeting?

So when talking strategy, does it make sense to bring in an outside facilitator? In most cases, the answer is probably yes. Your firm is already investing in the meeting, simply by putting a bunch of senior people in a room for an extended period. There may be additional costs if you are offsite or bringing in food. The added cost associated with engaging a facilitator is incremental. 

Furthermore, the outside facilitator allows everyone else attending to actually focus on the conversation, eliminates bias and preconceptions, and moves the dialogue along to achieve consensus. At the end of the day, that is why we have strategy discussions: to “devise a plan to achieve a corporate goal.” It is important that everyone there be 100% present and invested in the discussion.

Looking for a facilitator for your next strategy discussion? Contact Scott Butcher at 717.891.1393 or Aecumen has facilitated different types of strategic meetings – go-to market strategies, business development and marketing retreats, staffing strategies, and overall strategic planning retreats. 

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