Project Management Unplugged: Facilitation and the Power of Intuition

When I started working as a Program Manager back in the early 90s, I realized that I had to take a very different approach than with my role as Product Manager.  As a Product Manager, I owned things. My focus was necessarily narrow, as the demands of my deliverables were relentless.  I labored every day to produce something concrete with which I then became identified. It might be an event, or a piece of collateral, or a sales tool, or a customer event, but it effectively had my name on it…albeit in very tiny print.  For better or worse, it said, “Courtney did this.”

My first experience as a cross-functional team leader was therefore a bit disconcerting.  Tasked to pull together a team to upgrade the software release process, I found myself sitting in meetings filled with subject matter experts who really knew their stuff.  I, on the other hand, didn’t seem to have a subject matter to be expert in.  I was there to serve the process, to facilitate the result.  And the name on that result would say “Process Improvement Team.”  There ensued some weeks of wondering, with no small degree of anxiety, when people would figure out I wasn’t actually doing anything!  I couldn’t calibrate the impact of facilitation because it seemed that all I did was listen to other people make decisions.

Then one day, as I played attention tennis between two people who had very different ideas about what we should do next, I realized there was something they hadn’t considered.  Nowhere in their very intense exchange had there been any discussion of how the information would flow between their two groups.  What communication mechanisms needed to be in place before they could sign off on the solutions? Before I knew it, I was interjecting the missing piece into their dialogue, and opening an entire new area of exploration.  This was the log that had been jamming up our ability to come to agreement.  Wow!  I guess I was actually doing something after all!  I was listening!  Who knew?

As PMs, a good deal of our day is taken up with facilitation of one sort or another.  We ask questions, listen to the answers, validate impressions, nudge and remind and urge and congratulate.  We keep the process moving, always moving.  Like orchestra conductors, we don’t play the instruments, but we’re ultimately responsible for the performance.  Like ringmasters, we don’t swing from the trapeze, but we are the focusing point for where the action is.  Like the coxswain of a rowing crew, we have the cadence of the oars pulsing through us, and we call out the rhythm that is required to make the boat fly across the water.  Seldom do we own the function, seldom is the decision up to us, but we always own the outcome.  And that is the challenge.

What does it take to be a good facilitator?  Got Google?  I’m sure you can find hundreds of entries that will point you to communication skills, and the structure of meetings, and knowing what questions to ask when.  All good, all true.  But…and I confess I didn’t Google this, so feel free to check me up…I suspect not much will be written about the importance of intuition in the facilitation process.  Ach, you say, Courtney’s gone all woo-woo on us.  But no!  Intuition is a powerful tool in any discipline that has few hard boundaries, and it is in its element in the facilitation role.

I suspect many of you have taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and if so, you will remember the S/I continuum.  Sensing and Intuition are information-gathering functions.  People who are strongly Sensing rely on tangible evidence they can see, sense and feel.  They collect details and present their reports factually.  They build their position and base their decisions on data, metrics, and facts.  Intuitive processors, on the other hand, prefer information that is more abstract, more theoretical, and that fits into a wider context.  They trust the flashes of insight that seem to come out of nowhere.  What matters to them is how the information fits into the overall pattern.

We all have both capabilities, but some of us will be skewed in one direction or the other, and some of us will be balanced in the middle, and use both Sensing and Intuition as the situation requires.  Clearly, PMs have a high need for Sensing capability, as we need to collect and analyze reams of data, and maintain a clear picture of what’s what in the present.  But what isn’t mentioned as often is the value of Intuitive processing in catching problems before they occur, devising the best recovery strategy, or knowing what data point, among all the others, is the most important one.

Knowing how to pay attention to the context as well as the content is both a talent and a skill.   We might have a natural preference for Intuitive processing, but to use it effectively, it needs to be nurtured, developed and, eventually, trusted if it is to serve us in good stead.  It is what allows us to be in the meeting, but also above the action, taking in the positions of each team member, making sure the handoffs are clean between functional groups, reminding Product Management to connect with Purchasing, who in turn needs to connect with Finance and Business Systems to make sure the ordering process is fully tested out and ready to go.  Like a pilot, high above the ground, we can see the pattern of our projects, see how everything fits together, and identify the best pathway to our ultimate goal.

For me, Intuitive processing has always been the default mode.  I’ve painstakingly honed my Sensing capacity over the years, and have become proficient in analysis and factual reporting, but it seems I spend a great deal of time listening with what I call my other senses.  My other ear is constantly assembling and reassembling the elements of team discussions, piecing them together with hallway conversations, and comparing them against previous experience.  My other eye is drawing process flows, and envisioning what would happen if we did A instead of B, all the while keeping my attention on the sidewalk to make sure there are no gaps in the pavement to trip us up.  And, sometimes, an inner alarm bell will go off, and I know there’s something we’re missing.  All of a sudden, I’m fully engaged, and directing the team toward what is calling out for our attention.

However strong my Intuitive bias, I would not recommend relying on Intuitive processing to the exclusion of Sensing.  Sensed information is what allows us Intuitive types to prove our case.  Seeing the pattern is only half the battle, we also need to bring ourselves down into the details to find the supporting evidence required to convince the stakeholders that we might need a change in strategy.   Sensed information validates our Intuitive leaps and makes our facilitation both inspired and actionable.

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