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  • Writer's pictureSherry P. Johnson

Never Trust a Single Perspective When it Comes to Purpose

I've done it too often. I get a call, establish rapport with a new client, get them talking about what their organization needs, and get to work. In the consulting world, it's really tempting to agree to facilitate a process after coordinating with one person--often an executive director or project coordinator. Moreover, it's tempting to agree to facilitate by yourself when budgets are tight. But I've learned the hard way, again and again, just how crucial it is to seek multiple perspectives before planning a group process.

Whether internal or external to an organization, a facilitator's primary job is tailoring a group process to its purpose and context. These two aims govern all our decisions before, during, and after a facilitated event, and both are wholly dependent on multiple perspectives at all times. Next week, we'll talk about context, but let's start with purpose.

Every facilitated event depends on knowing your purpose in two senses:

  1. What does this group need to deliver for itself and its stakeholders?

  2. What does this group need to experience together?

In order to understand what a group needs to deliver, it's certainly helpful to chat with the convener of an event, but it's crucial to confirm what leadership needs the outcome to be. In phone calls like the one I described above, it's often a convener who happens be the chief executive, but sometimes, it's a coordinator or board member who's been tasked with calling potential facilitators. In any case, it's essential to follow up with a call or visit with more folks to confirm outcomes with board and executives.

As for what the group needs to experience together, no one person can convey this to a facilitator beforehand, nor can a solo facilitator accomplish this effectively for groups over 20--especially if significant diversity of perspective or culture exist in the group. Each additional perspective you have on the group's relational culture dramatically enhances your ability to design for the experience the group needs.

Facilitators work with a core team to tailor a process to the purpose and context.

Storytime: This one time, I got lazy. I took a phone call from an E.D. of an all-volunteer organization who claimed that his was a passive culture who barely show up at meetings, let alone step up to finish important tasks. He wanted to hire me to "instill a sense of ownership" and "light a fire" under the group. They'd barely stay 90 minutes, he said, so I had to do this efficiently. He expected eight attendees, so I didn't ask about funds for a co-facilitator. I also assumed it was hopeless to talk with anyone but this "long-suffering" E.D. before developing an agenda.

Then the event happened. I arrived solo, early, and prepped the room for fifteen participants, just in case. I thought people could spread out. I had my flipchart-sized graphic recording activity set up in full view. I made 15 copies of another activity. Then, much to my surprise, twenty-five people arrived, most of whom were early. The E.D. arrived late. Contrary to his assertion, everyone was excited to work on new things, and they jumped at the chance to be heard in a facilitated event.

I have never needed to scramble and flex as much as I had that day. By relying on a single perspective, my prepared materials and room setup were wholly insufficient for the task. Not only that, but the deliverable was completely underwhelming for this group, and it needed to be redefined in the first five minutes. We met for two and a half hours, and solo-facilitating a diverse group of that size was tricky. Ironically enough, it was the E.D. whose behavior revealed itself to be the primary challenge to volunteer buy-in.

This experience and a few more like it have shown me the importance of seeking out multiple perspectives when defining what a group needs to accomplish and experience. May my pain be your gain.

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