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Facilitation: A skill for the future of work?

Before the cold war, the US Army held a simple view of war. There was always a face to the enemy and the line between war, peace, soldier and civilian was clear as a day.

But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that changed. It became hard to understand the motivations behind terror attacks. And lines started to blur.

To signal this shift into a new reality, the US military coined the acronym VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity). Which can be understood as a catchall phrase for "It's getting crazy!".

Businesses are now facing a similar shift in their world. Technology advancements of the past years have changed entire industries and created change at rapid speed. COVID-19 accelerated this to new heights, but under the hood, it was always happening.

As a result of this, organisations slowly find themselves in a new environment. One where the logic of simple cause and effect doesn't work and where there is an increasing demand for sense-making. How will organisations deal with this?

It's the same old story. They need to find ways to innovate and to make change happen. But this time, there is a ray of sunshine. The popularity of Design Thinking, Design Sprints made room for a new role at the workplace: The facilitator.

As the facilitator, your job is to make it easier (Latin: facilis) for a group to achieve something. This can achieve consensus, to brainstorm solutions or to quickly ship a project.

Equipt with this power, the facilitator can help the organisation to navigate change. One workshop at a time.

Let's get to the bottom of this. But first, we need to understand what challenges the organisations of today are facing.

3 challenges every organisation needs to solve

1. The diversity challenge

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Source: Unsplash

Around the world, we see a trend towards specialisation. Work that has once been done by one person, is now broken into smaller pieces. Some of which are outsourced (e.g development) or done by experts in their field.

At the same time, the world becomes hyperconnected. We are online per default and communicate over long distances with each other. Not surprisingly, the workplace mirrors this trend and becomes a place where people with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives come together to collaborate.

Companies that embrace diversity and inclusion in all aspects of their business statistically outperform their peers. ~ Josh Bersin

As a result, the workplace is getting more distributed and diverse. And this is a good thing. Diversity is a significant asset for organisations. It increases their chance to find new approaches and creative solutions. Which impacts their ability to innovate. But with it come two obstacles.

First, in a room full of experts and different cultures conflicts are inevitable. Secondly, the organisation needs to create an environment, that supports diversity and can leverage it's potential.

How will the facilitator help to overcome this?

The facilitator is a master of the balancing act. He can tap into the full potential of diversity, by finding the most effective and inclusive way to collaborate as a group. This means to provide everyone with the same voice and to actively synthesise perspectives. At the same time, the facilitator can look out for sources on conflicts and can help the team to navigate that safely.

2. The collaboration challenge

Think for a second about the most famous scientists of our past. Who comes to your mind? Einstein? Marie Curie, or maybe Nikolas Tesla? What they all have in common, is that we often believe that they made their breakthroughs all alone.

This is referred to as the myth of the lone genius. Because of this, we tend to forget that science is the work of many. It's driven by a culture of sharing, public debate and improvising through critic and honest feedback. Only through collaboration does it flourish.

Our ability to collaborate is the cornerstone of our success as a species. Because we collaborate and share knowledge, we are able to benefit from every discover that is made around us. Companies like Apple and Google know this and create whole campuses, where employees work, eat, learn and do sport together. Increasing the chance that people will share insights with each other and collaborate.

Here lies the key to innovation. Finding the best way to collaborate and to that consistently.

But collaboration can also backfire. It costs time and energy and too much of it can cause a state of collaboration overload. In this state, everyone is jumping from meeting to meeting and has no time for deep work, important decisions and time to think.

The facilitator has the most competence to deal with this. He can turn open-ended meetings into the focused workshops, thereby concentrating all the energy of the team to the most important challenges. This saves the team time while producing the same and probably even better results.

Research shows that 81% of people believe that collaboration is critical, while 71% of managers make it a priority. But the more we collaborate, the more important it becomes to have someone on board, who takes a close look at the quality of collaboration. Not only the quantity.

3. The mindset challenge

The A in VUCA stands for ambiguity and refers to the lack of clarity we are facing today. Take the COVID-19 crisis for example. Do you exactly know how dangerous it is to go shopping with, or without a mask? Or how the economy will be affected in the coming months? It's hard to say because the degree of complexity is immense.

What we can say in such an unpredictable environment is that today's challenges will not be solved by using yesterdays best practices. But especially when the situation is heated, we often cling to the old ways and go with what we believe is the safest bet.

But what we need in reality, is a mindset of experimentation. If we are unable to make predictions about the future, then we need to test different options and see what works best. Startups are good at this and it's one reason why they succeed where big organisations often fail. Even though they have much more man-power and resources.

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Again, the facilitator is of immense value here to the modern organisation. He can purposely expose a group to new mindsets and help them to let go of old patterns. To do this, he can use exercises that move people through a learning experience that create epiphany moments ("Aha" moments). Once people made a new experience, they will often also update their beliefs and views.

We know this from our own experience. In many of our workshops and sprints, we carefully move participants into a zone of discomfort.

Here an example: After brainstorming ideas with participants, we often ask them to take their best idea and to sketch it out in 20 minutes. What happens, is that 20 minutes is often not enough to create a sketch that is perfect. But it's well enough to present and discuss the idea in the group, without spending six hours to prepare a shiny PowerPoint presentation.

Once you put people through such an experience, they will often see the value of it on their own. Which helps them to let go of old behaviour patterns and to form a new mindset.

Wrapping it up

Organisations, teams, and individuals can thrive based on their abilities to navigate through constantly evolving environments. But they struggle to do so on their own. To find help, many organisations are looking at consultants for help.

But do we need more experts? I don't think so. Most organisations already have the talent, resources and expertise. At least those that I have seen from the inside. What they need, is someone who helps them to unlock that potential.

The facilitator can do this, by making it easier for groups of people to collaborate and to overcome big challenges. That's why facilitation, will become an important skill in the coming years.