Facilitated Results Are Not Guaranteed

So you can guarantee we will have a strategic plan completed at the end of the session?

I paused momentarily, looking at both of them and thinking about the question.  I was trying to recall how I might have answered it much earlier in my career.

20+ years of facilitating had taught me the only truthful reply was this:

“No. Regretfully, I cannot.”

Much as one expects to hear “fine” when asking others how they are doing, I don’t think my actual response initially registered with them as they nodded somewhat enthusiastically, almost as if on autopilot.  But as their expressions slowly shifted to incredulousness and concern, I knew I had been heard.

Wait. You’re saying you can’t guarantee what we will have done by the end of the session? How can that be? I mean, why would we want to hire you if we can’t be sure what will happen?

I assured them their inquiry was neither unexpected nor uncommon:  “Investing in a facilitated process of any kind is a major commitment, both for the client and the consultant.  Knowing it will produce the desired end result is a logical expectation.”

Yes, it is. That’s why we need a guarantee for the final outcome.

I knew that my personality and approach would be a good fit with this organization; the mission, vision, and core values resonated with me; and I wanted to do the work for them.  So I did something I normally do not do and offered them this:

“I do not normally do this, but I will guarantee we will have a plan completed at the end of the session if you will guarantee me that:
  • The scope of work you have outlined does not reflect any unconscious bias or inappropriate intent either of you might possess as this would significantly impede my ability to do the work we have outlined.
  • All participants in the actual planning process will answer the advance surveys by the deadlines specified and complete the necessary pre-work so that we can maximize the limited face-to-face session time.
  • I will have unfettered and timely access to the people and information I need to really understand the culture of your organization and how this planning process and the work we do fit within in it.
  • All participants will be present and engaged for the full session, doing whatever advance planning is required to focus exclusively on our work and not be making calls or checking email except in genuine emergency situations.
  • The group’s members already possess the level of trust in and knowledge about each other that our strategic conversations and decisions require or they will act towards each other with generosity and open-mindedness if they do not. Purpose will matter most to our process, not politics or personalities.
  • Participants will not sabotage the discussions by acting on hidden agendas, and that they will respond honestly when at the session’s onset I ask everyone to share with us any vested interests they have in our work and any deeply held beliefs or biases they bring it.
  • You understand producing a finished plan requires decisions to be made, not just discussions to occur. Therefore, all staff and all of the session participants will maintain a bias for action throughout the process. In particular, this means during the session we will not expend excess attention or time on wordsmithing the perfect language, opting instead for a standard of “good enough for now.”
  • We collectively agree the process and the in-person session will be messy at times, that this is normal and not cause for concern, and that we work collaboratively through the mess by surfacing what seems to be happening in the moment and how we best respond.”
As you might expect, I had stunned them into silence.
We sat in it for a minute or two as they absorbed what I had just outlined.

So what you’re saying is …

I rarely interrupt, but I cut them off. “Let me finish that thought for you.  What I am saying is that success is dependent on everyone, not just me.  You can never outsource ownership of the outcome. Holding me accountable for my contributions must be matched by holding all other players accountable for theirs, including yourselves. My work is helping all of you do the work.  Whether or not we complete it cannot be my responsibility alone.”

It will be interesting to see what happens next.
Bottom line?
Be a bit skeptical of facilitators who give you a 100 guarantee about what they will get a group of human beings to accomplish … and be prepared to make your own commitments if this remains an expectation you hold.