They're troubleshooters who go into a project early, build up a team, break down barriers and resolve conflicting agendas. Welcome to the exciting yet non-adversarial world of the facilitator.
The architect dreams of an award-winning building. The contractor wants a profitable building. And the client demands a cheap building. With so many conflicting agendas, it's not surprising the construction process can be fraught.

If only there were a process that could pre-empt conflict by helping members of the project team to function as a unit with identical goals from day one. There is, and it's a new trend sweeping the industry: facilitation.

"We get a group of people together at the start of a project to get everyone clear on what the aim of the project is, what the client wants and what each individual wants to achieve," says Paul Fox, a facilitator at Darlington-based Entheos Coaching.

Facilitating has long been used in business sectors such as IT and banking, but is becoming increasingly common in construction as the partnering ethos takes hold and firms look to become less adversarial and hierarchical in the way they work. "In the last three years it's really taken off," says Fox. Half of his clients are now construction firms, mostly contractors such as Mansell and Birse, but also clients like the Highways Agency and consultants, including WS Atkins.

The idea is simple. The team gets together for a day, often at a neutral venue such as a hotel, getting to know each other and attempting to identify problems that may arise on the job ahead.

The sessions are run by trained facilitators: experts in group processes who are able to spot conflicting agendas or personality traits in group members that could prove problematic once the project is under way.

"The facilitator is there to use this expert knowledge to monitor what is happening in the group, and to use skill and judgment to intervene when things become difficult for the participants," says Fox. "That is, when it looks as though the people will not succeed in achieving their purpose if left to their own devices."

To ensure objectivity it's important the facilitator has no personal involvement in the project and no expertise in construction disciplines. Construction professionals do not make good facilitators, Fox says.

"It works," says Ian Threadgold, operations manager for Birse's North-west building division. "It's a very good way of building up teams and breaking down barriers in a very short, sharp way. We use facilitators to brainstorm any problems that may affect the project and put in place action plans."

Birse started using facilitators in 1997 when the firm underwent a culture change, introducing less hierarchical, more open working practices. The firm now employs facilitators on all its projects, often bringing them back in to carry out mid-term reviews to ensure the lessons learned are being put in place.

Threadgold gives an example of how facilitators neutralised a potential problem on a retail development at Ravenhead Park, St Helen's. During the facilitation session, the client admitted it had had reservations about employing Birse. Further discussion revealed that its fears stemmed from a negative story the client had heard about Birse's record from a third party. Prompted by the facilitator, the group brainstormed the issue and the client realised the story was unfounded. "The workshop immediately allayed its fears," says Threadgold. "Ever since then, the relationship has been spot on."

If there’s a difficult person they’re asked to modify their behaviour, instead of expecting everyone else to put up with it

Simon Barton, Midlands regional director, Norwest Holst

Norwest Holst employs facilitators on its partnering projects for client BAA, bringing together the contractor, architect, engineer, QS, client and suppliers at the start of each new project. "We look at it like the way a football team trains," says Simon Barton, Norwest Holst's regional director for the Midlands. "We've got to spend a bit of time practising before we actually go out and play a game."

The sessions often throw up managerial, political and personal issues that could cause conflict later on. Inter-personal issues can become particularly troublesome in team situations, and facilitators are skilled at spotting potential personality clashes.

"They watch and observe and draw people out," says Barton. "If there's a difficult person in the team they're asked to modify their behaviour, instead of expecting everyone else to put up with it. They won't let you avoid difficult issues."

The facilitator attempts to prevent team members slipping into behaviour patterns – such as the hierarchical "master/slave" relationship – that would inhibit the group's performance.

"For the construction industry to achieve its improvement in performance, it has to move beyond the authoritarian master/slave scenario," says Fox. "Where groups are dominated by someone who has authority, the effectiveness of the work is dependent on the skills of the person in authority, not on the expertise or creativity of the group."

Authoritarian relationships lead to inefficient team-work, says Fox. "Many opportunities for added value are still being lost because history has taught us it is not good practice to impart bad news to the wage payer. Contractors and consultants will not, or cannot, tell clients about client actions or behaviour that is costing the project – even for those enlightened clients who want to know. Subcontractors and specialist suppliers are in the same position with their paymasters and react in similar fashion. Openness and honesty is the key to group effectiveness."

Facilitating sessions generally start with a warm-up session designed to get rid of barriers, such as status, so everyone feels able to make an equal contribution. This can be done, for example, by insisting that members introduce themselves by writing on a flipchart using the opposite hand to the one they normally use – a technique guaranteed to deflate self-importance as everyone is equally bad at it.

"You want quiet ones to come out their shells," says Barton. "They often have cracking ideas."

Once the facilitator feels a sense of trust has been established, members are encouraged to engage in a frank and open discussion about their concerns and desires. Each of these must be resolved during the session. For example, the architect might express a fear that the programme is too tight to complete designs adequately; the rest of the team is expected to work out a solution to allay the architect's concern. On the other hand, the architect might have design ambitions the rest of the team considers inappropriate. In this case, the architect is expected to make concessions.

The session ends with the facilitator drawing up a framework the team can use during the project. If there are unresolved issues the facilitator might suggest further sessions, but generally a day-long session (half a day for smaller teams) is enough.

Five reasons to bring on the team-builders

Entheos Coaching’s Paul Fox identifies five situations in which facilitation can be a useful management tool:
  • When a change needs to be made in an organisation that has traditionally been hierarchical, and managers don’t have experience of successful implementation of behaviour change.
  • When increasing the effectiveness of groups and/or teams seems to offer the greatest chance of achieving results.
  • When things are “stuck” – that is, when people have tried to make a breakthrough on a particular issue, and nothing seems to work.
  • When people are resistant or in conflict, and the organisation is suffering.
  • When you want your business to make more money, but don’t know how to do it.