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Why Project Facilitation Is The Better Project Management

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Project managers manage complex projects. And, the complexity of projects mostly emerges from human and social rather than technical aspects. Wouldn’t this mean that we need facilitation skills more than managerial skills to stay on top of processes and deadlines?

Managing and housekeeping

From a semantic perspective, we can understand a project manager being in charge of the “housekeeping” of a project (the French word ménage means household).[1] In this sense, a manager would be in charge of the project’s housekeeping in terms of its process, budget and timely delivery by the involved team.

The concept of project management goes back to the 1950s when organisations applied the concept to the planning and scheduling of complex processes, mostly in the field of engineering. As projects gained in terms of complexity, the engineering rules of planning and scheduling applied to all areas of business.

“Complexity applies more often to the team than to the project itself.”

In the meantime, the way of work has changed and today, complexity applies more often to the team than to the project. This becomes particularly obvious in times of remote work. Projects require collaboration between experts with complementary skills. This makes team work inherently complex.

Hence, project managers are people managers. But, we cannot manage a complex team in with the same tools with which we manage complex projects. What we really need are project facilitators. To me, the difference between a project manager and a project facilitator is that the first focuses on the process, whereas the latter puts the people in the centre of attention. 

“If you pick the right people and give them the opportunity to spread their wings—and put compensation as a carrier behind it—you almost don’t have to manage them.” (Jack Welch)

A team who is in charge of complex projects doesn’t need someone to tell them what to do but someone who keeps distraction out of the way. A workflow free of distraction becomes easy. And, this is the essential responsibility of the facilitator: Making things – processes but most of all, interactions – easy (as suggested by the Latin origin of the word facilis which means easy).

The project facilitator

A project facilitator helps teams to leverage their complementary skills without distractions. Distractions can be external, such as bureaucracy, unnecessary meetings, and office politics. They can also be internal, such as undefined processes, misaligned goals and expectations, unclear roles and responsibilities and unnecessary competition.[2]

A project facilitator absorbs external distractions and reduces internal distractions by improving collaboration. In the following, I want to point out three key duties that I consider crucial for a project facilitator:

  1. Selection of suitable team members
  2. Definition clear roles and responsibilities
  3. Encouragement of collaboration

A project facilitator selects the suitable team

Project facilitators assure the involvement of the right people who, as a group, will combine all skills, mindsets and aspirations that the project needs to be successful. When I select team members, I want to make sure that their agendas are aligned with the project goals. Therefore, I always ask applicants about their personal and/ or professional goals beyond the respective job that needs to be done. And, I ask how their role within the project will help them to achieve that specific outside goal.

If the project goal is aligned to the team member’s personal goal, they don’t need external motivation to go the extra mile.

In economics, we would call this setup a “self-enforcing contract”: The project contract that defined the goals does no longer need external enforcement (through command and control management) because the person itself wants to achieve.

If for example a team member wishes to create a social movement, how can that person improve necessary skills within the project? Maybe he or she can work on internal communication tasks to involve the community and share the vision of the project.    

A suitable team further consists of complementary personality types. For them to work better together, the project facilitator makes their differences explicit and highlights the benefits of potential conflict. If, for example, the team consists of one visionary who cares for the big picture and one realist who puts high attention to detail, their opinions are most likely to clash: The visionary feels micro-managed and controlled by the realist who in turn feels distracted by the visionary’s constant input of new ideas.

Once they realise that these tensions are necessary and that their differences will help one another to avoid mistakes – by either thinking too broad or too narrow – they will be more likely to listen to each other. They will consider each other’s concerns without the necessity to agree. As much as a team needs visionaries and realists, it benefits from including an empathic and a process-thinker. Their presence will assure that the project addresses “people issues” (as for example resistance to change by staff members) and while following a structured process.

A project facilitator defines boundaries

For a project team to stay on track for timely delivery, it needs clarity regarding the limitations of the project and each member’s responsibilities. Uncertainty about roles, responsibilities, deliverables and expected outputs invites for procrastination and for conflict. If we don’t know the boundaries of our fields of action, we don’t even know when we are about to step into someone’s territory or on someone’s toes. And, if project goals remain unspecific, it becomes difficult to take action and we tend to procrastinate.

Take the example of a “todo list”. We all are familiar with this one item that we never start doing. Most probably it is too vague and sounds like something along the lines of “declutter the house”. The best way to start is to define how “done” would look like and to divide the task into micro-tasks that are actionable and understandable. To follow that same example, “declutter the house” would translate into “give away any item that I haven’t used for the past 24 months and find a specific storage place for every other item”. The first micro-task would be to file all papers on pile x or to empty the wardrobe of all clothes that I no longer wear. A list of smaller, actionable tasks further keeps us motivated as we keep a feeling of meaningful progress.

Once these micro-tasks are defined, it also becomes easier to allocate them to the team members, depending on their competencies and fields of interest. The definition of clear roles and responsibilities avoids conflict between complementary personality types and hence, differences in perceived priorities.

A project facilitator creates opportunities for collaboration

Finally, a project facilitator creates opportunities for the team to collaborate effectively. The key question is how much interaction everyone needs to stay on top of the process and fulfil the task. Interaction can happen in synchronous and asynchronous ways.

One exercise that is useful to structure this process is to collectively design the project team’s “touch-map”. For this, each team member expresses their needs from the others to successfully fulfil their role. The outcome could be a (RACI) matrix from which everyone can see whom they need to involve or inform on what topics.[3] The more explicit the team communicates their expectations, the easier their subsequent collaboration.

Shared digital tools such as Trello boards, calendars and threaded discussions (e.g. Slack) can ease the daily coordination process. Meetings in turn help the team to discuss topics that avoid them to follow-through. Everything that is in someone’s way to complete the task or move forward. Inspiration for such meetings could come from methods like Holacracy which defines strict meeting routines that help team members to focus on the project and clearly express obstacles they might face.[4]

Nutshell

If we are in charge of managing complex projects, it is important to keep in mind that complexity mostly derives from human and social interactions. To ease the process of collaboration, it is important to focus on the human side of a project. Make sure that the team includes the “right people” that complement each other and are aligned on each’s roles and responsibilities in the project. These must be clearly defined and make sense to each individual. Finally, create opportunities for meaningful collaboration – which must not necessarily always happen synchronously. Digital tools are of great support for asynchronous collaboration.

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If the content of this article resonates with you and you wonder how you can improve your facilitation skills, let’s talk! Visit workshops.work for more information.


[1] On the other hand, the French refer to a manager as “gérant” which is more of a controller.

[2] Unnecessary competition is often driven by a mismatch between the ambition to encourage cooperation and the compensation scheme that rewards individual achievements.

[3] RACI stands for Responsible – Accountable – Consulted – Informed.

[4] Check out episode 052 of the Workshops Work podcast with Heleen Kuiper.


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