The art of process facilitation

In the heat of a project it's always difficult to remember why we are doing process work. It's even more difficult to try and work through process definition while under a time deadline (and you're usually under a time deadline of some sort).

Process facilitation is a method of coming into an environment and doing the appropriate things to understand what the process is. Usually this occurs with various participants in the room and someone facilitating the process.

The art of the facilitator is something of a black one. Good facilitators can get you to where you want to be without a great deal of difficulty, exploring different avenues along the way but ultimately ending up at the correct destination. Unfortunately there aren't a great number of good process facilitators out there.

So if you are stuck with having to facilitate a process out of a group of people, here are 8 tips to help the facilitation process go a lot smoother.

1) Get all the right people in the room.
Get the folks who actually do this role into a room. Get the folks who feed into this process and the folks who receive the output from this process. Differing points of view are good in this case. Don't get managers or supervisors or senior vice presidents in there. You want people who know the process and can answer the questions you ask quickly.

2) Get rid of the 'system'.
Get your attendees to understand that we are not interested at the moment in 'what the system does'. Designing a process around 'what the system does' is a sure-fire way of locking you in to the things a particular system is capable of. When your business model changes (as it will) you'll need to get a different system and redefine your processes. Design a process that is system independent and you can change systems without changing process. The key question to keep asking yourself in this case is 'If we had to do this with paper and pencil what would the process steps be?'

3) Go round in circles for a while.
No-one knows what their process is. They know what their own procedure is. The know what they do on a day to day basis. This isn't a process. The process is how things happen at a macro level. (Try and find me an IT process for 'purchasing and configuring a new PC'. There isn't one. There are processes for procuring hardware, for installing software, for updating asset inventories, but not purchasing and configuring a PC. What you have at that level is a procedure for doing this. The trick is in extracting the process from the procedure. This will be iterative, so do it, go on, learn something new and different later on, then come back and see how that affects your 'process'.

4) Forget a tool to help you.
Too many people get hung-up on making sure they have an appropriate tool for mapping their processes during the facilitation sessions. Forget about it. Use brown paper and post-it notes. Get folks to throw things up there and then see what happens when you step back and look at things. When you're happy with the final product, photograph all your post-it and then transpose them into a tool of some sort. I had a group once consisting of three departments in a functional area. They all swore blind they had their own processes for doing a particular activity. I got them each to map their processes using brown paper and post-it notes on a wall. When we stood back we found out that they are actually all doing parts of a bigger process and that was the process we needed to understand. There was a visible 'Ah Ha!' moment in the room when this was shown. It took a couple of hours and involved several iterations, none of which would have been possible with any of the current tools on the market. After that we were able to drop our process into a BPA tool and print out pristine copies for everyone. The tool shouldn't drive your process!

5) Identify the inputs and outputs.
For every input work out where it comes from. For every output work out where it goes to. If you can't identify these things then remove the offending input/output. If your process is not producing something that is needed (such as a legal report) then your process needs changing or the legal report is not needed. If your process is producing a report for a manager and that manager is not doing anything with it then that output (and associated process step) can be removed. Working with another group who were looking at quoting for services to support an external piece of work, we found that early on in the project the baseline quote was sent to finance. I asked Finance what they did with it and they said 'Nothing, we can't use the baseline quote, only the agreed quote'. We removed that step from the process, sped up the cycle time and made sure that the agreed quote was delivered to the finance group when they could make use of it.

6) Make sure you understand terminology.
I love going into environments where I am unfamiliar with the work that is performed there. This means I have no preconception of the final product and can ask the dumb questions that more familiar people wouldn't do. But the downside to this is that words get thrown around that other people understand that I don't. As a result I tend to create a Glossary as we go through. I get folks to explain terms they use and clarify this with other people in the room to ensure they understand the terminology too. There's nothing worse than spending 30 minutes discussing a process point than finding out that when Finance talked about 'Credit reports' they meant the reports that are produced on a monthly basis to send to customers with their outstanding balance, but Management Accounting understood Credit Reports to mean official feedback from an accredited agency detailing the risk of giving credit to a potential customer. Create a glossary and get everyone on the same page. Also do this with your nomenclature. explain concepts such as the meaning of a process, procedure, task, and activity.

7) Take your time.
This is not a quick process. Allow at least a day for a small process and up to week for a large process. Don't rush things or you will cut corners. If your key participants have to leave at a certain time and you're not finished, don't speed up to get things done before they leave, arrange a follow on session. If this is important enough to do it's important enough to do correctly.

8) Use the Hype Cycle.
The Gartner Group have a concept know as a Hype Cycle. it explains the various stages that new technology goes through from it's introduction to it's integration into society as a meaningful piece of hardware (or concept). I have found that process facilitation sessions tend to follow a similar, but accelerated Hype Cycle.
  • You start with the 'Trigger' which is when people are keen to start working on processes
  • Rapidly you move into the 'Peak of inflated expectations' where people have convinced themselves that this will solve all their problems
  • Soon you start to drop into the 'Trough of Disillusionment' where people now realise that they might not get all they wanted from this. motivation starts to drop and energy levels diminish
  • As they work through this they climb the 'Slope of Enlightenment' and realise that this could be useful after all
  • Finally they get to the 'Plateau of Productivity' and the exercise becomes much more useful and output increases rapidly.
This will let your attendees know where you are and what they should experience going through. Unfortunately I cannot guarantee when this will happen in any session, nor whether folks will all get to the same place at the same time, but it will happen and it's best to be aware of it.

Process facilitation is not rocket science. It's actually fairly straightforward. Remember the 8 key's listed above and you'll be a process ninja in no time!

Or do you think otherwise....? Let me know in the comments.

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