According to a recent report by The World Economic Forum, critical thinking and problem-solving are at the top of the list of skills employers believe will grow in prominence over the next five years. It makes sense: thanks to the speed of technological advancement, companies of every shape and size increasingly require skilled individuals who can think creatively to troubleshoot issues and find the right solutions quickly.
Workshop facilitation prioritizes these skills, both from group participants but in particular from the facilitators themselves. Those who learn how to facilitate and run workshops are therefore at a distinct advantage in the changing job market as they already have the skill sets valued by a range of companies and organizations, as well as experience incorporating these best practices in team scenarios.
For jobseekers or indeed anyone looking to change or future proof their career, this research provides a fascinating insight into the current job market and the future of employability. Employers are significantly less focused on formal qualifications and instead seek individuals who know how to use innovative ideas and data-backed processes to reach desired outcomes.
In this article, we take a look at why learning workshop facilitation is a highly tangible and efficient route to onboarding the sought-after critical thinking and problem-solving skills currently in such high demand in the job market. We’ll also be looking at how the digitisation of our workplaces has led to these skills becoming prioritised by business leaders now more than ever before.
Let’s get started!
What is facilitation and workshopping?
Facilitation is a process used to enable and support a team in achieving a long term goal, solve a problem, or develop a product or feature. Often utilised within a business setting to overcome a challenge or improve the customer experience, a facilitator–who can be an internal team member, or an external facilitation specialist–leads structured workshop sessions based on the principle of promoting a democratic process that encourages collaboration and participation from everyone on the team. The goal of these workshops is to unleash the potential of the group as a whole as well as make full use of the range of skills and experiences of its individual members to solve the challenge at hand.
However the power of facilitation doesn’t end there. More than just a set of techniques and best practices, when used regularly over a longer period of time, facilitation can have a transformative effect on a workplace culture, in some cases instigating a whole new way of working. A culture of participation evolves, whereby different voices, perspectives and experiences come to inform how the company makes important decisions as well as influence the direction in which the company moves over time. To the benefit of both the team and the company’s goals, hierarchical structures are challenged and frequently rejected, and collaboration and partnership is instead prioritised.
While facilitation teaches a set of skills that you use to improve how you do your job, it is also a varied, exciting and rewarding career in and of itself. Companies of every shape and size are hiring external facilitators to lead workshops and guide teams as they seek to unknot difficult problems and overhaul antiquated processes to better serve the customer and meet company goals. There are numerous advantages to hiring an external facilitator over utilising a current in-house team member for the role: external facilitators can be more objective, and offer fresh, unbiased perspectives.
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What skills do you need to become a facilitator?
A facilitator organizes the workshop and provides an environment within which it can succeed. Rather than trying to solve the problem posed–that is not the facilitator’s job–they seek to support those trying to solve it by establishing and maintaining the workshop structure. In a practical sense, this involves strict time-keeping, asking questions, and keeping notes.
A key part of a facilitator’s role within a workshop is to focus the team on finding the optimal path to reaching the overall objective. However, in addition to this, a facilitator is there to keep the group focused on the challenge, enable positive and useful interactions between the group’s participants, and implement processes that streamline activities and optimise efficiency. Put simply: a facilitator plans, guides and manages the group within a workshop context so it can meet its defined goals.
Some of the key expectations of a workshop facilitator include:
- Putting collaboration techniques into practice
- Knowing how to lead, support and bring out the skills of a team and its individual members
- Understanding the best ways to define and meet goals
- Encouraging data-backed decisions and reducing assumptions
- Building and implementing efficient processes
- Moving teams through ideation, prototyping and testing phases at speed
In addition to these concrete facilitation skills, there is a range of soft skills and traits facilitators should seek to embody to ensure fair processes and to get the best possible results out of the workshop. Let’s take a look at some of the key attributes of talented facilitators.
A facilitator will bring a fresh pair of eyes to a challenge and product, guiding the team in the process without any product or operational bias. For many organizations, this is a reason to use an external facilitator over an internal employee: they will be unaffected by office politics, workplace power struggles or team hierarchies. An objective approach combined with facilitation experience will ensure that outcomes of the workshop are guided by the process itself, rather than internal agendas (however well-meaning).
Time-management and excellent organizational skills during a workshop are key attributes of a facilitation specialist. A facilitator needs to know the schedule inside and out and communicate clearly the expectations for each activity as well as its timeframe for completion to ensure that teams stay focused and each activity is properly concluded. The facilitator also needs to be documenting the workshop in detail, which means their own focus needs to stay sharp.
Empathy and understanding
A facilitator needs to work towards building a trusting, empathetic and collaborative environment in order for a workshop to achieve its objectives. Healthy debate and listening to different perspectives within the group will underpin crucial business decisions, and a facilitator needs to lead by example and demonstrate empathy, authenticity, understanding and an approachable attitude that others can learn from and mirror.
While it’s important for a facilitator to listen carefully and stay calm during discussions or debate, it’s crucial that they are confident enough to step in and assert themselves when a conversation is going off topic, running over time, or unlikely to produce a positive outcome that moves the process along. Knowing when to exercise this kind of judgement takes time to learn and will come about when a facilitator has built up significant experience. But even those with less experience will need to know when to let a conversation run, and when to jump in and guide the team–with kindness and empathy –onto the next item on the agenda.
Precise and engaging communication
A facilitator will spend a great deal of time standing in front of a room full of people, keeping them motivated, explaining tricky concepts, conveying the process itself, asking probing questions and facilitating discussion and debate. For these reasons, a facilitator’s communication needs to be clear, but it should also be compelling, inspiring and unwaveringly positive to keep the team motivated to continue.
And three things you might think you need to become a great facilitator which you definitely don’t?
- To be an extrovert
- To be a subject matter expert
- To always come up with the solution to the problem
Remember, a facilitator’s job is to bring the best out of the team and ensure each participant can do their finest work. You are the cheerleader, the guide, the organizer and, sometimes, the devil’s advocate. What you definitely do not need to be is the person with all the answers: those come from the team you are facilitating.
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Who can become a facilitator?
As a career, facilitation is open to anyone who can demonstrate the essential skills needed to lead, motivate, organize and unite a team while simultaneously asking the questions needed to guide them towards reaching their common goal. As we have seen, objectivity is key, as is a clear and engaging communication and leadership style.
Although honing these skills will be essential to launching a facilitation career, becoming a great facilitator doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice, learning from past mistakes, and emphasising some of the key personal qualities we’ve already outlined. As any facilitator will tell you, experience and continued learning are crucial ingredients to building a successful career in the facilitation space.
However, despite the transferability of many of these personal attributes, there are some professional backgrounds which also aid and prepare individuals for careers as workshop facilitators. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
Those with a background in teaching or education are likely to find they have many of the essential skills needed to facilitate successful workshops. Patience, assertiveness and the ability to guide and mediate group discussions are all attributes found in teaching professionals that are of maximum value in a workshop environment. Teachers who have a talent for bringing out the best in their pupils will thrive in a workshop where drawing out the potential, knowledge and skills of each participant are crucial to a successful end result.
Coaches and Trainers
At first glance, it might be difficult to identify what exactly the difference is between a coach or trainer and a workshop facilitator. But while trainers and coaches typically have in-depth knowledge or expertise in the subject or skills they’re helping others to onboard, a facilitator’s job is to bring out the collective knowledge the group already has to solve the problem at hand. Despite these differences, facilitators, coaches and trainers require similar talents, which is why facilitation is a natural fit to those with this background: both need to be good at public speaking, managing groups, asking ‘difficult’ questions, and guiding a group towards a common goal.
With design thinking at the heart of facilitation it makes sense that UX designers often move into workshop facilitator roles. With many of the best practices and principles of workshops hailing from UX methodology, experienced UX designers typically find their working backgrounds naturally lend themselves to facilitation.
In addition, increasing numbers of businesses and organizations seek to overcome challenges through a more user-centred approach. A workshop facilitator with in-depth knowledge of both UX design and usability principles is therefore at a huge advantage managing any problem solving workshops which aim to solve customer issues.
A business consultant is an individual who advises business owners and managers on how to improve operations and increase efficiency. As well as improving processes, consulting is intended to help identify and overcome obstacles to meeting a company’s goals. In these ways a business consultant has many of the same roles as a workshop facilitator. However, unlike a business consultant who directly advises or instructs, a facilitator enables the team themselves to come up with the solutions via a structured workshopping and troubleshooting process.
Product managers coordinate the development of a product, feature or enhancement by working closely with the UX design, business and technology teams. In this role they seek to identify the customer need as well as the overall business goals that a particular product or enhancement will meet. They then work closely with these teams, managing the process of building the product. There are numerous crossovers between product managers and facilitators: they both create collaborative and creative environments, delegate tasks, and provide leadership. A deep understanding of UX principles, diplomacy, and, above all, organization ensure the overall goals are achieved.
Forum research and skills of the future
As we have seen, critical thinking and problem solving are expected to be amongst the most sought-after skills in job candidates over the next five years. However, it’s not just critical thinking and problem solving which employers are hoping to see in potential recruits. According to the World Economic Forum, employers will also be inclined towards candidates who can demonstrate leadership, analytical and innovative thinking, and reasoning and ideation skills. From a self-management perspective, recruiters like employees to show flexibility and resilience in the face of challenges, as well as the ability to independently implement learning strategies to build on their knowledge throughout their careers.
Jobseekers who can demonstrate this broad spectrum of skills to future employers and recruiters are at a distinct advantage. With a predicted 85 millions jobs being displaced by 2025 due to a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, it is these distinctly human qualities which will hold their value over the long term.
The good news for those building careers as facilitators, or individuals simply learning how to facilitate, is that many of these in-demand abilities come hand-in-hand with organizing, leading and guiding teams in workshops. For those hoping to secure careers that will withstand the advancement of technology and aid our adoption of it, a learn-positive approach combined with leadership and idea-generating skills will ensure they are at the front of the queue for the top jobs over the next decade.
How to become a facilitator
If facilitation is something you’d like to learn, either to enhance your current skill set or to launch a whole new career, we’ve put together a short list of simple steps you can take to make that happen.
Do your research
There’s a lot being written about facilitation and workshops right now and some fantastic resources for those hoping to onboard facilitation skills. To get to grips with the fundamental principles and best practices we’d recommend diving into the following books:
- The Workshop Book: How to design and lead successful workshops by Pamela Hamilton
- The Workshop Survival Guide: How to design and teach educational workshops that work every time by Rob Fitzpatrick and Devin Hunt
- The Sprint Book by Jake Knapp
- The Workshopper Playbook by Jonathan Courtney (This one’s free!)
- Gamestorming by Dave Gray and Sunni Brown
- Visual Thinking by Williemien Brand
- Facilitation Guidebook (Also free!)
Rather than running full-blown week-long workshops while you’re still starting out, try out some facilitation techniques to tackle smaller issues before moving on to more high stakes challenges. A great technique to try is the Lightning Decision Jam.
Look for opportunities to facilitate
Practice makes perfect and preparation is everything. Prepare yourself for a career in facilitation by practicing at every available opportunity. The more experience you get, the more your confidence will grow. Consider volunteering to facilitate a meeting in your current workplace but with a team you don’t usually work with. You’ll be among (hopefully) familiar faces but you’ll more easily remain objective if it’s not a department or area you typically work in.
Ask for feedback
When the session is over, ask for feedback from the team. What did they feel could have been done better? What did they particularly enjoy? Make note of what works and what doesn’t and the responses from the team to particular tasks or exercises.
Stay up to date
Stay informed on the latest research in the field and the newest techniques being developed by reading blogs, listening to podcasts and watching webinars by sprint and facilitation experts. Here are some of our favourite learning resources:
Take a facilitation course
Getting insights and training from expert facilitators is a sure fire way to secure the facilitation skills you need to enhance your career or launch a brand new one. Training also offers ample opportunities to ask questions, get feedback and learn tips and tricks from professionals in the field. In our Ultimate Facilitation Training and Courses Guide, you’ll find free and paid workshops, training courses and guides to onboard this sought-after skill set.
What does the future of facilitation look like?
As increasing numbers of teams and organizations reject hierarchical structures and instead look to collaboration, creative thinking and innovative problem solving to increase growth, connect with users and find new markets, demand for facilitation skills will continue to grow.
In addition, due to the diversification of our workplaces that technological advancement and employees spread over different countries and timezones has brought about, those with skills at bringing together team members of different backgrounds, opinions, biases and experiences will bring out the most forward-thinking and sophisticated solutions.
As we look to the future, this diversification is only likely to increase. Facilitation enables companies and teams to draw on this diversity and employ it in the most innovative and productive way possible. Those with the skills to guide, organize, motivate, and lead teams of people in the role of a facilitator will therefore be perfectly positioned to succeed and thrive in this new, collaborative and more human way of working.