Do you need a project manager or a project facilitator?

Annet Goltstein and Simon Wilson

Identifying the right roles is key to the succes of any project. In our work we often see projects that would have been more effective if they had been facilitated and not (only) managed.

A project facilitator brings the skills of facilitation to the work of managing projects.  Above all they bring the critical facilitator perspective of independence and neutrality:

  • holding space between different stakeholders,
  • focusing on creating and sustaining a process to deliver outcomes, and
  • resisting the temptation to get bogged down in the project substance.

For a project owner, project facilitation offers you a clear focus on the project processes – working back from the outcomes to structure a process and engage stakeholders.  It enables sharper decision making because one person holds back from taking a view and instead ensures that decisions are based on clear criteria and enables all views to be heard. This  increases buy in among project team members and encourages them to take responsibility for delivery.

Project facilitation offers a process map rather than, or together with, a project plan placing as much emphasis on how tasks are achieved as on the tasks themselves.

For a facilitator, project facilitation builds from the approach to a single event or activity to the creation of a full project process, with linked synchronous and asynchronous activities.

What does a project facilitator do?

A project facilitator works with project team members to develop an agreed process for the project as whole.  They facilitate meetings involving team members and other stakeholders.  Critically, they also facilitate ongoing asynchronous engagement for the duration of the project, including curating project resources.

By comparison with a traditional project manager the project facilitator spends less time on defining and carrying out project tasks.  The project facilitator does not become the expert on project content, leaving more responsibility to other members of the project team.  The project facilitator’s role is more ‘holding project space’ than ‘managing the project’. And the project facilitator will be up front in the start phase but will leave ‘the stage’ to give ownership to the project team, so they feel real ownership of the results.

 When should you consider working with a project facilitator?

We would suggest –

  • When the project involves multiple stakeholders, in particular from different organisations, and where decision making may be complex and ‘political’
  • When commitment and buy in from the project members is essential, also after the project is finished
  • When the team members already have the subject matter knowledge so the project facilitator’s added value is in enabling them to do their stuff while paying attention to the process.

When the aim of the project is to (re-)structure information or to deliver a design or other tangible outcome, a project manager may fit the bill.  When the result to be achieved is intangible and emergent, and the way to get to the results has to be found within the project, then a facilitator may be the right choice.

At a time when many organisations find that project management is overwhelming their ability to deliver effectively, project facilitation can help build buy in through a lighter touch.

Examples:

  • Developing an engagement plan for a national government agency. This is a complex project involving multiple stakeholders and interlocking accountabilities.  The project facilitator is working with the project team to facilitate them in developing the plan.  This includes proposals for relevant frameworks, logistical support and mentoring the project lead to develop their competence and understanding.  Key to this is ensuring that the final plan is owned by the team rather than seen as something brought in from the outside.
  • Mission and vision development in a 250 FTE organisation by a project facilitator. This started with the management team experiencing and then agreeing the facilitative approach, then forming a group of eight employees from different departments. The project facilitator gave guidance to feel and catch the vision for the next five years. They did so by, among others, organising three (different) events with stakeholders, clients and all employees, and by discussing the outcomes with the management team. Result is a mission vision that is ‘ours’ and that has ‘ownership’ in every department and in management. So, ready to take off for the next 5 years!

We commissioned work on a new mission / vision.  It was crucial to involve all stakeholders and reach an AGREED text with them.  The project lead did not contribute to the text, but rather facilitated the path to agreement.  So the key feature was not finding the right text, but finding the right process.

Gerard Lenssen, (former director BEnT– Fontys University of Applied Sciences)

We are curious about your considerations and experiences with project facilitation instead of project management – please share your thoughts.

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