The power of using facilitation for your project meetings

by Sylvie Edwards

There are countless situations in the lifecycle of a project where it is not beneficial or recommended for a Project Manager to lead their own project meetings, focus groups, or review sessions. Let us discuss how getting a facilitator involved or developing some facilitation skills can make or break your decision cycle.

A fundamental aspect of having project meetings with our team and stakeholders is that we can gather data to make decisions directly openly with the support of the participants. One problem that we are often faced with is that we don’t get the results we want from those meetings as we tend to get too involved in trying to get to the “right” decision. This issue arises from the fact that most PMs care deeply about their projects and, therefore, have clear opinions about them. This leaves us with the option of having even more meetings or using some other form of communication to get to our end goal. Repeat this pattern over and over again, and you end up with quite a dysfunctional cycle of meetings with no end or resolution in sight. 

Another issue this raises is that your stakeholders will tend to lose faith or trust in your ability to properly manage and lead the project. This unfortunate consequence can take a lifetime to undo.

As part of their toolkit, I always suggest that Project Managers consider taking some sort of class on how to properly facilitate events. This small and simple addition to your repertoire will pay dividends later.

Facilitation has many advantages, one of which is particularly suited to projects, mainly the ability to remain unbiased or impartial while running meetings or sessions. A good facilitator using their range of skills in this area will be able to expedite project meetings and assist in making them successful. Stakeholders and team members alike will also trust more in an individual that can properly control and direct meetings. 

There are many specific uses for facilitation during the lifecycle of projects regardless of what methodology is used to deliver the project. As you can see from the shortlist below, these are  just a few situations most of us deal with during the course of projects that show how wide-ranging this skill can be developed:

Even a great Project Manager who has mastered facilitation skills will often have problems remaining totally impartial if issues are pushing everyone’s pressure points. This happens more than we are willing to admit. In these situations, if a PM believes they can’t perform impartially and potentially jeopardize the project, then another solution is to have people with facilitation skills that can be called upon if the need arises. Without a stake in the project, as is the case for the PM, these “external” facilitators will quite often get a handle faster and control situations better. Throughout my career, I have played that role for some fellow PMs, and some of them have reciprocated and helped me with my projects.

It is important to note that I have used the word “external” to simply point to a person playing this role as having to be external to the project and not necessarily external to the organization itself. Using facilitation skills does not mean that you must spend a lot of money for it. Organizations with PMOs (Project Management Offices) can build a stable of facilitators within the group of PMs they already have.

The key to good facilitation is in the process and how it is planned for, applied, and delivered to each meeting or session. There are seven basic considerations to keep in mind when running a facilitated session:

    • First, set the boundaries. For every session, it is important to explain what we are here to accomplish and how we are going to go about it. Don’t forget the don’ts as well as the dos.
    • Above all, remain impartial.
    • Understand the group dynamics going in. This usually entails doing a bit of research ahead of a session.
    • Make use of your personal style and presence. The key to it all is to come across as knowledgeable of the context, confident, and above all else, calm. This is where you leave unwarranted emotions at the door. No need to be stoic, you can still be relaxed and smiling. 
    • Do intervene when appropriate.
    • Address difficult situations head-on.
    • Finally, practice, practice, and practice some more. You will get better with every session that you facilitate. You will also learn and add to your toolkit with each attempt.

There are several training organizations that can provide participants with classes on facilitation, if you are looking to register for one, look for a class that will provide you with the opportunity to practice in front of a camera. This allows a participant to be able to see and have comments provided so that you can review them later. Please ensure that you look further into facilitation as a means of both developing a new skill for yourself as well as making better contributions to your projects and other Project Managers’ projects in your organization.


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