Governance & Process, Guidance & How To

Tips For Working With a Strategic Facilitator

…… Part of The Basics series. First published in January  2016 ……


I have worked as a strategy facilitator in the field of “internal digital work environments” for 17 years.  In reality, I have never actually worked like a consultant.

My clients have often told me they work with me because “you’re not a consultant.”

Strategy consultants traditionally work in two steps: A. Interview, explore and investigate. B. Analyze and write a report with recommendations. That has never been my approach.

Here’s how I work

First I sell a one-day scoping workshop where we define the goals, approach, players, deliverables, etc. together. The client pays for this. The client is not committed to go any further. The outcome is a document, co-authored by them and myself. They are completely free to use it with another partner. They usually retain me at this point, but the freedom not to encourages them to take the first step quickly.

Then, assuming the scoping exercise has gone well, I do a proposal encouraging the client to play a leadership role in the activities — usually workshops and user needs research. My role is one of coaching the leader and facilitating the process. Positioning the client contact person as both project owner and project leader brings greater visibility and credibility to the outcome.

It’s no longer a consultant on a “hit and fly” mission — stepping in for the strategy development phase and leaving before it materializes (or not).

I also encourage the client to take responsibility for the final report for which I give input as required.

I always do an additional short report myself on the project and other points that may have come up. Doing a separate report which is not the official project report gives me flexibility and freedom to say things in writing that I could not include in the official report because they may be out of scope.These reports almost always get read by senior management, curious to see what an external expert has to say, and I’m sometimes called upon to present them personally to management.

When user research is required, I get the agency used by the company or people within the company itself to do the interviews and write ups. The second approach gives better results. Why?

It is part of the change process, and a key step in bringing the voice and needs of people on the edges of the organization to the attention of the project team which is usually at the center of the organization.

We have frequent check points among all the people involved, usually in tele conferences, as they move through the research phase.

In short, my experience is that if a company is not able to take leadership of a project, which means having the resources to do or manage much of the research and strategy work, the resulting outcome will not be sustainable.

Advice for companies considering working with a strategic facilitator

1. Don’t make a longterm commitment until you have a good feeling for how the person works.

This role depends very much on communication and relational skills. Ask your potential partner to facilitate a one-day scoping workshop as described above. You’ll get a good feel for the person after spending a day together working out project strategy and details.

2. Pay well for the scoping exercise.

Do not expect a serious facilitator to play the “get your foot in the door” game.

The output will be very helpful for you whatever you decide. Ensure that after the short workshop, you are not committed. This investment up front can save much pain that would result from choosing a person who does not fit your culture and way of working. Of course you want someone who will challenge the status quo, but at the same time the person must be able to do it in a way that he/she will be heard and understood.

3. During the scoping exercise, clarify the deliverables.

Will you the client be the author? The facilitator? Both?

Base this decision on which approach will have the greatest impact on decision-makers and budget holders in your organization.

4. Assume ownership for the project, but define in writing the roles and responsibilities for you and for the facilitator.

This is especially important for time-consuming items such as doing workshop minutes, writing up interview results, drafting, modifying and approving final deliverables.

The more collaborative your relationship, the trickier it is to make sure roles and responsibilities are clear.

Assess the internal resources you will need. Be specific in terms of skills and time in man days. This is tedious, but ensures you’re being realistic. It may even help you justify getting more resources for the project by formulating what is needed and what the output will be.

5. Assuming you sign or co-sign the final documents, ask the facilitator for a short personal assessment of the project.

Ask him/her to briefly write up personal observations: what surprised them, what they noticed that they have not seen in similar cases, what issues were not included in the scope but which must be addressed, etc.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get observations that may be out of scope at present but that will be valuable at a later stage.

6. If  you also have an agency or development partner you will be working with later in the project phase, include them from the beginning in any workshops you organize.

Ideally you’d include them in the scoping exercise. This will save lots of time later. You will also see how your extended team – you, the facilitator and the agency – fit or not together.

Hopefully there will be convergence on purpose —the why — and complementarity on the how.

7. A final piece of advice, maybe the most important of all: Make sure the final report includes actionable deliverables.

Define success criteria at the start. How will you know if the outcome of the project is a success?

Depending on your case, you may address one or all of these dimensions:

  • Organizational — roles, responsibilities, decision-making principles, ….
  • Design — peoples’ needs, how the digital space will be designed to meet them, how it offers flexibility for user input, for future changes, ….
  • Flow and place — how the project and project deliverables fit into the bigger picture in the organization’s overall digital workplace, processes, way of working….
  • Customer and business — how the outcome of the project will impact external customers, improve how your company does business, facilitate innovation, ….

The last point is vital and you need to be able to formulate how your project will bring value to the company.

There are lots of initiatives floating around in most organizations and they cannot all get funded and resourced. If yours is business critical and you can position it as such, your chances are much better.

Remember that you, an internal person, are leading the project. You have developed the strategy and action plan from within the company.

Your project represents needs expressed by people throughout the organization (if your research is well done) and therefore the impulse, energy and desire for change are coming from within. Your chances of success are good!