Being a Facilitating Project Manager

25 August, 2014

If you have studied for the Project Management Professional (PMP)® exam you will, more than likely, remember “Facilitation Techniques” and “Facilitated Workshops”. Facilitation Techniques were used in developing both the Project Charter and the Project Management Plan, while Facilitated Workshops were recommended when collecting requirements and defining scope.

The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) offers little in the way of explanation of facilitation techniques. Instead it gives four examples – Brainstorming, Conflict Resolution, Problem Solving and Meeting Management. Facilitated workshops are better explained, again offering examples, such as JAD (Joint Application Design), QFD (Quality Function Deployment) and VOC (Voice of the Customer).

While this level of understanding is sufficient to pass the PMP® exam, the burning question for novice Project Managers in particular will be: what is my role in the facilitation process? In other words, what must I contribute to make facilitation work?

The ultimate goal of any facilitation technique, including facilitated workshops is to bring key stakeholders together and to agree a course of action. There might be technical issues to sort out – how can we achieve the necessary tensile strength while still meeting our weight target? We might have marketing decisions to make – what demographic group should we target? Or we must decide what to do – what features need to be included in this release?

Although the PMBOK® Guide lists facilitation in the integration and scope knowledge areas, for the Project Manager, this is very much a communications and stakeholder management task. Facilitation is all about ensuring that people who have something to contribute (stakeholders) are given the opportunity to make that contribution. The delicate job is getting to a conclusion, when several competing options are on the table, without alienating any of the participants.

The important thing for any Project Manager to realize when chairing one of these facilitation sessions is that s/he is not there to contribute to the meeting. Instead the Project Manager’s role is to set the objectives clearly and to ensure that everyone contributes before ultimately arriving at a conclusion.

The secret to success is in planning. The Project Manager needs to decide what issue is to be addressed. There should only be one. Of course this one can be a big one – such as determining the requirements for the project – but the objectives of the session must be extremely clear because it is up to the Project Manager to keep the meeting focused on the issue at hand. We have all attended meeting where stakeholders draw the meeting off on tangents – a single, clear objective helps to keep concentration.

This objective needs to be stated precisely in the meeting’s agenda. The agenda also needs to outline what the participants will be expected to contribute. They might need to do technical research and bring along supporting evidence for their point of view. Having done the background work, the participants should be better able to assess ideas they hear at the meeting, as well as to support their own suggestions.

During the meeting, the Project Manager acts as the chair. In other words, the Project Manager should stand back from the discussion and ensure that everyone participates. While this sounds easy to do, in practice, the Project Manager will often have to restrain dominant characters and encourage shyer attendees. There is a delicate balance needed to allow frank and open debate while all the time directing the discussion to an agreed end-point.

The goal of any facilitated meeting is to come up with new knowledge. This is not a rubber stamp exercise, where the Project Manager forces or cajoles the stakeholders into agreeing with a pre-determined course of action. The meeting needs to generate ideas and the Project Manager, as facilitator, needs to ensure that these ideas are discussed, analysed and dismissed when necessary. Ideally, someone in the meeting will tentatively suggest a course of action and others around the table will seize on it and elaborate it into a viable approach. It is this building on ideas that makes facilitated workshops so useful – creating new knowledge by pooling ideas.

For the Project Manager, the exercise involves restraining the urge to take charge, to lead the discussion. Instead s/he must control the debate by observing the dynamic of the room. Long, rambling anecdotes need to be cut short, but embarrassed, hesitant contributions need to be brought out into the open. Far from being the leader, the Project Manager can prove more useful by taking a naïve outsider’s perspective and asking stupid questions – How would that work? How does that meet the overall objective we are trying to meet? Another way the Project Manager can assist is by recording the ideas on a whiteboard or flipchart. However, anyone with a suggestion should be free to take over the marker and contribute. Many creative people think in pictures, so they can be more comfortable explaining a sketch than trying to articulate an idea in words alone. The Project Manager’s feeble attempts at a diagram can overcome shyness and get an unlikely contributor to stand up and lay out an idea.

Of course, not every idea will be developed. This is another area where the Project Manager can assist in the meeting – by letting contributors down easily. Dominant stakeholders can destroy others’ confidence by openly scoffing at their ideas. The Project Manager needs to confront this behaviour by demanding of the critic what exactly is wrong with the idea. Often, stakeholders will condemn an idea because they do not like the person with the idea, rather than the idea itself. If they can show good reasons why the idea will not work, then the Project Manager can ask what their own solution is. As it is always easier to destroy than to create, the harshest critics rarely are willing to propose ideas themselves – for fear of getting the same treatment they deal out.

Facilitation techniques involve getting people together to create new knowledge. As the facilitator, the Project Manager needs to encourage all ideas, resolve conflicts between contributors and achieve the goal of the exercise – be it a set of requirements or a Project Charter. Suggestions need to be encouraged, while criticism must remain objective. No idea is so ridiculous that it should not get a hearing – something that is totally crazy might trigger an ingenious idea from someone else around the table. A successful facilitation session should have surprising results!

Velopi’s project management training courses cover all the tools and techniques used in professional project management. If this is of interest to you, our project management certification courses are held in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. Find out more by visiting our training page or by contacting us directly.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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