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Facilitation Skills for Consultants, Experts and Thought Leaders


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Facilitation Skills for Consultants, Experts and Thought Leaders


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    Entries in facilitating (4)


    Beyond being a consultant

    When you’re a consultant, advisor or expert, you spend a lot of your business time delivering advice, working with a client and helping them with your expertise and know-how.

    Sometimes you have to work with more than one person. Perhaps it’s a business owner and some of their staff; maybe it’s a project manager and some of the project team; or it could be a senior leader in an organisation and some of their stakeholders or colleagues. 

    I reckon that every time you’re working with more than one other person, it’s time to put facilitation skills to work. 

    Facilitation means ‘to make easier’. When you’re facilitating, you’re helping to make great progress and to get things done. 

    While a one-on-one conversation often involves coaching or consulting, working with a group of people (say 2 or more) involves using some additional capability - and that capability is facilitation. 


    Facilitation : another tool in your toolkit

    Increasingly the capability of facilitation is coming to the fore for consultants, subject matter experts and thought leaders. You find yourself working with your client and some of their team … as a group. And you’re helping them work on something or create something together… as a group.  

    You may have been asked by a client to run a group session, a workshop, work with them at a team day, assist with planning or some other type of gathering.  

    It makes sense to use facilitation. When a client wants to get several people in the room at once and work with them, they want to achieve an outcome.

    That outcome may be to:

    • plan
    • design
    • decide
    • create
    • brainstorm
    • implement
    • solve

    … or other business task or project. 

    As the facilitator, you’ll be able to help them achieve their outcome AND use your incredible expertise, knowledge and advice at the same time. 


    Three key outcomes

    Going beyond consulting, I see that you're helping them do three main things. You help them be:

    • PRODUCTIVE: you help them get stuff done. 
    • COLLABORATIVE: you help bring people together 
    • CREATIVE: you help them do good work.

    Looks like this ;-)

    For you as a consultant, going beyond consulting and using facilitation skills, you'll focus on :

    • the work that needs to be done,
    • theway that work will be done,
    • the people who you're working with,
    • and the progress you'll help them make.


    It may feel a little 'clunky' at first

    For many consultants, shifting into facilitation mode doesn't come immediately, naturally or automatically. Yes you've likely got ace questioning skills and listening skills but you might be too quick to jump into prescription or solution, to provide 'the answer'.

    As a facilitator, you can draw the answer out; get people more involved. In the long run, they'll have bought in to the process more, having had more of a say.

    So if it feels a little odd or clunky at first, persist. You might find yourself switching from consultant to facilitator, to trainer, to speaker, back to consultant - all the while delivering your expertise, advice and experience in a valuable and helpful way.

    Plan a response, process or approach

    Don't launch into facilitator mode unprepped. Some of the best processes, models and tools for facilitation come from a little thought about what might suit this situation or group best. This doesn't mean control-freak over-engineering an agenda down to the last minute. What it does mean is some thought about where they are, what they need to do, how you can help them do that.

    Next: 9 things to prep

    Next post I'll unpack the nine things I think you need to do when you're adding facilitation to your consulting toolkit and what some of the things are to consider.

    Above all, know you have an extensive range of insight, experience and capability; make sure facilitation is part of how you deliver that expertise.

    With the world all co-creating, contributing and collaborating, it's smart as a consultant to be able to help people get sh*t done in a way that's beyond just consulting.


    How to work with people ... when you don't want to work with people

    In this era of increased, required (and expected) collaboration, it can be tough to work with people, if there are times when you don’t feel like working with people!

    Particularly if you see yourself as more of an introvert or ambivert or shy, or you're dealing with some sh*t in your life. Showing up and putting on your ‘collaboration face’ can be tough if you’d rather work alone.

    For some it’s a feeling of social anxiety where we might find the interaction, talking or problem solving parts of working with others a challenge or uncomfortable. Some days collaboration is one of the last things you feel like doing, especially if you think there are more pressing things to do or important alone work to be done. For some people who get frustrated easily or have less patience and want to just get stuff done, collaboration can feel slow or time consuming or plain annoying.

    Yes indeed, many of us are loners and may well prefer to be alone, work alone and do it all alone. 

    When we are required (or strongly encouraged) to join a project, team, group, workshop, planning session or conference that suggests networking and games to 'get to know each other’ ... maybe we just don't want to. 


    But isn't collaboration a 100% positive thing?

    While we might understand the benefits and positives of collaboration, sometimes we just need some breathing space and prefer space alone.

    It can be overwhelming for some people to be constantly in the company of others. Think of people who have customer service and customer facing roles in high volume and high pressure environments. Or those who are constantly problem solving with others, dealing with group behaviours, beliefs and barriers for an extended period of time. 


    Recharging, retreating or relaxing

    We often need to grab some time alone and recharge or be with people we can fully relax around and not be expected to collaborate. 

    You might have seen people lunching alone at a busy conference, or having quiet time to get stuff done or taking some time away from a group meeting or workshop. They may well retreat to recharge. 

    And of course, for many, we know there may be plenty of other humans who you absolutely must collaborate with when you get home - that includes pets, partners, friends or family, members in community groups and others in the interests and network groups we are part of. 


    Are we 'over collaborating?'

    At times things can feel ‘over collaborated’; that is, we’re required to do so much with others, there never seems to be a break from team, group or unit work. 

    In the work I do bringing teams together, working with leadership groups and helping people co-design, co-create, decide and do, there are always always always people who don’t want to play in this group space. They may be forced into it by colleagues or have gentle pressure (and guilt?) applied by leaders that insist that collaboration is ‘the way’ or the expectation is constantly there, yet they would prefer to contribute in other ways that don’t involve full-on collaboration.

    The messages that 'the group is wiser with you' or 'everyone has their strength' are high on inspiration (and yes, fact) but they can also be low on the practicalities of what to do if you just don’t want to work with others. 

    So when you’re next faced with a workshop, meeting, space or situation where you’re expected to collaborate an don’t feel like, there are some things you can do.


    Cohesion over collaboration

    There are other roles you can play in collaborative environments that don't require you to be the leading light and winner of the collaborative stakes.

    Rather you can play a role that builds the cohesion of the group, keeps the group or team together, performing and progressing well.

    Sometimes cohesion is better than collaboration.

    If you adopt a role of helping the group stick together, you don’t need to be the star of the show or the loudest mouth or need to present yourself as the wisest in the room. You’re simply playing the ‘glue’ that helps the group ‘stick’. 


    Here’s what you can do:

    1. think about the role you can play; this may not be your normal role or default behaviour. So how else could you be, what could you do or how could your act to contribute and collaborate and build cohesion? 
    2. adopt a role that is not IN the group, but rather FOR the group.  What could you do that places you in a support role - you’re still contributing and doing, but not as one of the collaborators?
    3. think about offering to facilitate, guide or enable the process and progress of the group. This is real cohesion work. Think of it like a tour guide or an air traffic controller. You’re not the artist of the artworks you’re explaining in the museum, you’re taking people through and showing them. You’re not flying the planes landing at the airport, rather you’re helping keep the planes in order; which one first, which one next. 
    4. be at the service of the group; what do they need right now? Do they need someone to listen, scribe, time keep, summarise, present back or distill or make sense?
    5. lead a session rather than contribute content to it; ask the team questions - get people’s input, ideas, suggestions and contributions. Your role is then to listen, to make sense of, to get them talking. This is a mega-cohesion activity. Good stuff!
    6. be the listener, the hearer. Too many meetings, workshops and sessions are full of people intent on putting their points of view across as soon as possible. Take on the role of a listener, a distiller. What are you hearing? Who said what? What did that mean? Are there similar points of view in the room? Are there different points of view? This helps to keep the group together despite differences. 
    7. And importantly, let people know you’re taking on another or different role in the meeting or workshop and that you are being at the service of the group and to the group or team’s outcome. 


    Expected and respected

    Collaboration is an expected part of work these days. You've got to find ways that respect the values, expectations and behaviours of the workplace, but that also work for you. It’s important also to not ‘disappear’; don’t be invisible. Look for ways where you are contributing to a purpose, doing something that is of value to you and the team, as well as being helpful to all. This is great cohesion work. 

    Your team mates will likely prefer to work with someone who’s supportive, helpful and collaborative in nature, rather than a grumpy quiet anti-collaborationist who skips meetings and gatherings and shows up in what might look like passive aggressive mode (even if you’re not!)


    Plan ahead

    In this era of collaboration, you’ll probably want to avoid the image of ’not being a collaborator’, so remember to plan ahead.

    What meetings or gatherings have you got coming up?

    What can you do before, during or after the event that is of service, help and assistance - and is just as valuable as you sitting around the table or being in the room contributing and collaborating as others are?


    You be awesome

    You have wonderful gifts, skills, talents and expertise to share and contribute. Acknowledge that sometimes you may not feel like playing with others. When that’s the case, adopt another role to help build cohesion in the group or event. You’ll contribute more than you’ll know!


    "Don't tell ME what to do"

    The days of a leader -- anyone -- being directive and telling people what to do 24/7 are gone.

    Leadership has shifted to being more consultative.

    And it will evolve further to leaders being facilitative, where the leader is able to draw information, ideas and insights out of the team rather than telling, instructing or adding their own thoughts to the team.

    From a childhood memory of being told to 'clean up your room' to adulthood experiences of being told to 'doing this thing in this way', we are self-directed human beings and we don't really like being told what to do. 

    So why are leaders STILL trying to poorly parent their teams and tell them what to do?

    From sharing to eliciting


    The telling role of leaders is shifting from just sharing information where the new strategy or project is 'rolled out' in a darkened auditorium or increasingly cliched 'Town Hall' event (that people THINK is collaborative) to one where the onus is on the leader to elicit information.

    They draw information out through communication, questioning and eliciting techniques.

    This is what builds engagement. Posters, videos, promotional products and pot plants don't build engagement. 

    Humans create engagement with other humans.

    Teams are co-creating

    Changes are afoot in some teams where they're moving from teamwork to collaboration and now shifting and evolving further to people co-creating and working with customers, clients, colleagues and others from diverse fields to make and design the stuff they do.

    Leaders are increasingly needing the capabilities of facilitators, to prime the environment, set up a process for engagement, run that process and honestly and authentically gather the input and contributions from their team. 

    Lip service sucks

    Saying you're using facilitation skills but you're not is clunky and out of touch. 

    Increasingly, consultants, business analysts, project managers, middle level team and people leaders as well as those new to managing and leading a team are seeing and experiencing the benefits of being able to engage with a group or team, draw information from that group, and help them collaborate to achieve an agreed outcome.

    And things are changing for experienced leaders too: leadership styles continue to evolve and shift.

    Diversity needs it

    There is a mix of diverse ages and cultures on every team, and finding ways of engage them and work with them is up to the leader, not the team.

    The days of simply ‘telling’ people in a team what to do are fading; people need to be engaged, their capabilities harnessed and the group given the environment, situation and processes to help them work together and collaborate.

    Today's leader is a facilitator


    Give good empathy

    "We apologise for any inconvenience caused."

    It's such a bland, banal, cover-all statement. I'm just not feelin' it though. I'm not feeling that you've REALLY understood the lengths to which your stuff, has stuffed up my stuff.

    Building deeper connections, trust and understanding with customers, clients, colleagues and users means you've got to give, first.

    In a workshop I was facilitating with customers and users recently, I made a point of giving. Deeply.

    While I'm listening - like all good leaders, managers, trainers, facilitators, coaches do - I really need to show I'm listening. I've got to 'give' good listening, to get good trust.

    So in workshops, conversations, sessions, I give empathy. Big time.

    Then when there's been 'an inconvenience' or 'any inconvenience', I'll take the time in a client, customer or user workshop to hear it.

    "But it's not on topic," whispers a designer on the project. "And it will build trust," I say later, "you'll get more engagement, trust and truth, later."

    It's called empathy. I think we need to show it more by naming what it is that might have 'inconvenienced' people in the past.

    Often people want to tell you their 'story' about a situation or experience. I've seen too many people cut off in the prime of their story because it's not on topic, or we don't have time, or they're waffling on or I don't have an answer for it or I can't fix it or <insert another low empathy excuse.>

    I'm sorry if this has totally stuffed up your calendar for the day. I'm sorry if this means you were expecting to do this, not that. I'm sorry if this has meant you've spent time doing this and feel like you've wasted that time. 

    Wow that must have really been annoying. Gee that must have been frustrating and irritating. Ooooh that sounds like it was a difficult thing for you to have to do. 

    Understand. Name the inconvenience. Go out on an empathy limb. Make them know you feel it. And don't be so quick to jump on to the next topic or story. Give.