I have run several of our Facilitation Plus© workshops lately. This is a 4 day workshop to introduce the theory and principles of group facilitation with 2 days of practice sessions for people to master the skills and get lots of feedback.

The participants are in-house professions who have volunteered or been identified to provide facilitation services to increase collaboration across departments and partner organisations. Although they are excited and motivated by the challenge, they often report frustration about the lack of willingness to collaborate. They see the resultant ‘failure’ of these meetings.

When we discuss barriers to collaboration, my clients have no end of them. They appear to be a common theme with these and other people I meet in our Geneva Facilitator Network so I thought I’d capture some of the concerns and ideas that have generated.

Organisational Barriers

People are frequently brought together for a low level organisational issue that is the symptom rather than the cause of a problem. They then become frustrated and lose focus because the group needs to address issues over which they personally have no power or influence. Unfortunately the barriers to collaboration sit high up the level of the organisation. It is cold comfort to people involved in these meetings that the barriers are often accidental and usually the by product of customary ways of doing things.

So, what can we as facilitators do to help organisations and groups to collaborate more effectively. Because when groups do work well together the most amazing successes can result. I’ve organised the guidelines into two parts: the higher level organisational issues and the immediate ‘operational’ issues occurring within an actual meeting.

Guidelines for organisational projects

Organizational collaboration requires a systems approach. Any project must consider the highest level of authority and decision making required to implement recommendations or action plans. This high level support must be made explicit at the outset and must be manifested in the work of the group. How to do that:

  1. Get everyone in the room. Make sure that everyone who has an interest in the topic, has relevant information about it, and who will be affected by the decisions of the group is represented.
  2. Get the highest level of authority required for the project. If this person cannot be involved for the entire project, have them open up the kick-off meeting and to publically announce commitment to the outcomes and the implementation of the group’s recommendations. Keep them updated and keep them involved.
  3. Clarify decision making authorities and make sure the group has the required level to address the issues it identifies as critical to the outcome.
  4. Clarify the relative power struggles in the organisation. Some divisions are better funded and may have more power and influence in the organisation than others. How will this manifest itself in the project and how will it be handled?
  5. Make sure that realistic resources are allocated to the meeting – not just finances for organising and running the meetings in terms of venue, travel, refreshments and materials. Ensure that the people identified to be part of the project or task force are allocated the time to take part in all meetings and to produce any work required of them by the team.
  6. Ensure that requisite experts are available – go beyond the self promoted expert and look outside of the group or the organisation. Clarify the roles and responsibilities of such experts to avoid misunderstandings and conflict.
  7. Hold meetings only when a face to face encounter brings value and progresses your process. Do not convene meetings to simply share information or present status reports. Do this electronically through documents and templates.
  8. Make sure that all meetings are professionally run with agendas, process, decision making procedures and concrete outcomes. Treat virtual meetings the same as a face to face. There is no excuse for not having an agenda for a virtual meeting.
  9. Formalise the presentation of the recommendations of the group both as a deliverable document and also as a process to all who have an interest or will be affected by the decisions.
  10. Organise a clear exit strategy for the group. Recognise and celebrate success.

Operational Meetings

Once meetings have been convened and the people are in the room, there is still no guarantee that collaboration will magically occur. Some of the common barriers the collaboration will include:

  • Reluctance to communicate with people they do not know well and may not trust
  • Fear of the ‘shoot the messenger’ syndrome – whistle blowers have a tendency to get shot or have short careers, so some people with important information tend to be silent
  • The ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – people who stand up above others with bright ideas or changes to the system will lose their heads. Even more evident in traditional cultures and organisations, where people will keep their heads down, figuratively and literally.
  • Ego, some people don?t want to be involved in a discussion that they cannot control and so will withhold their contributions or worse may work to destabilise or take over the group
  • No one sufficiently important around so they keep ideas to themselves until there is a more prestigious audience – Knowledge is power
  • People don’t want to embarrass the boss, or their peers so they keep quiet (especially in Asia)
  • You’re not sure that the information is correct, so just in case, keep it to themselves so they don’t lose “face”
  • People are intimidated by senior representatives of the organisation.
  • Unwillingness to address the ‘elephant’ – the major unspoken taboo
  • The boss or others will only steal the idea, so people are reluctant to share
  • People don’t trust the process and don’t believe it will be transparent and democratic.
  • Decision making has not been clarified and do not believe their contributions will be seriously considered and therefore make a difference
  • People are unfamiliar with collaborative processes and feel uncomfortable in anything but plenary discussions.

Guidelines for collaborative meetings

  1. Contract with the ‘sponsor’ (the highest level manager authorising the meeting and interested in its outcomes) to set the ‘boundaries of the project’. Make sure that critical topics are within its ‘sphere of influence’.
  2. Clarify the decision making processes: is the meeting
    • truly collaborative with its outcomes and recommendations being accepted as is, or
    • will the manager take the recommendations under advisement and decide him or herself, or
    • truly collaborative with its outcomes and recommendations being accepted as is, or
  3. Establish team charter if the team is to meet over a period a time. For a one time meeting establish clear ground rules and code of conduct.
  4. Invest time at the beginning to build rapport among the group
  5. Encourage openness and transparency. Unless there are genuine concerns for fears of retribution accept no anonymous items. It is best if inputs are owned by the original contributor. This is essential to control the quality of contributions and to provide rebuttal opportunity if needed. The author’s identity is often a good guide to the value and importance of an item.
  6. Use methods that demonstrate the collaborative and collegiate culture you are trying to establish.
  7. Encourage the group to address whatever ‘elephants’ may be hindering progress
  8. Be ready to intervene on the part of members who are dismissed or disrespected or seem to be threatened by more senior members. In some cultures this may require a gender balance approach
  9. Clarify the role of Subject Matter Experts: Will they contribute as a regular member of the group or simply provide unbiased input for consideration. Be aware of inappropriate influence of SME on the discussions of the group
  10. Provide opportunities for brainstorming sessions where ideas can be explored and people might be more willing to expose half-formed ideas to a wider audience. Go beyond traditional brainstorming to allow for building on ideas. Try methods such as ‘Six Hats’ etc to encourage developing ideas that have possibility. The group might decide to allow a sub-group to further explore an idea generated in such a way before presenting it to a wider audience.