The need for facilitation often arises from a feeling
The need for facilitation tends to be an emotional narrative born from exasperation. You might hear some version of, “I’m frustrated because we’re having the same conversations but not getting anywhere on the work,” or “The same people and ideas overwhelm every discussion, and it’s becoming discouraging for the rest of us.”
Or it could be that nagging feeling of urgency around something important, where someone might lament, “we’re making progress, but I know we could do more together if we just had support during this next phase of our most difficult collaborative work.”
Most often it’s people rolling their eyes at ineffective meetings enough times that, well, you just know.
Whether complaints around collaborative work are spoken out loud or eye-roll driven, they are often reliable indicators that a group needs facilitation.
So, you think you need facilitation support. Now what?
Facilitation support can means many different things to many different people, so for the purpose of this article, let’s define facilitation as — an individual taking responsibility for supporting a group doing collaborative work, who focuses on process (like activities, agendas, and outcomes) and interpersonal dynamics (like communication and balancing voices heard), so the group can dedicate more brain and emotional space to doing their best work.
Also important is the language we use to describe facilitation support. I’m a fervent advocate of promoting facilitation and not facilitators, and I’ll risk the well-deserved scorn of quoting myself when I say, the behaviors of facilitation are more important than the title, pedigree, or experience level of the facilitator.
This is a critical belief to hold when you’re faced with the tactical decision of what to do when you think a session needs facilitation support.
While definitions are fine and good, what do you do at a tactical level in the face of “needing facilitation?” Do you immediately get to work on finding (and finding the budget for) an external expert facilitator at like $250 an hour? Maybe ask that lady from marketing, the one who can really hold a room, to do it? Are you going to get a full-time facilitator for your organization? Is that even a thing? (Yes, it is a thing.)
Even after facilitating thousands of sessions, I rarely know what to do without first doing some digging. I’ll admit it took many years to develop a reliable nose for assessing facilitation needs of clients. Once I honed this skill, though, there have been many facilitation projects I have turned down. Why turn down perfectly good facilitation gigs? Because the reality in those situations was the client just didn’t need an expert facilitator for their facilitation needs.
The 4 meaningful levels of facilitation
With that in mind, I want to get into the four levels of facilitation that I’ve found meaningful to discern, from highest to lowest skill level:
Expert facilitation is executed by people who spend much of their waking hours practicing, studying, innovating on, and/or evangelizing the art and magic of facilitation. They may be full-time facilitators, or facilitation might be a core responsibility in their role. They are often expensive to hire. Even less experienced facilitators working in the non-profit space can easily cost $150/hr.
With practice, honest feedback from participants, and some self-directed study, most people can become practitioners of strong facilitation. In organizations, strong facilitators often take the form of colleagues or leaders who are known for their ability to step in when groups get stuck, or who seem to lead their work and teams such that getting stuck never happens. They make others feel heard and safe in meetings and always manage to get through their agendas on time. They are the go-to for leading important meetings or a client workshop. Depending on the organization, they might have facilitation as a part of their formal role or known skillset.
Not to be mistaken for lazy facilitation, light facilitation is still active and attentive to a group’s purpose, energy, needs, and next steps. Light Facilitation is sufficient for most kinds of collaborative work, and the increased productivity and deep thinking a team can achieve when they’re allowed to just focus on the work, is substantial. In the most successful teams I’ve seen, everyone on the team is willing and able to step up and practice light facilitation when needed.
This refers to the best practices teams have in place that allow them to do their best collaborative work. They include, among other things, creating and sticking to effective agendas, assigning and completing pre-work, and making time for and documenting next steps and those responsible. It is these best practices that most facilitation works towards establishing and maintaining in a collaborative group. But, the most high performing collaborative groups have routinized them to the extent that they are ingrained in workflows and part of the team culture, making a facilitator redundant in most instances.
Facilitation might be the solution, but what’s the problem?
You might have read that last section and intuitively know, “my team needs light facilitation.” You might be right! But gut feelings rarely elicit the buy-in to initiate and carry out successful facilitation. Furthermore, when intuition turns out to be wrong, the absence of a data-backed decision-making process appears remiss or, worse, incompetent.
Knowing what kind facilitation you need, means knowing what kinds of facilitation needs you have, and knowing any kinds of needs requires collecting and organizing data from the humans who might need facilitation.
First, though, a quick note on facilitation needs. “My team needs light facilitation” is not a need! It’s mislabeling a facilitation solution as a need. A universal truth of design holds that mistaking solutions for needs lock people into perspectives and plans that are based on assumptions, lead to wasted resources, and usually fail.
When a product design team understands and articulates their users’ needs, magic happens. Designing facilitation experiences is no different.
As a bonus, being able to communicate facilitation needs empowers you to convince gatekeepers to release resources and gives you a head start if you have to hire an external facilitator- if you already have most of the facilitation needs ready, the facilitator has to do less up-front work to uncover them. Yay for money, time, and headache savers!
So how does one go about understanding facilitation needs? I use a framework I call “The Six P’s of Facilitation Needs.”
The Six Ps of Facilitation Needs
Let’s get right to it. The Six Ps of facilitation needs are:
I kick off the planning of any facilitation with my assessment of these six criteria. Understanding a group’s facilitation needs through these lenses allows me to determine whether or not facilitation is even needed, and, if so, what skill level and kind of facilitation will be most effective.
Each criteria of the Six P’s of Facilitation Needs is used to gauge where a facilitation need falls on a spectrum, which you can think about as a scale from least complex to facilitate to most complex to facilitate. This then allows us to apply an appropriate level of facilitation skill and facilitation design to the session.
It’s very, very important to keep in mind that the Six P’s of Facilitation Needs are to be considered on a spectrum. This means no binary (meaning yes or no) answers. I find it helpful to imagine starting each question with the phrases, “To what extent …” and “Describe how,” and then placing my answer on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being least complex or important, and 10 being the most.
Enough preamble! Below, I lay out the six framing questions I use to assess facilitation needs. Then, I dive into each P, expanding on theory and examples giving further understanding of each criteria and how your session might relate.
1. PURPOSE: Is this purpose more simple, or more complex?
2. POSITION: Is the position of this session more pivotal or more routine?
3. PROCESS: Are the processes for this session complex? Well-established?
4. PARTICIPATION: Does everyone’s participation and contribution matter in this session?
5. PEOPLE: Is the combination of people who will be participating in this session complicated?
6. POWER: Do power factors among this group impact psychological safety and ability to add value for participants?
1. PURPOSE: Is this Purpose more simple, or more complex?
The first criteria considers the articulated purpose of your session. What are you hoping to accomplish together? The purpose of your session, or sessions, is the North Star for you, your participants, and any other stakeholders who have an interest in the outcomes/outputs of the session.
It is also the first lens through which you will view all decisions —
Who should we invite?
… well, what’s the purpose of the meeting and who makes sense given that purpose?
Should we do activity 1 or activity 2?
… well, which activity better serves the purpose we defined?
You get the idea.
For assessing purpose, there might be a formal, carefully written purpose, or just a purposeful statement describing what the session hopes to accomplish. Both work. Your goal is to assess the purpose based on whether the purpose is more simple, and thus easier to facilitate towards, or more complex and harder to facilitate towards.
It’s important to note that simple purposes aren’t better and complex purposes aren’t worse. They just need different levels of facilitation.
Assessing a purpose has two steps. 1) Reading or hearing the purpose for the session and 2) figuring out how the participants and other important stakeholders feel about the purposes.
A simple purpose that is clear, more specific than a category, and indisputable, is easier to facilitate toward. Conversely, a complex purpose can be some combination of unclear, less specific, and disputable.
An example of a purpose that I’d assess as simple might be written as, “The purpose of this session is to come up with a list of ideas to prototype and test next year.” It’s clear enough that I understand it and it’s more specific than a category, like “brainstorming.” Then, after checking with the client and any important stakeholders (attendees, leaders, etc…), I determined that everyone else thinks it’s clear and they agree that it’s indisputable, meaning they believe it’s the right purpose for this session, don’t find it too provocative, and aren’t suggesting any alternatives.
A clear purpose means everyone participating in the session can easily understand why they are there, what the meeting will accomplish, how their contribution to the meeting will be used, and where the work they’re doing at the meeting fits into the context of greater team or organizational goals.
More specific than a category
Simple purposes are also more specific than a category. Think about the above purpose example, “…come up with a list of ideas to prototype and test next year,” and compare it to something like, “The purpose of this meeting is brainstorming.” “Brainstorming” in that sentence is a category, and much too vague to be clear. If you find that your purpose is in fact, a category, it’s best to make it more specific to better direct collaborative work. Most people can do this without the help of a facilitator, but some projects determine that an expert facilitator is helpful in creating a more specific purpose. Check out Priya Parker’s book Art of Gathering for more information on why you want your purpose to be more specific than a category.
An indisputable purpose means everyone agrees that it’s the right purpose for the meeting, and it’s hard to come up with any alternative purposes. It’s important to note that disputable purposes aren’t bad, in fact, they’re often required for the best collaborative work to be done. You know you have a disputable purpose when it’s so specific and private that there are other good ways to articulate it and some people might actually disagree. Again, read Priya Parker’s brilliant book Art of Gathering for her well-founded argument that disputable purposes are, in fact, so much better at inspiring gatherings, that she insists on them.
Looking back at our earlier example, a disputable iteration of that purpose might be, ““The purpose of this session is to come up with a list of industry disrupting ideas to prototype and test by the second quarter of next year,” rather than “The purpose of this session is to come up with a list of ideas to prototype and test next year.”
An indisputable purpose or a purpose that is category is simpler to facilitate because it tends to be vague enough that a lot facilitation levels and styles could work and boring enough that it won’t trigger any power dynamics from the start. But it’s not necessarily better for a work outcome. Priya gets into this in-depth in her book, and I highly suggest you read it if you’re intrigued by the possibility and challenge of having a disputable purpose for your next gathering!
The takeaway here is, a purpose that is unclear and/or disputable might be the right purpose for your session, AND it adds a layer of complication to a meeting that might be better supported through strong or expert facilitation. Purposes that are clear, more specific than a category, and indisputable, are simpler to facilitate, and might mean all you need is light facilitation or some good facilitation scaffolding. Purposes that are categories should always be made more specific by either the client or a facilitator, which can be done well regardless of their level of facilitation skills.
To what extent is the purpose of your session more simple, or more complex?
Describe how the purpose of your session is more simple, or more complex?
Rate your purpose on the below scale:
1 Simple Purpose <———> 10 Complex Purpose
2. POSITION: Is the position of this session more pivotal or more routine?
A pivotal session contains challenges and decisions that will reverberate loudly on profit, people, and progress (there are those P’s again…) in an organization or team. This includes kickoffs, influential decision points, like which ideas to develop into prototypes, or strategic planning priorities for the next year. Major changes to the project, like re-allocating resources or changing major processes, can also be experienced as pivotal.
If this is a routine meeting in the middle of a larger workflow that’s been running smoothly, facilitation is likely simple. It might involve keeping time and documenting conversation so everyone can focus on the content of their work. Additionally, think about the impact of individual sessions on the outcome of the project - if the person facilitating the session messes up, is there space to easily recover in later meetings? If the answer is yes, then this session is more routine and less impactful.
If a session is pivotal, strong or expert facilitation could make the difference between success and failure on a grand scale. If a session is more routine, some facilitation scaffolding or light facilitation might be enough, as the impact of the session is low.
One further consideration is how smoothly the workflow has been running. Sometimes rough workflows are due to interpersonal issues, poorly designed processes, and a bevy of other issues- if a workflow hasn’t been running smoothly, even routine sessions might benefit from facilitation (or, of course, assessing how the workflow might run more smoothly).
To what extent is the position of this session more pivotal, or more routine?
Describe how the position of this session is more pivotal, or more routine?
Rate the position of your session on the below scale:
1 Routine Position <————> 10 Pivotal Position
3. PROCESS: Are the processes for this session complex? Well-established?
The bread and butter of facilitation is focusing on process. But when does a process need a facilitator, versus when can a collaborative group of people just handle it without facilitation?
Some teams have well-established processes. They are method-driven and are well-oiled machines when it comes to things like communicating updates, decision making or debate, and what activities to use to further work when they get stuck or at pivotal junctures. Sometimes it’s because a team is really into agile or human-centered design. Other times, they just have strongly practiced and well understood norms around processes.
Whatever the reason, these teams tend to need less facilitation, and often rely on facilitation scaffolding practices including good meeting norms, rotating or spreading facilitation responsibilities across teammates, or asking a colleague who has decent facilitation skills and who is external to the team to help out once in a while.
So when does a team need facilitation around process? There are some things to look out for that let you know you might need facilitation.
The first is new processes. When new processes are introduced to a team, some level of facilitation is often needed. With the abrupt shift to remote for many workers in the spring of 2020, many workers were faced with a slew of new processes. From signing on to online meetings, to using new tools (like MURAL and Zoom), to figuring out how to do off-sites online, to keep employees from feeling isolated, facilitation can help ease people into new processes, while making sure work is still getting done. What kind of facilitation depends on how complex these new processes are for participants and whether they can effectively manage their work content and the new processes at the same time.
The next thing to look out for are new variables, like an industry shift or a new team member. These new variables can shake up how formally well-established or simple processes work in this new environment, and can often benefit from at least facilitation scaffolding or some light facilitation.
Then there are certain more specific areas to consider when you’re assessing the processes of the group you’d like to facilitate. Namely, governance, new tech, conflict resolution, design/creation, strategy, discussion/debate.
For example, if you’re considering tech, new tech is a pain for people because it means learning new processes while also learning new ways for tech to fail us at critical moments, while trying to do good work. A timely example might be, maybe your team suddenly went remote and now has to transfer all previous visual thinking processes, like drawing on whiteboards and post-its, to MURAL. Having someone in charge of designing experiences for onboarding to new tech, setting and keeping an agenda, creating a contingency plan for when (not if) tech fails, and keeping energy high online will make that transition much smoother, and create less of a dent in the progress of the work and morale.
Another common team facilitation need is around conflict resolution. Processes around how people resolve conflict are often the difference between whether teams have constructive conflict that contributes to the work, or disruptive interpersonal issues that derail it. Teams that have established, trusted, and easily understood conflict resolution processes often need less facilitation.
Ultimately, the questions here are, 1) to what extent are these processes clear, well-established, and appropriate for the work at hand, and 2) how complex are these processes? The less well-established and appropriate, and the more complex processes are, the more strong or expert facilitation is needed. The more well-established and appropriate, and the less complex processes are, the more facilitation scaffolding or light facilitation will suffice.
To what extent are processes for this session simple or complex? Are they well-established?
Describe how the processes for this session are complex? Describe how they’re well-established?
 Processes are Well Established <——————>  Processes are NOT Well-Established
4. PARTICIPATION: Does everyone’s participation and contribution matter in this session?
In order for a team to succeed, its collaborative output has to be greater than the sum of its parts. Each member’s unique contribution and perspective matters. The balance of contribution matters, because there is much lost when an important voice isn’t heard in the work because they’re busy trying to make sure the meeting ends on time.
With studies of the pitfalls of multitasking abound, the reality is that it’s often too much to hold space for process and one’s own deep thought and opinions. Contributions to collaboration are limited by time and brain and emotional space.
Giving team members brain space, emotional space, and time to contribute to the content, instead of focusing on the process, is one of the core reasons to work with a facilitator who is external to your team.
Whoever is facilitating is focused on the wellbeing and progress of the team processes, so their input is either lost or when they try to participate they’re preoccupied and aren’t fully present or contributing. Furthermore, facilitating is emotionally draining to an extent that’s hard to communicate unless you’ve experienced it. In addition to the eternal struggle in balancing introverts and extroverts, and the minefields of power dynamics, which I’ll extrapolate on further below, the voices of formal or informal team leaders are also often lost, as good leaders naturally take on the responsibility of maintaining and overseeing the processes of a team, and trying to make sure everyone is heard.
If it’s important for everyone to have equal opportunity for deep thinking and contributing their perspective in the session, consider at a minimum light facilitation by a facilitator external to your team.
To what extent does everyone’s participation and contribution matter in this session?
Describe everyone's participation and contribution matter in this session?
Rate Participation on the below scale:
 Everyone’s participation is not important to the successful outcome of the session <————————>  Everyone’s participation is critical to the successful outcome of the session.
5. PEOPLE: Is the combination of people in this session complicated?
Facilitation always comes back to people, and how people come together to collaborate can be complicated. The three lenses I look through when trying to assess how people will come together are number, familiarity, and diversity.
Facilitation needs are highly dependent on the number of people. It stands to reason that the more people there are in a meeting, the more facilitation could be beneficial to support each person in contributing to meeting outcomes- things like giving instructions, keeping time, and making sure voices are heard in discussions. These tasks can be an afterthought with five people, and herculean with 50.
My general rule of thumb is that anything with over 8 participants should have at least light facilitation, anything over 15 should have at least strong facilitation, and anything over 30 should have expert facilitation.
Beyond level of facilitation skill, number of participants also impact number of facilitators, or facilitation support. While there are exceptions, I generally recommend that any sessions of over 30 people should also have support facilitators or multiple facilitators.
For any session, a facilitator has to think through how people will work together and what it will take to get them working well together. Familiarity plays a large role in trust, and trust is critical to many complex collaborative processes, including brainstorming, constructive conflict, debate for truth, failing forward, and many more.
People who have worked together before or who currently work together generally have more trust. This excludes, of course, groups who have conflict and/or problematic power dynamics.
Groups that are less familiar with each other generally need more skilled facilitation, strong or expert.
Pulling from the Equity-Centered Community Design Field Guide, a group is diverse when “the people that make up the group represent different backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences.” Companies or facilitators might have further diversity considerations, like diversity in personality or work style.
In most cases, diversity (not to be confused with inclusion!) improves work product, but makes working more complicated- different perspectives lead to both better thinking and more conflict. Thus, groups with more diversity might need strong or expert facilitation.
- To what extent is the combination of people in this session complicated?
- Describe how the combination of people in this session is complicated?
- Rate the combination of people on the below scales:
 Under five people <——————>  Over 30 people
 These people are very familiar with each other <——————> These people don’t know each other at all.
 The combination of people in this session is not very diverse <————————>  The combination of people in this session is very diverse
6. POWER: Do power factors among this group impact psychological safety and ability to meaningfully contribute?
My favorite definition of power is by twentieth century philosopher and logician Betrand Russell. At its core, power is “the ability to produce intended effects.” While simple in concept, the complexities of how power actually functions among humans, including the ethics of power and the many nuances of implicit and explicit power, have fascinated great thinkers for eons. I imagine many of us have been thinking a lot these days about how power is so catastrophically misused and abused.
Books can be written (and have been written) on the role of power in facilitation, but I want to focus here on three perspectives on power that are helpful in assessing facilitation needs at the outset. - power dynamics, power struggles, and “facilpulation.”
In an organization power dynamics can be related to firing power, personality types, bias towards certain communication styles, systemic racism, sexism, and many other interpersonal phenomena. Power dynamics can be benign and insidious, formal and informal.
How power works in a session depends on the people present in that session, and the nature of their relationships, both during the session and beyond. Power dynamics are particular to the specific group that’s going to be facilitated. The content of a session can also bring up or create power dynamics.
Power dynamics are always present in sessions, but some power dynamics make people hesitant, or outright fearful, of sharing or contributing in meaningful ways. Beyond the ethical responsibility of a facilitator to create psychological safety for participants, the work product suffers when people can’t contribute.
How a facilitation is designed can mitigate power dynamics through the way meetings are structured, using approaches like setting well-considered and firmly upheld ground rules or using techniques during the session to respond to and mitigate power imbalances.
The more a power dynamic makes people feel uncomfortable. unsafe, harmed, the more they don’t or can’t contribute their perspective, and the more expert facilitation is needed.
Power struggles are a common type of power dynamic that is acute and can quickly derail a session if they’re not assessed properly and designed for beforehand. Power struggles are everywhere in our world, from politicians vying for control on the global stage to toddlers refusing to be potty-trained. They are highly contextual and nagging interactions where emotions run high and someone (or ones) is competing for the upper hand or control. The content of a session can also be the source of a power struggle.
When a power struggle flares during a session, it doesn’t just affect those directly involved, it takes up energy and space that impedes the work of everyone in the session. Keep in mind it’s much harder to quell a flared up power struggle during a session than it is to prevent it from flaring up.
One further complexity of power struggles is that great thinking and creativity come out the other side of them when they’re constructive, so the goal of facilitation isn’t to completely prevent or quash them, it’s to let them burn or burn out as is appropriate to the work. As I write here from northern California, the image comes to mind of allowing or starting a controlled burn versus putting fires out completely.
The more difficult it is to contain, make constructive, or neutralize a power struggle, the more expert facilitation is needed.
I learned this term in graduate school when I was studying facilitation from a life-changing professor of mine, Beryl Levinger. This awkward portmanteau combines the words “facilitation” and “manipulation” to describe one of the most common ethical lines facilitators work not to cross – where facilitation becomes manipulation.
Facipulation happens when the person facilitating directs the content of the work toward a predetermined outcome or agenda, consciously or unconsciously.
Sometimes, it’s an overtly unscrupulous act. Imagine a leader facilitating a meeting, telling the team that during the session they will be making an important decision on a new product direction. Later, though, the team finds out the leader had already decided on and communicated that direction to others BEFORE the session, and spent the entire session slyly guiding the team towards the leaders’ desired, predetermined outcome. All while disingenuously praising them for their good thinking. At a minimum, this situation feels icky, is a waste of everyone’s time, and breeds deep mistrust that will reverberate well beyond that meeting.
But more often facipulation happens unconsciously and with the best of intentions. It’s very difficult to avoid facipulation when you’re a facilitator who is also a part of the team you’re facilitating, because you have deep experience and care around the work, and opinions around the direction it takes.
This kind of bias can be mitigated with a facilitator who is a neutral third party, external to the team and free from connection to the content of the session. Expert facilitators are the most skilled at taking the facilitator hat on and off, and participating in both the content and the process of a session without facipulating. While neutral third parties can provide light facilitation to the same effect.
- To what extent do power factors in this session impact psychological safety and ability to meaningfully contribute?
- Describe how power factors in this session impact psychological safety and ability to meaningfully contribute?
- Rate the power factors on the below scales:
 Power dynamics don’t impact participants’ abilities to feel psychologically safe and meaningfully contribute <—————————>  Power dynamic makes people feel uncomfortable, unsafe, harmed, and prohibit meaningful contribution
 Power struggles are easy to contain, make constructive or neutralize <————————>  Power struggles are very difficult to contain, make constructive, or neutralize
 It’s ok if a little Facipulation happens at this session <——————>  Facipulation would be really problematic for this session
You did it! Now what?
Congratulations! You’ve read through, thought through, and hopefully will collect data from your participants on the 6 P’s of facilitation needs for your session. While not a science, one way to assess is to go back and tally up your ratings from each P. Below is a rough breakdown of facilitation levels by assessment score.
0-11- Consider facilitation scaffolding for your session
12- 35 - Consider light facilitation for your session
36-65 - Consider strong facilitation
65-110 - Consider expert facilitation
Another way is to take the Facilitation Needs Assessment Quiz I’ve developed (code MURALFRIENDS for free access).
As with all assessment tools, consider these a starting place that you should layer your own experience and critical thinking onto. Then, after the session, as you debrief, reflect on this assessment and whether or not the facilitation approach you chose was the right one. Finally, in the name of all things designed, iterate based on what you’ve learned.
Facilitation fosters powerful collaboration
While the need for facilitation often arises from a feeling, a successfully facilitated session is born from understanding facilitation needs.
As we consider our place in history, it can be inundating to process a year in which an already complex world was made considerably more complex. A year that brought about more Wicked Problems to solve, that are bigger than any one person, perspective, or idea. Effective collaboration is not a “nice to have.” We need each other to think beyond our blind spots and the limitations of our experiences, and we need facilitation to collaboratively outrun and outsmart the challenges facing our world. Collaboration is the most powerful tool we have to solve the world’s problems, and the right kind of facilitation is critical to bringing people together to collaborate.
The 6 P’s of Facilitation Needs certainly won’t change the world, but I do hope it helps provide your next session the kind of facilitation that empowers participants to do their best work. Join me in doing our part, one powerful collaboration at a time.
Love or hate this tool? I’m always looking for feedback @remotefacilitationdesign on Instagram. Let’s continue the conversation!
About the author
About the authors
Founder | Principal at Staircase Strategy
Ryann is the Principal and a Founding Partner of Staircase Strategy, an innovation firm that supports organizations creating complex solutions to the world's complex problems.