We have just finished facilitating three internal retreats in the last 10 days as a part of our organizational development and change process. Two were with new Groups that are being constituted by combining smaller internal teams for greater synergy, effeciency and “network-based delivery” of our institution’s conservation goals. The learning that has occurred through these facilitated Group discussions, about how things work and change in our organization, has been incredibly valuable for both strategically planning action and building these new teams. Our Learning and Leadership Unit will also become part of a new Group in the next couple of months and will no doubt have a similar retreat. The question is, do we facilitate or participate?

Facilitators have many opportunities to influence the outcomes of the processes in which they are involved, if that’s what they wish to do. Before the process, they help to design the agenda and frame the key questions; they pick the sequence that might highlight one issue over another (what gets the after lunch slot?); they identify the technique and capture method used (does the discussion create an artifact for further use or not?) During the process they choose how to brief an exercise; they choose what to highlight in the opening and closing reflections; choose the order of the speakers (including the Q&A); and influence who gets a few moments more airtime and who gets reigned in. After the process, if the facilitator is helping with the reporting, comes a whole raft of other opportunities to influence the outcomes of the process. At all of these points a facilitator is making a decision (albeit a shared decision) that influences the process somehow.

And of course what makes a great facilitator (and one who gets chosen and invited back) is someone who does this incredibly responsably, with fairness and equity, the best intentions of the group in mind, and with an eye on the common higher goal. A facilitator who contributes can be very beneficial. For example, a facilitator who knows a group well can address key interpersonal issues gently and consistently, one that is experienced can provide great added value by incorporating their learning over the years about leadership and good practice; and one well-connected internally can contribute by tapping into larger institutional issues across many parallel processes. So a facilitator at some levels can facilitate and participate.

However, there are clearly limitations to a facilitator’s participation, especially on the relationships and team building side of these processes. For example, as facilitators it is not appropriate to work through your personal relationship issues with team members, or devote time and energy to helping the team really get to know you, your opinion about issues, and how you like to work. In retreats forming new Groups and aggregating existing teams, getting to know one another, sharing hopes and dreams (and maybe fears) as full participants in a shared process are criticial features to success.

So I think that when it comes time to have our own Group retreat, we might help out with the agenda and report, but for the actual event, we will be looking for a good outside facilitator. Then we can be more of ourselves and help our new colleagues get to know us as future team members, including our opinions about what would be best for all of us as fully vested partners in our process. We need to be a part of the change – to facilitate and participate (but not always at the same time).

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