An outside job: Why team facilitation needs to be done by an outsider


Taking a nap can solve a lot of problems, but neurologists have framed this idea in very clear terms. According to research from the University of California, specific bits of information are absorbed by the hippocampus during the day. When that area of the brain shuts down during sleep, the information moves to the neocortex. Once there, it mingles with the totality of our memories and experiences. This allows the brain to make useful associations, and to solve problems creatively.


When it comes to making connections that wouldn’t have otherwise been made, sleep isn’t the only game in town. We all know from personal experience that stepping back from a problem – seeing it with fresh eyes, as it were – is sometimes the only way to make real progress. We might go at it directly for weeks without much luck. Then, when we least expect it, an answer arrives out of the blue.


In search of deeper insight


In the corporate world, a similar phenomenon often takes place during external team facilitation. Business leaders are constantly looking for ways to help their teams perform on a high level, but their direct involvement with the commercial and strategic direction of the company can prevent them making important connections.


There are several reasons for this. An internal facilitator might shy away from tough questions because they don’t want to jeopardise or diminish their personal role within the group. They might be unable to see or acknowledge their own long-standing assumptions about the team, the company, or even the industry at large.


Likewise, the other participants in the group might temper their feedback or participation with a view toward preserving or advancing their own individual positions. They might also suspect that internal facilitators are inherently biased toward certain people or ideas.


All of these instincts are understandable in the context of team dynamics – but if they go unchecked, they apply pressure to the process of leadership development, and hinder the discovery of optimal solutions.


Not unlike a solid nap, external facilitators can ease this pressure. Their experience and professionalism nourish the facilitation process, while their “outsider” status contributes to an atmosphere of neutrality. When controversial or challenging issues come to the fore, they move the group forward with clarity and tact. They see assumptions no one else may be able to see, ask questions no one else may be willing to ask, and find ways to smooth out the rough edges without sugar coating. They function as a kind of organisational neocortex, integrating disparate bits of information into a comprehensive whole, and allowing the group to make surprising connections.


Of course, this assumes the facilitator in question is good at what they do. Inexperienced or unskilled facilitators fall into a number of traps. They settle for a superficial grasp of the organisational challenges and dynamics in play. They fail to earn the trust of participants by rushing in too quickly, being aloof, or claiming to have all the answers. If they don’t have the requisite people skills and corporate background, their efforts at leadership facilitation can be awkward, drawn out, and ineffectual.


Being an outsider is part of the external facilitator’s appeal, but you need more than that. Outsiders who deliver maximum value to your team are those who start with proven methods and carefully tailor them to the organisation – people who know how to gain trust and drive progress without developing assumptions of their own. The result should be a detailed and comprehensive picture of the organisation itself, and a wealth of specific insights that elevate its approach to HR.


As Einstein famously put it, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” The value of engaging with an external facilitator is precisely this. It may not be as simple as going to sleep – but when it’s done right, the process can be just as vital and rewarding.



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