I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the arranged marriage discussions between the Tories and Liberal Democrats. Cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell discreetly said that senior civil servants were “available” to facilitate the meetings - which turned out to be so remarkably easy and short.
But who actually played this role? What is unlikely is that the parties did this for themselves when there was so much history of bad behaviour on both sides.
Facilitation is an under-recognised skill and when I hear clients describe their experiences of facilitators at away days, a frequent observation is of puzzled disappointment: “added nothing” or “told us what we already knew”.
In my new book on facilitation, I quote the experience of one executive team whose away day was facilitated by a world renowned US management consultant famous for his gentlemanly silences and brief, laconic interventions. His generous fee had become known to the participants. Such was the disaffection of this team they amused themselves by opening a book, counting the actual words he spoke and working out the cost per word to the organisation. The winner had to buy the courteous but bemused facilitator a bottle of champagne that evening.
We can be pretty certain nothing of real value was done that day.
Yes, mature, highly paid senior executives can indulge in such childish delights as a way of avoiding confronting the issues facing their organisation, one of the most important of which, the “elephant in the room”, was that none of that team either liked or had faith in their chief executive and that this toxic atmosphere was poisoning the organisation and damaging its performance.
I have sometimes been asked to “facilitate” when what the client really meant was “chair”, because the agenda and outcomes had already been decided in advance. In such cases, you don’t need a facilitator.
The real test of whether you need an external facilitator is when you can answer “true” to all these statements: there is a crisis to which no one knows the answer; no one has all the power; there are undiscussible topics, the undiscussibility of which is also undiscussible; there is a high level of private moaning; no one feels it is safe to declare vulnerability in public.
When you are the team leader you are inevitably part of the problem and it is hard to be objective. Name that Elephant could be the professional facilitator’s motto.
But facilitation is a skill any manager needs. Learning how to draw in the silent and sulky, manage the overtalker, deal with whisperers, flouncers-out, persistent late arrivers or overt cynics; discussion going around in circles, meetings taking hours when they could be over in one; getting around paralysis by analysis; managing your own anxiety about all of the above. It all applies really to any meeting.
Remember the old joke: meetings are the practical alternative to work? It doesn’t have to be like that.
Jenny Rogers is an executive coach and director of Management Futures. Her book Facilitating Groups is published by the Open University Press.