Facilitated Work Sessions
Developed by Rosa Elisabeth Lindqvist
Have you ever heard about projects that struggled to meet deadlines? Or where the quality of the deliverables was not high enough? Or of a project team that struggles with ownership or poor group dynamic? These are all relatively common issues of the project management practice. This article describes a concept for remedy of these issues, facilitated work sessions. Facilitated work sessions exist to speed up projects by producing project deliverables through participatory processes and group dynamics that works, while increasing ownership of the results as well as quality. The general purpose with facilitation is to make it easy for groups to reach a certain goal, and further to make the group achieve more together than the sum of their individual inputs. The participants can focus on the content, the objectives, while the facilitator manages the process and the people. A capable facilitator will possess a certain mind-set, skill-set and competences. Besides a capable facilitator, a successful work session involves thorough planning, engaging the right participants and the right choice of approach and techniques not to mention distribution of the work session results.
About Facilitated Work Sessions
Facilitated work sessions can be described by defining facilitation and work sessions separately.
Facilitation is essentially about helping a group of people reaching a goal and that involves planning or designing the process that does this together with leading or guiding during the process itself. The purpose of facilitation is also to get the knowledge of the participants into play in order to use the joint knowledge of the group that lets the group achieve more than the sum of what the individuals could achieve.
A work session is basically a meeting that is characterised by being very structured and its purpose is to bring about a specific work product contributing to the project. The work being solving issues, making decisions and documenting the outcomes. A typical work session will be with about 12-20 people and take 2-3 days. 
The participants are people with a stake in the specific work to be done. These could be the project owners, experts on the subject, customers, end-users, and suppliers if it makes sense.
To design and lead a group process requires different competences, but not only competences. Facilitation also requires a certain mind-set, awareness and skills. It is a practical art that cannot be acquired simply by reading a book.
The mind-set, in short, must include believing in values stating that people are competent, always want to do what is right, and everyone’s opinion has value. All participants are human, and that includes the facilitator as well, who must be aware of how she/he affects others intentionally as well as subconsciously. 
Facilitation skills include communication skills, lead when needed, step back when needed, active listening, patience, manage group dynamics, be able to tell what the group or process needs and change the agenda accordingly. 
For the competences, The International Association of Facilitators (IAF) has defined six core competencies:
- Create a collaborative client relationship
- Plan Appropriate Group Processes
- Create and sustain a Participatory Environment
- Guide Group to Appropriate and Useful Outcomes
- Build and Maintain Professional Knowledge
- Model Positive Professional Attitude 
The application of facilitated work sessions will be context dependent, but a way to approach facilitated work sessions, including finding out whether they are relevant in your project, is provided in this section. The recommended approach consists of six steps:
- Assess the need
- Plan effectively
- Engage a capable facilitator
- Engage the right participants
- Use the right work session approach and techniques
- Distribute quality results
Each of them are further described in the following sections.
1. Assess the need
Facilitated work sessions are first and foremost relevant to use when collaboration is required or believed to be the most value adding way to achieve the objective. However, there are other factors to take into account when deciding to or not to go with a work session.
- If the project involve multiple lines of companies or multiple departments in one company.
- If time is very limited and even small delays in the critical path will have a big impact.
- If the project is among the most important strategic initiatives in the company.
- If the project is trying to do something that is new in the company.
- If the project is trying to do something that has been tried before, but failed.
- If the project needs experts to participate who are not allocated full-time to the project.
- If the project result in changes that need group consensus or broad socialisation.
- If scope creep happens or if it is hard to acquire a specification of requirements from the team.
- If the project operates in a geographically dispersed environment.
The way to determine when in the project there is a need for a work session is generally when the delivery to be produced is needed. Figure 1 shows 5 examples of types of work sessions and where they fit in, in generic project phases. The project charter work session is briefly described in the Example. The examples of work sessions further include Process Analysis and Design Work Session, Business Requirements Work Session, Risk Assessment Work Session and Work-in-Progress Review Session.
2. Plan effectively
The facilitator plans the work session process, but in order to do so, it will be necessary to talk to the project manager and team. This goes especially for the first part of the planning, where the staging takes place, see Figure 2. Setting the stage is e.g. about defining the objectives for the work session and that should be done together with the project manager and perhaps also the project owner. Setting the stage is about creating the framework where the work session is taking place, what should be done, who should be there and when. Logistical planning covers the practical part of the work session, but is important to plan properly to make sure the work session runs smooth and professional. The final preparation step, planning, is where the design of the process takes place. This is what in the end has to make it easy for the group to achieve the objectives. The facilitator will choose activities that will be appropriate in terms of the objectives, the participants, time and that will be best at bringing the participants’ joint knowledge into play.
3. Engage a capable facilitator
Choosing the right facilitator is critical to success. Choose first and foremost a facilitator with the skills and competences that it takes. The person can be an internal employee or even the project manager or she/he can be external. Besides the skills it is crucial that the facilitator can be neutral concerning the subject or professional content of the project and work session. It means that the facilitator must be completely un-biased while guiding and supporting the participant group and this can be difficult if one has a stake in the project as for example the project manager does. Try to match the facilitator with the work session and consider the requirements in terms of the work session, but also think about group dynamics between the participants.
4. Engage the right participants
Every work session needs participants, and it is important to engage the participants who together are able to produce the needed outputs and meet the objectives. They may include:
- People with knowledge within the subject of interest who understand the business
- Project and process owners plus project sponsor to make sure the output is implemented and measured
- Support partners that will be able to identify the impacts of the proposed change (technology, finance, law)
- Customers who can validate whether the outputs matches their requirements
- Suppliers with knowledge to determine possibilities regarding implementation of the product/service
5. Use the right work session approach and techniques
This part is highly context dependent. However, the structure of the work session is typically built by opening activities, delivery-building activities and closing activities as seen in Figure 3.
A good opening phase creates a good foundation for the following phases. Therefore this phase is just as important as the rest. This is where the participants meet each other and the facilitator and create a common starting point. Generally with facilitated processes the best way to begin is by opening content, relations and process by answering WHAT, WHO and HOW? When a work session starts everyone should be able to answer the WHY? But explain the purpose of the work session and make sure everyone confirms it. After that, proceed to activities and somehow answer the other questions, not necessarily in the order described below.
WHAT: What is the work session about?
- Explain objectives of the work session.
- Have a presentation bring everyone up to speed on the project, e.g. by the project manager.
WHO: Who are we and what can each of us contribute with?
- Let the participants know that they are welcomed and valued. Could be by project sponsor/manager to make sure that they feel important.
- Have an introductory round and it should be made clear, by him/herself or the facilitator, why they are there.
- Clarify roles in the work session. The facilitator is going to lead the process and participants contribute with expertise.
HOW: How are we going to work?
- Make clear what the ground rules are, and ask the participants to confirm them.
- Explain the overall process and take them through the agenda. Make sure the agenda is visible during the work session.
Also, give practical information about restrooms, coffee availability and other information that they will need in the location. Most of this goes for the first day of the work session. If the work session takes several days, opening activities is still recommended for the rest of the days. However, only briefly reminding where the process ended the day before and going through the agenda of the day to open content and process - and then a quick warm up activity to open relations, e.g. a check-in exercise.
These are the activities, which together are supposed to bring about the deliverable(s) one step at a time. It requires active participation and collaboration from the participants and guidance from the facilitator. It is important to provide clear instructions and explain how the activity contributes to achieving the objectives. The activities will vary, but often they will have a diverging or converging nature, i.e. creation a solution space or narrowing it down, respectively. Some activities are meant for gaining a deeper understanding and others are meant for specifying and making a decision.
It is the responsibility of the facilitator to:
- Ask questions to dig deeper, sometimes get more specific – sometimes more abstract.
- Use active listening, and listen in order to understand and hence ask the right questions that will take the team further.
- Document during the process, especially when the team has come to a conclusion or made a decision.
- Make sure that the dialogue does not die.
- Make sure the work and atmosphere stays constructive and professional.
- Keep time – the agenda can be reviewed and changed if fitting, but the team must reach meet the objectives by the end of the work session.
Closing activities should be included at the end of every day and at the end of the entire work session. They exist to close what have been opened to avoid people leaving with unfinished business as well as for ensuring ownership and making the next steps in the project.
WHAT: What have been achieved through the day/whole work session?
- Sum up what the team has achieved
- Make sure that each participant knows what to do next (overnight assignment/after the work session)
- Are there any issues or actions left? If any, by the end of the work session make sure that the right person gets ownership and a deadline. Facilitate any discussions in this matter.
WHO: Who learned what and how did the participants experience the collaboration?
- A nice way of closing relations is to have everyone say something at the end; it could be an (brief) evaluation of the day/entire work session regarding the group collaboration.
HOW: How was it done, and how do we move forward?
- Take a look at the agenda together and go through it, perhaps while summing up achievements.
- Quickly go through the agenda of the following day.
- Evaluate the activities with focus on the process (at end of work session).
6. Distribute quality results
“It’s been said that the job isn’t over till the paperwork is done, and that’s true of facilitated work sessions.”(p.11,) It is important that the results of the work session are properly communicated afterwards. The work session deliverables must be handed over to the project manager and furthermore distributed to the people that need it in the project as well as relevant stakeholders. That is to be done by the facilitator.
The following are characteristics of a quality work session deliverable:
- It is provided in a timely manner to all participants, the project manager and the sponsor
- It accurately reflects the shared decisions and agreements of the team.
- People who weren’t at the work session can understand the deliverable – it enhances communication
- The deliverable is consistent with standard deliverable templates and quality standards
- It can be effectively explained and used by the team as they move forward into the next stages of the project
- It can be updated using tools readily available in the organization.(p. 11, )
Example: Project Charter Work Session
The project charter is a deliverable that can benefit from being built in a facilitated work session. The project charter is a typical project deliverable, which the PMBOK defines as “a document that formally authorizes the existence of a project and provides the project manager with the authority to apply organizational resources to project activities.". It is key to a good project start and through the process the objectives, the scope and the impacts become more tangible. The project charter is about making the project more tangible and it involves defining the objectives clearer, the scope of the project and also to define impacts of the project. To do this effectively require the presence of multiple people, according to the PMBOK; “other units within the organization, consultants, stakeholders, including customers or sponsors, professional and technical associations, industry groups, subject matter experts (SME), and project management office (PMO)”. Even if all of them are not needed at the work session, still, a lot of different people will be there, with their own interests and agendas and to get them to reach consensus or some other from of agreement is not an easy task. That task will however be handed over to the facilitator who objectively can make sure that all perspectives come into play in order to create a shared understanding of the project, and make sure everyone is heard and has contributed to the draft of the project charter.
When facilitated work sessions are done right and well they will result in
- Improved quality of the project deliverables,
- Improved relationships between the participants and
- Ownership of the outcomes of the sessions.
Decisions will be based on more information coming from different perspectives and decisions will have higher support from stakeholders who participated. The mentioned benefits until now are hard to measure because they are intangible of nature, however, there exist more tangible benefits as well.
A study of IT-projects, performed by Capers Jones in 2000 found the following benefits when using facilitated work sessions:
- Reduction of the risk of scope creep from 80% down to 10%
- Acceleration in the early project lifecycle phases (including Scope Initiation, Planning, Definition) by 30 – 40%
- Reduction of the overall project elapsed time and workforce effort by 5 – 15% 
As mentioned in Assess the need, there are contexts in which facilitated work sessions are needed, and if none of them are fulfilled, then there is a situation where a facilitated work session is not needed. For example when the problem is not very complex, when there only a few people are needed to make well informed decisions, if time is not critical, though how often isn’t at least one of the points on the list fulfilled?
If there are serious conflicts in the project team or between participants, facilitation is not the right tool to use, but actual conflict resolution should be sought. In this sense, facilitation is used for make group work more effective, but not resolving existing issues. It is meant for doing work effectively, but if there is not constructive collaboration in sight, facilitation cannot save the situation.
It must be emphasised that facilitated work sessions takes time to plan, therefore it cannot come to the rescue if the deadline of the deliverable is in two days, but, it could however be planned in the next phase, to make up for some lost time or at least make sure that the project will not be further delayed. Another disadvantage is that there is no “one fits all” or recipe for the perfect work session. It will depend on project, participants, and the facilitator to name a few.
- To obtain a deeper understanding of facilitated work sessions, how to do it, templates, agendas, techniques read Facilitating the Project Lifecycle: Skills & Tools to Accelerate Progress for Project Managers, Facilitators, and Six Sigma Project Teams, Adams, Tammy and Means, Jan, John Wiley & Sons , 2005.
- For a deeper understand of facilitation in general and underlying theory read Understanding Facilitation, Hogan, Christine, Kogan Page Publishers, 2002.
- For a deeper understanding of facilitation with focus on leadership read Facilitating to Lead!: Leadership Strategies for a Networked World, Ingrid Bens, Jossey-Bass, 2006.
- Read about eight interactive methods to facilitate change, practical experiences,brainstorm methods and theory on e.g. diverging/converging phases in Facilitating Change: Using interactive methods in organizations, communities and networks, Rasmussen, Lauge Baungaard ed., Polyteknisk Forlag, 2011.
- Get introduced to facilitated work sessions in Accelerating Your Projects Using Facilitated Work Sessions, Adams, Tammy and Means, Jan, PMI Global Congress Proceedings, 2005. http://www.facilitatingprojects.com/documents/Accelerating_Projects.pdf.
- To get more information about facilitation, the practise, the newest knowledge and movements or finding a certified facilitator visit IAFs website The International Association of Facilitators , https://www.iaf-world.org/site/
- ↑ Hogan, Christine,Understanding Facilitation, Kogan Page Publishers, 2002.
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Adams, Tammy and Means, Jan, Accelerating Your Projects Using Facilitated Work Sessions, PMI Global Congress Proceedings, 2005. http://www.facilitatingprojects.com/documents/Accelerating_Projects.pdf.
- ↑ Ingrid Bens, Facilitating to Lead!: Leadership Strategies for a Networked World, Jossey-Bass, 2006.
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 Adams, Tammy and Means, Jan, Facilitating the Project Lifecycle: Skills & Tools to Accelerate Progress for Project Managers, Facilitators, and Six Sigma Project Teams, John Wiley & Sons , 2005.
- ↑ The International Association of Facilitators , Core Competencies, https://www.iaf-world.org/site/professional/core-competencies.
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 6.2 Rasmussen, Lauge Baungaard ed., Facilitating Change: Using Interactive methods in communities, organizations and networks, Polyteknisk Forlag, 2011.
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 Project Management Institute, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide), Fifth Edition, Project Management Institute, 2013
- ↑ Capers Jones, Software Assessments, Benchmarks and Best Practices, Addison-Wesley Professional, 2000.