Leading v. Facilitating Strategic Planning

Sections of this topic

    A major difference between leading and facilitating is that a leader often tells; a facilitator always asks. In my book, The Secrets of Facilitation, 2nd. ed., I describe how I learned what I call the fundamental secret of facilitation.

    I began understanding the secret during my career with the management consulting division of what was then one of the Big-8 accounting and consulting firms. In the eight years I spent in that consulting practice, we had a standard way of addressing a client’s problem. We might be called in to review a particular department or activity.

    We would arrive with our army of bright people, interview those whom we believed were the key stakeholders, develop a set of recommendations based on our interviews and experience, and create what might be called the “100% Solution.” We would go away and come back a year later and perhaps, if we were lucky, 15% of the recommendations would be implemented.

    In my final years with that organization, the practice in which I worked began taking a different approach. We would come in with a smaller group of consultants and work shoulder-to-shoulder with client personnel. Together we would convene group interviews (facilitated sessions) which typically included 8-20 people. In the facilitated sessions, the participants would create the recommendations, not the consultants.

    In most cases, they would only come up with what we might consider the 60% or 70% solution. So we would float ideas based on our experience. Some they would accept, others they would reject as “not beneficial” or “not implementable” in their environment. When all was done, they might have created what we would consider “the 85% solution.” Yet a year later, when we came back, amazingly 80-90% of the solution would be implemented!

    Why wasn’t more of the “100% solution” implemented? Why would the “85% solution” gained through facilitation achieve far greater success? Therein lies the secret and the power behind it.

    Secret #1 If they create it, they understand it and they accept it.

    You can achieve more effective results when solutions are created, understood, and accepted by the people impacted.

    As an expert consultants, we were “telling” our clients what they needed to do. As a result, there was very little buy-in by our clients and their people. When we began “asking” the questions that resulted in them creating their own answers, the difference was staggering.

    Dr. Robert Zawacki from the University of Colorado in his book “Transforming the Mature Information Technology Organization” put the secret this way:

    ED = RD x CD
    ffective Decisions = The Right Decision times Commitment to the Decision

    Dr. Zawacki’s point is that the multiplication sign in the formula means that even the best decision can be rendered completely ineffective if commitment to the decision is lacking. (And, this is critical to consider in the process of strategic planning.)

    What does this mean to you? If you as the leader of the organization know the right decision around strategy, but your team has zero commitment to it, the effectiveness of your strategy will be zero.

    If you dictate the strategy and they are not committed to it, it will be as if you are pressing on the accelerator while they are stomping on the brake – a lot of energy expended and a lot of smoke in the air, but with little to show for it.

    Hence, the key difference between leading and facilitating strategy…


    Certified Master Facilitator Michael Wilkinson is the CEO and Managing Director of Leadership Strategies, Inc., The Facilitation Company, and author of the new The Secrets of Facilitation 2nd Edition, The Secrets to Masterful Meetings, and The Executive Guide to Facilitating Strategy. Leadership Strategies is a global leader in facilitation services, providing companies with dynamic professional facilitators who lead executive teams and task forces in areas like strategic planning, issue resolution, process improvement, and others. The company is also a leading provider of facilitation training in the United States.