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Facilitation Skills for Project Initiation

project-facilitation-twentyeightyFacilitation is one of the things I enjoy most about my work. It’s a fun way of engaging with a group and helping them achieve something that they wouldn’t be able to do as individuals. You can draw out the experience and expertise in the room and create a sense of ‘team’ as well.

Facilitation is also a key skill for project managers, especially when you are working with your project team and stakeholders from various locations. You are often the common thread that keeps a group of individuals hanging together until a ‘real’ project team is formed. Facilitation is one way to do that, and in this article I’ll look at the kinds of facilitation skills you can use during the project initiation phase.

But first, let’s clarify what we mean by facilitation.

Facilitation Defined

Facilitation is simply the process of managing the discussions and interactions during a meeting or event. It’s about keeping the conversation on track and helping the group reach an outcome, whatever that might be.

Many teams use external facilitators for particularly difficult conversations or where the outcome is unknown, but in a project environment the team is likely to look to you, the project manager, for this role.

As a facilitator on a project team, you’ll have to make sure that everyone contributes where they need to, to keep conversations on track, to value everyone’s time and to keep the team moving in the direction of the outcome. Think of facilitation as a way to ensure that the team together is worth more than the sum of its individual parts.

Project managers can use facilitation techniques throughout a project. In this article I’ll focus on facilitation during the project initiation phase because that’s where a new group comes together and where your facilitation skills are first put to the test.

Facilitating for Building a Team

You probably facilitate discussions without realising what you are doing, and when it comes to putting a new project team together, that’s no exception.

When you are building a team you’re using the facilitation skills of observation, questioning and active listening to understand what each person brings to the table. You can help others do the same in a group environment by encouraging everyone to share their past experiences and bring their knowledge to the table.

One of the best ways to do this is to define roles and responsibilities. You’ll normally do this in a table or other project document, but what if you did it as a group discussion? It’s a good way for everyone to get to know each other and you’ll leave the meeting with a common understanding of where people’s skills lie and how they will contribute to the project as it moves forward.

Facilitating for Identifying Tasks

During project initiation you’ll also be working on identifying project tasks, for your schedule and your Work Breakdown Structure. You can use your facilitation skills to help the team do this together.

Brainstorming is probably the most common form of group technique for this kind of thing, and as a facilitator you can set the session up to get the most out of it. In fact, I’d say that most of success of facilitation happens in the planning. Take the time to prepare adequately for the meeting and think about what the team needs to achieve when they leave the room. Then structure the session around achieving those outcomes.

For example, in a brainstorming session where you want to identify project tasks, prepare flip chart sheets with major headings on. Have enough sticky notes or pens for everyone. Prepare your instructions so that you can give them clearly. In the meeting itself, make sure that everyone has the opportunity to contribute their ideas and allow challenges in a constructive way.

Done well, you should leave with a good understanding of the tasks that are required on the project and a sense of achievement for having worked together to understand what’s needed.

Facilitating for Generating Solutions

Another area where you are likely to need your facilitation skills in the early part of a project is in generating solutions. You know what your project is going to have to achieve but you might not know exactly how you are going to get there. A facilitated session to generate solutions to problems or simply to come up with lots of ideas can springboard you into the project.

Facilitators prepare in advance, even if you don’t know what the outcome might be. Make sure that you set the expectations for the discussion and some ground rules, such as not talking over each other, turning off mobile devices and respecting the views of colleagues. Don’t assume that this is going to happen unless you ask for it!

Everyone could have something useful to contribute to the solution to a sticky problem or an idea for launching the project off to a great start, so don’t let anyone dominate your conversation. That might happen without anyone being particularly conscious of it, especially if you have a mix of management levels in the room – in my experience, the people higher up the hierarchy tend to speak more in these settings partly because the people on the lower rungs defer to their experience and position. Watch for that happening and encourage everyone to participate.

The solutions you generate to the problems you face in project initiation will not only help you move the project on, but will also set the tone for how you tackle difficult problems later in the project: as a team.

Facilitating for Staying On Time

While you need to spend an adequate amount of time on project initiation, there is a risk that your planning drifts on and on and you never really get started. One of the core skills of facilitation is time management and that’s something that project managers need to be really good at!

Think about time on a macro scale – beyond making sure that the meeting finishes at 12 noon. Prepare your first few weeks on the project and facilitate the team through this time so that you achieve what’s required within a realistic period. Many teams will need someone to put the pressure on and to make sure that they are sticking to the deadlines that they agreed – that’s the perfect overlap of facilitation and project management!

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin
Elizabeth Harrin is a career project and programme manager with over a decade of experience in healthcare and financial services. She's also a content strategist, award-winning blogger and author of several books about project management. Find her online at A Girl's Guide to Project Management

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