Why Would a Focus Group Facilitator Be Necessary?

When a business decides to launch a new product, it must invest millions of dollars in order to bring the product to the market. These dollars are spent primarily on research and development (R&D) and there is no guarantee that these dollars will ever be recouped. If the product is a complete flop, it will lose millions of dollars and cripple the company’s finances. For this reason, many companies use focus groups to determine how consumers feel about a specific product before producing and releasing it. Companies that bring together a group must hire a facilitator to lead the group’s discussion. This article takes a look at how group think works and what role a group facilitator plays.

A focus group is a form of qualitative research in which a set of consumers who match the target demographic are asked their opinions and attitudes to a specific idea, product, or service. The group facilitator asks participants a wide range of questions and participants are able to interact with other group members. Ideally a focus group will sustain a conversation and all participants will feel that they can speak freely. This free exchange of ideas allows the company to get the most honest reaction to a proposed product, service, or marketing campaign.

There are three phases of focus group planning that a group facilitator will have to complete. He or she will complete work before, during, and after the focus group. This professional will actually start working right after the company decides it is time to hire a facilitator. The group leader will help plan the event by identifying objectives for the discussion, determining a location and group of participants based on the objectives and the target market, and finally he or she will develop a script. This script will include an opening section that explains how the event will work, a section with open-ended questions that spur conversation, and a closing section that thanks the participants.

Once planning is completed, the group facilitator will conduct the focus group. He or she should record the session either with a voice recording or a video, with participants made aware that they will be recorded. The facilitator will follow his or her script during the session, but an experienced professional will know when to ask spontaneous questions. He or she will also focus on getting full answers, keeping the discussion on-track at all times, and making sure that every participant is given the chance to speak. The group facilitator will also keep an eye on time so that all questions are addressed.

When a business decides to hire a facilitator, it will also have help dealing with the results of the focus group. The group facilitator will use his or her notes and the recording of the session to create a written summary. This summary can then be analyzed to determine whether a product or service is ready for the market, or if a marketing campaign needs to be retooled before the product or service is released.

Companies that hire a facilitator to lead their focus groups will minimize the occurrence of costly product or service flops.

Meeting Facilitation Is More Effective If Leaders Have Been Properly Trained

Organizations are run differently, depending on how big the organization is, how long it has been around, and in which industry it operates. One of the few things these organizations do is hold meetings. A meeting might be called to share information with everyone at once or to brainstorm a new strategic direction. However, if the meeting is not run effectively then the company will have to call another meeting and get stuck in a continuous cycle of holding meetings until objectives are met. Many organizations commit to making sure a meeting is held correctly the first time by bringing in a meeting facilitation expert from outside the organization. Other companies prefer to save money by appointing someone from within the organization to lead the meeting. If that individual has never completed a facilitation training course or been properly trained in the art of leading meetings, then the only thing that a meeting will do is waste everyone’s time.

Designating an individual within the organization to be in charge of meeting facilitation will make it easier for the organization to achieve the objectives it lays out for that specific gathering. A facilitator is someone who leads a discussion by conducting research and developing a plan leading up to the meeting. This individual will interview staff members to determine what they want the meeting to accomplish, and might even write questions that can be asked to spur discussion among participants. A facilitation training course will help the individual with this research phase by suggesting ways to conduct research and obtain necessary information from organizational leaders. During this time, organizational leaders should also mention specific topics that need to be addressed or ideas that need to be debated and put to a vote. Once the facilitator has completed all preliminary research, he or she will create an agenda that he or she can refer to during the discussion.

When the meeting starts, the meeting facilitation professional will oversee the conversation to ensure that everyone is given a chance to speak. This is accomplished by making sure that each individual is treated equally, and that no ideas are dismissed without a discussion among the group. The discussion leader can also rely on techniques learned from a facilitation training course in order to bring shy participants out of their shells or to break the ice if the group seems reluctant to engage in a discussion. A facilitation training course will also teach the individual how to lead games and exercises designed to help everyone loosen up or start thinking creatively. The professional will even ensure that the meeting is productive by not dismissing everyone until a consensus has been reached. He or she will also give others the chance to ask questions, so that department heads or individual employees understand what they need to do in order to guarantee that the organization meets its goals.

Sending an individual to a facilitation training course is the best way to ensure that he or she is capable of effectively completing meeting facilitation.

Meeting Facilitator – Now Performing As Director – Conductor – Coach and Choreographer

Imagine an orchestra without a conductor; the strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion all reading the music on their own could result cacophony instead of symphony.  What if The Producers had no director or choreographer; those little old ladies would be knocking each other over with their walkers.  A football team without a playbook would be little more than a sandlot game.

The same holds true for a planning meeting without a facilitator. We’ve all sat through countless meetings that went nowhere. Even with an agenda and knowing essentially what you want to get out of the meeting, it often takes a skilled facilitator to get everyone participating, keeping them civil and driving the discussion to a clear result.

The facilitator is more than just a meeting guide.  Much like the orchestra conductor, a theater director/choreographer or football coach, it is their responsibility to plan, run and bring the meeting to a clear conclusion.

It is not the facilitator’s job to solve problems or to push their own agenda (no matter how well-disguised).

It is the facilitator’s job to simply allow people in the group to work through their thoughts and feelings through the process of discussion by actively listening and creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable participating.

So what should you expect from a good facilitator?  Here are the 8 qualities and skills that a good facilitator must use to extract the best ideas and thoughts from even the most reluctant participants: 

  1. Knowledgeable researcher: Before the meeting starts, the facilitator gathers as much information as possible to ensure they understand the topic enough to guide the exploration of issues, ideas and thoughts. Often the facilitator will request to interview key participants to uncover any potential issues or information that could help to keep the discussion productive.
  2. Objective, patient listener: Generally, the less connected the facilitator is to the participants, the better; making it easier to ensure that every one is heard equally.  It is the facilitator’s job to make sure that all participants feel comfortable participating, and to encourage everyone to engage in the discussion. Perhaps the greatest skill of a facilitator is an ability to patiently listen to sometimes rambling ideas or thoughts and then capturing them clearly, without losing the emotion or intent. It can be hard to not turn one person’s thought into what you think it should be rather than what they meant it to be. 
  3. Organized choreographer: The facilitator either prepares the agenda for the meeting or works with the meeting sponsor to outline areas to be covered. Then, it is the facilitator’s job to keep everyone on track and to document the discussion as it unfolds.  Using whiteboards or flip charts, the facilitator often papers the meeting room walls with the notes, charts and ideas, regularly tracking all of it back to the original agenda.
  4. Focused conductor: Any creative discussion will naturally wander. It’s on these detours that the best ideas often emerge. While the agenda may not be followed in order, the facilitator always knows the way back. They can quickly adapt and encourage a creative discussion, ensuring that everyone gets their say. Then document the ideas or issues as they guide the discussion back on topic.
  5. Devil’s advocate: In every meeting there is at least one elephant in the room; that question or issue that no one wants to mention. This is where pre-meeting interviews and topic research help a facilitator become aware of these issues so they can safely and subtly bring them forward for discussion. They can also push back on ideas with flip side thoughts that can encourage broader, more creative discussion.
  6. Coach and mediator:  Every group has different dynamics, with standout and reluctant participants. If executives are part of the group, they can sometimes inhibit open participation. The facilitator must break down barriers with humor, insights and direct questions. If confrontations or arguments do erupt, the facilitator must quickly regain control, make sure both sides are heard, and then get everyone back on track.
  7. Face and body language reader:  It takes practice and sensitivity to notice the silent signals when people become unhappy, angry, distracted or upset. A good facilitator listens for what is not said and finds ways to engage these people in a positive and supportive way.
  8. Great closer: Tying is all together at the end and making sure there are no issues hanging, nothing left unsaid, and no one feeling left out is perhaps the most critical skill of a facilitator. Recapping the topic by running quickly across the wall charts, then outlining next steps and any assignments gets everyone on the same page to move forward.

Think about bringing in a skilled facilitator to orchestrate your next critical meeting. The results can be amazing and the process can be much more fun than you imagine when you get to sit back and participate. 

Strategy Facilitator: Align Organizational Thinking

Organizations hold meetings for a number of different reasons. Whether the organization is looking to tackle a major problem or wishes to focus on new objectives, meetings are a great way to get everyone within the organization on the same page. Yet businesses might find that if the meeting is not lead effectively, it will be inefficient and ultimately ineffective. While companies might be tempted to put an organizational leader in charge of a gathering, it is better if they hire a facilitation expert. Depending on the company’s need, experts can be found that specialize in a number of areas, like a teambuilding facilitator or a strategy facilitator.

What do these experts offer?

Facilitation experts provide support before and during the meeting.

How do they prepare before meetings?

Prior to the meeting, these professionals will research the company and the problems it hopes to address by interviewing the organization’s leaders. When a teambuilding facilitator is brought in, he or she might sit down with members of the group individually to try to learn if personality conflicts or biases are holding back productivity. Similarly, a strategy facilitator could meet with organizational leaders to understand the current strategy and how it aligns with the company’s goals. Using the information collected from interviews and independent research, the professional will prepare a comprehensive report that participants will receive before the day of the discussion. With this information, everyone will be on the same page and the facilitator will not have to worry about working with a group in which nobody can see the big picture.

What is their role during the meetings?

These professionals are primarily in charge of leading the discussion. The big reason that internal employees should not handle this task is because they might bring their own biases into the room. Internal employees might allow certain individuals to dominate the conversation and might even put down or reject certain ideas before others have had a chance to respond to them. Consequently, potential solutions are never considered and individuals will even become reluctant to speak up. The facilitator will use a previously prepared agenda to make sure that certain topics or questions are covered, and will direct the discussion back on-topic if the group goes off on a tangent.

The above-mentioned are general duties covered as some facilitators will handle specific tasks, depending on the type of meeting. A strategy facilitator will have to make sure that a consensus is reached when the team thinks that it has determined a strategic direction to follow. He or she must also ensure that all team members understand their role in helping the organization reach its goals. A teambuilding facilitator will teach and lead exercises or games that companies can use to develop teambuilding skills. This individual might also have to settle personality conflicts, usually by addressing the problem rather than the personalities.

To find a strategy facilitator or teambuilding facilitator that will help the company reach its goals, organizational leaders should consult an online database to find individuals with the right mix of training and experience from similar companies.