I have been in the facilitation industry for 20 years. When I began in 1983, I thought that only one workshop agenda existed. In 1985, I learned that there are many more. In 1994, I found the IAF - International Association of Facilitators and discovered different styles of facilitation, new types of agendas, and that defining the "right" style of facilitation is illusive. Over the years, I've learned more and want to share this to bridge the gaps.
Two Major Styles
I see two major styles of facilitation. I'll call them "Process-Consulting" and "Relationship-Developing" for lack of better names. Let me describe each.
This style is where I came from. It is often erroneously referred to as "JAD" (JAD is a trademark of IBM but has become a generic name in use). This style of facilitator defines the agenda, ground rules, and process during preparation. The facilitator presents the agenda and ground rules at the beginning and defines the processes for the group. The group is dependent on the process skills of the facilitator.
This style is what I first encountered at the IAF in 1994. This style of facilitator begins the workshop by getting the group to define and agree to the agenda, ground rules, and process (the facilitator may offer suggestions, too). The facilitator then helps the group keep to the agreed process. The group is dependent on the relationship building skills of the facilitator.
Brief history to set stage
In the 1930's, the relationship-developing style was developed. Facilitation was used mostly for non-profit groups, volunteer groups, and in some product ideation. Relationship-developing style was used exclusively until the late 1970's when "JAD" was developed. Throughout the world, the relationship-developing style is the most common. Throughout North America and Northern Europe, the process-consulting style is more common in business and government agencies and is growing faster than the relationship-developing style. Process-consulting is used very little outside of North America and Northern Europe.
Not mutually exclusive
I don't view the two styles as mutually exclusive. Some people do, though I have found that blending the two works better - and that each styles works better in different types of environments - I'll explain that later.
What's the issue?
The reason that I view this as an issue is that facilitators, like most other people, look for the "right" answer. There have been disagreements over what a "facilitator" does at IAF conferences, in defining an acceptable facilitator when the IAF accreditation was developed, in selecting a trainer for facilitators, and in dealing with customers to define the facilitator's role. I want to put in my two cents because I feel this should become a non-issue in the future.
Acceptance and perception
The perceived value of a facilitation style changes with the type of group facilitated. Non-profit and volunteer groups frequently perceive the relationship-developing facilitator as adding more value because of the empowering of the group. These are the types of groups facilitated since the 1930's. They are fairly unstructured groups to begin with so the relationship-developing style fits their style. Corporations and government agencies - both very structured - resisted the relationship-developing style - they used very little facilitation until the 1980's - yet have embraced the process-consulting style. They have a more defined reason for existence but lack the processes to enable them. Because of the increased desire for consensus-building in corporations, the process-consulting style fits with their desires to both reach consensus and "get the job done."
I feel that a discussion of better or worse is useless and incorrect. Each style has its place and, more importantly, each can learn from the other. Let me explore what they can learn and when each may be more beneficial.
Advantages of each – when to use
The relationship-developing style is very effective in gaining group buy-in and in empowering the group. They have a greater say in the agenda and in the ground rules. Because of this strength, volunteer groups, non-profit groups, and groups whose culture needs this (e.g., some corporate or national cultures tend to expect this in working groups) benefit from and embrace this style of facilitation.
The process-consulting style is very effective at producing a quality product in a short time. Groups get in, get to work, and get done. This is because the facilitator studies process and assists groups by defining effective processes to enable them to achieve their goals. Corporations, government agencies, and highly structured groups benefit and embrace this style because they feel that their time is more efficiently used.
Marry them together
In dealing with groups over the past 20 years, most groups need to be empowered and enabled. That tells me that one or the other style of facilitation, by itself, is lacking. Some groups need more work in forming and working as a group before any process work can be accomplished. A relationship-developing style of facilitating will help them. However, they also need to accomplish a task (not just feel better at the end) so need to have process-consulting incorporated. Other groups have a defined reason for existence, work fairly well together, but require help in knowing how to accomplish their task. A process-consulting style will benefit them more, yet some relationship-developing is required.
All groups need both relationship and process help. I insist on extensive preparation before a workshop - I interview all of the participants. This preparation tells me which is most lacking in a given group. If a group is working fine but needs process direction, I'll set the agenda, ground rules, and process and conduct the session. The group responds well to this. If the group doesn't feel empowered, they are not working well together, or they expect to be asked, I'll define an agenda, ground rules, and process, but open it to the group to agree to them, understand them, and even modify them if necessary (preparation mitigates the risk of extensive changes). That helps build buy-in. Most groups know their problems. Most groups don't know how to fix their problems - that's why they use facilitators. As facilitators, we must use the right tool for the right problem. We develop relationships and empowerment if that's the issue. We define process when that's the issue. Most cases, it's a blending of the two. Relying on groups to define how to fix their problem is wrong - if they knew, they would have fixed it long ago without a facilitator. Using the same tool or style with every group is like making "everything look like a nail" when you're given a hammer.
Downfalls of exclusion
Facilitators are temporary leaders. Effective leadership requires a blend of relationship building and task directing (Hersey and Blanchard – "Situational Leadership"). Using one to the exclusion of the other is eliminating half of the toolkit and makes us guilty of the "silver-bullet" or "one size fits all" syndrome.
Summary and conclusion
Rather than discussing which style is "better", facilitators gain more by learning from all styles and incorporating the strengths of each and adjusting their style to enable and empower the groups they facilitate. Effective preparation is absolutely required to do this well. Willingness and confidence to adjust is required to make it work and to be an effective leader.