Facilitation For High-Performance Teams

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Facilitation For High-Performance Teams

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Twenty years ago, it was estimated that American businesses held a million meetings a year. Today, collaborative work is becoming even more important to achieving the innovation and performance that is needed simply to survive, much less thrive. Business Week has called teams "the essential building block of the organization of the future." In this environment, meetings are playing an even bigger role in organizations of all types...

In an attempt to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of those meetings, many are turning to meeting facilitators to make their meetings more organized, more focused, and more productive. But is the facilitator the savior of the organization" Is he the silver bullet that will slay all the monsters of wasted meeting time and lackluster team performance results, is she the panacea that will cure all team meeting ills" The answer is a resounding, "Maybe. Sometimes." This article investigates the factors that influence the performance of teams and workgroups, the role the facilitator can play in enabling and supporting performance, the critical role of the organizational environment in either leveraging or limiting the ability of facilitation to extract performance from teams and work groups, and when in the life of a team a facilitator can effectively intervene.

Team Basics

The single most important factor in building a high-performance team is the expectation of high performance. If there is a performance demand that can only be met by the collaborative effort of people to produce a product together that no one of them can produce alone, then teams will form to produce that product. But if there's no need for a team, there won't be a team. If the performance challenge is not there, then no amount of team building or facilitation or exhortation will result in high-performance teams.

The performance demand can be internal or external. External performance demands can come from high expectations on the part of management or from a real threat to the continued well being of the organization from the business environment. Internal performance challenges come from a sense on the part of the team leader or team members that they want to show what they can do, show what is possible, turn around an apparently hopeless situation, or turn a threat into an opportunity.

The existence of the performance challenge, while it may lead to people getting together to try and help each other, does not necessarily result in a high-performance team. Many things can go wrong. Katzenbach and Smith define a team as a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

Implied within this definition are the basics of team performance. The successful team has:

* all the needed skills, or at least the talents needed to develop the skills and the willingness to work to develop them;
* a stated, inspiring performance aspiration or vision that forms the common purpose of the group;
* translation of the aspiration into measurable, achievable performance goals;
* commitment to a common approach for working together; and
* a willingness to hold themselves individually and collectively accountable for the production of mutual work products that will achieve the performance goals.

Without these basics, even a solid and well-understood performance challenge will not result in team performance. Some teams fall into these behaviors naturally. They have a knowledge, either from study, experience, or intuition, of what it takes for a group of people to work together. But too many teams, possibly the majority of teams, overlook these performance basics.

The Coast Guard Total Quality Management (TQM) program uses a FADE problem-solving process: Focus, Analyze, Develop, and Execute. The Focus part is the development by the Quality Action Team of a written problem statement. Most teams resist this step, feeling that the charter they have been given adequately states the problem. But the purpose of the Focus step is to ensure team commitment to a common set of aspirations and performance goals by the team, and the formal recording of that commitment in a problem statement.

The Facilitator's Role

The role of the facilitator is to help the team find and recognize its performance challenge and carry through on the team basics. Often the possibility for an internal performance challenge is there in the group, but unformed and nebulous, unarticulated and disjoint, or even unstated because it seems "too far out" or "too ambitious." In these cases, the group needs help to uncover, articulate, and commit to meeting the high-performance goal that will make them a team. A facilitator is experienced at sensing and drawing out what people aren't talking about and getting it on the table. If the potential team starts to share and get excited about a common vision of what they can do, they have made a good start on team performance.

An experienced facilitator has a broad range of skills, especially the team and interpersonal skills that are usually underdeveloped in people assigned to teams from traditional work assignments. The facilitator can fill in for what skills are missing on the team until one or more team members develop them. The facilitator must work to identify which skills are present, which skills are absent, and who has the ability to develop the missing skills, then challenge and nurture that person until the needed skills are present.

There can be a danger in this, if the team comes to rely on the facilitator for that skill and fails to develop it for itself. It is critical that the facilitator have a basic belief that the purpose of an intervention is to increase the action capacity of the target person or group. Lao Tzu, in the Tao Te Ching, said "Of the best leader, when the job is done the people say "we did it ourselves."

Once a small group of people has come together with a performance challenge and the potential for forming a critical skill set, then the potential team must start to look for its clear aspiration, performance goals, and way of working together. But in too many groups, the expectation is that the task work will start immediately. Team basics are ignored until it is too late to form a real team that will add value equal to or greater than the time spent in team meetings. The facilitator helps the group avoid this too-narrow view by keeping the group simultaneously focused on work process, team process, and work results, shifting the emphasis to one or another of these areas as needed to aid the progress of the group.

One thing the facilitator cannot do is hold the group mutually accountable for its work products. That must come from the group itself. In the next section we will see how the climate of the organization can affect that and other team basics.

The Role of Climate

The business climate in the organization, the organizational culture, has a profound effect on the performance of teams within the organization. The performance ethic and standard practices that exist in the organization can either reinforce or tear down the attempts to build a performance challenge and a focus on team basics. While most organizations claim to have a performance focus, there are two different ways that this focus can manifest itself: as a performance ethic or as a control focus. A performance ethic is evidenced by empowering workers and work groups and expecting results.

Many organizations have a control focus: the way they try to achieve high performance is by expecting conformance to work procedures and job descriptions and documentation standards. In these control-based organizations, the expectation is safety and risk avoidance, not high performance. The normal business expectations in these organizations are individual accountability and reward; total task orientation; having minimal meetings and enforcing quick, agenda-driven meetings when they do occur; and machine-like performance. These expectations all drive out the intuitive understanding of what it takes for people to work together.

If an organization with a control ethic tries to institute teams, it will be not only the normal business expectations that discourage the teams. The attempt itself will probably be made with pronouncements of what teams will form, how they will form, how they are to work together, what controls and measures will be imposed on their performance, and who outside the team will be responsible for their results. The team charters will not leave enough solution space for the team members to make commitments to a purpose, goals, and work methods of their own. The team members will not feel responsible as a team for the results of the team. If the performance ethic of the individuals on the team is high and the performance challenge the team faces is significant enough, some work groups can and do overcome a control-based organizational culture and become high-performance teams, especially with the help of a facilitator. But with or without facilitation, such a team faces an uphill struggle.

When to Facilitate

If the decision is made use a facilitator to help with formation of high-performance teams, when should the facilitator be brought in? There are several points in the lifecycle of a team when facilitation can be of value. The first opportunity is before the team is ever chartered.

Teaming has risks. Teams that fail to form and work together properly are serious resource drains. They often provide lower performance than loose work groups or individual contributors. The risk of forming a team should not be taken unless there is a clear-cut performance need for mutual work products, a performance challenge that cannot be met by individuals. An experienced facilitator can assess the challenges and the risks and provide advice on the decision to pursue a team approach.

If the decision is made to form a team, the facilitator can help build a charter for the team. It is critical that the charter be specific enough to let the team know what is expected of it but leaves sufficient solution space for the team to find its own performance aspiration, measurable performance goals, and way of working together. The facilitator can help the chartering body find this balance point.

The next point at which a facilitator can be brought in is at the first team meeting. A team meeting is not like typical meetings in most organizations. The team must work together in ways that differ from other work groups. The facilitator can design and conduct a meeting that focuses on team formation rather than an agenda of action items, thus making it clear that different things are expected and required of the team. The facilitator can also fill in skill gaps for a team that is just discovering who they are and what they are and are not good at.

A truly high-performance team will not require a facilitator for every meeting. But when trouble strikes, a facilitator may help the team to get back on track. A common malady of teams is stuckness. This is usually characterized by lack of energy, shortened meetings that don't accomplish anything, and a sense of hopelessness. This becomes a vicious cycle, where the lack of progress saps the energy and commitment needed to turn the situation around.

A facilitator can often be instrumental in unsticking a team by helping them refocus on team basics. Revisiting and sometimes redefining the agreements on aspirations, performance goals, and working approach can often get a team unstuck. Other times a focus on the obstacles that are causing the stuckness or on key events, good or bad, in the history of the team can help get it unstuck. Finally, choosing a modest, short-range performance goal and achieving it will give a stuck team a shot in the arm. These approaches can often start from within the team, or from the assignment of a new team leader or one or more new team members. But they can also come from an facilitator. If a team stays stuck for a while, an outside facilitator should be considered before the decision is made to put the team through the trauma of team reconstitution. If changing the makeup of a stuck team is warranted, the facilitator will be able to advise on this action after working with the team for a period of time.

Finally, a facilitator can be brought in at the end of the team life cycle. One of the most often overlooked phases of team performance is team closure. There are factors involved in team endings that are critical to both the performance of the team and the future of teams in the organization.

To ensure that the team performance gains are fully realized, final deliverable products must be completed and distributed. Project reports, documentation, and lessons learned must be captured. Customer satisfaction must be assessed: if it is not up to par corrective action must be taken.

To safeguard the future of teams in the organization, how the members of this team feel about team closure will affect whether they and the organization are willing to undertake team initiatives in the future. Completion must be celebrated, along with appropriate team awards.

The team may decide to give individual awards to each other, but from the perspective of the larger organization, the team succeeded or failed as a unit and needs to receive appropriate team recognition as a unit.

Finally, the team must formally, perhaps even ritually, disband. Although the individuals will probably still see each other occasionally, if the team members do not accept and internalize the end of their identification with the team, then energy and attention and commitment needed on other work products and other teams can be diverted to trying to "recapture" the relationship and sense of accomplishment that they had as part of the defunct team. In all of these critical aspects of endings, a facilitator can help both the group and the larger organization achieve success.


As expectations placed on organizations by customers, shareholders, and other stakeholders continue to rise, more and more often a team will be required as the only way to achieve the needed level of performance. Facilitation of teams and working groups can have a significant positive performance impact. But the facilitator is most effective when the performance challenge inspires the team participants and the organizational climate supports the fundamentals of team behavior.

This Article is authored / contributed by ▸ Edward R. who travels from Waterford, United States. Edward is available for Professional Consulting Work both Virtually and In-Person. ▸ Enquire Now.

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