Maxwell Smith shares the Community Organising Fellowship approach to co-facilitation.
Collective action is one of the most critical elements for positive social change. In this context, knowing how to work with and facilitate groups is an important skill and capability for those of us seeking collective liberation. Like all skills, these can be learnt and developed with experience.
Co-facilitation – facilitating groups together with others – is one of the main ways we can develop and share these skills while striving to achieve shared purpose.
At The Community Organising Fellowship (COF), we train people in facilitation and training, and give them an experience of developing and delivering training as part of a team of co-facilitators. While COF Fellows sometimes express some degree of anxiety, fear, and hesitation about designing and facilitating training with others, they consistently rate it as a valuable learning experience. Fellows have also gone on to train many thousands of people in the skills and practices they learn at COF. In this article, I make the case for co-facilitation as an important leadership practice, and offer some tools and processes for effective co-facilitation.
The Pros and Cons of Co-facilitation
To my mind, there are five key benefits of co-facilitation. They are:
Facilitators must be accountable to the group. The job of a facilitator is to enable the group to achieve their shared purpose. This is easier if your purpose as a facilitator is also a shared one, and you are accountable to your fellow facilitators as a check and balance. It’s a “practice what you preach” kind of thing.
Co-facilitators can increase accountability by addressing unequal power-dynamics within the group and facilitation team.
Co-facilitators also hold us accountable for planning, debriefing, evaluating, and learning from our collective experience, so that we can do our best and continually improve to become even better.
Knowledge and Skills
The more facilitators on a team, the greater the breadth and depth of knowledge, skills, experience, and perspectives that team possesses. The collective wisdom and capacity of the team increases with each member who joins it (so does complexity and the number of relationships that need to be maintained).
Expanding the facilitation team can be useful when facilitating with a specific focus, across a range of topics, or in challenging environments. As a facilitator, you should always be clear about your purpose and intentional about assessing your own knowledge, skills, and experience gaps.
When recruiting co-facilitators, you can identify and seek out people with strengths in those areas you have weaknesses in to better achieve yours and the group’s purpose.
As a community organiser, I’m always thinking about how to develop leadership (of both myself and others). Co-facilitation is an opportunity for me to learn from working with and observing others in their element. It’s also an opportunity for me to support the leadership development of people who I think have the potential to lead and facilitate groups. At The Community Organising Fellowship, we do this by facilitating experiential learning, and stepping up those who demonstrate their talents into a facilitation role for the next iteration.
Modelling and Practice
Facilitating group work, by its very nature, is a collective activity. It doesn’t make sense that group work, or group learning, should be facilitated by one person alone, does it? With a co-facilitation team, you can model effective teamwork, democratic decision-making, transparency, vulnerability, and mutual support with the people you are facilitating!
Scalability and Sustainability
I firmly believe that everything is always better and more fun when done with a team. I have also learnt through experience that one facilitator can only meaningfully hold about six to eight relationships before the quality of their focus, attention, and emotional energy is exhausted. Sharing facilitation means sharing responsibility for relationships, and the physical and emotional workload of group facilitation. You have back-up in case anything goes wrong, or things start to get just a little too hot.
Co-facilitators can also be observers and see things you can’t see, which lifts your collective capacity to manage group dynamics, meet individuals social needs, and thus facilitate more effectively.
While i believe the benefits of co-facilitation far outweigh the disadvantages, here is a list of common challenges or barriers we can face with co-facilitation
The larger the team the greater the complexity! This comes in the form of navigating additional relationships, workstyles, and experience levels.
Complexity can be particularly challenging when emergent design and facilitation is required, as this is when it helps for everyone to be on the same page, understand each others’ tendencies and facilitation styles, and have clear lines of communicating changes. These are things that come with trust, preparation, and shared experience.
Facilitation and group work is messy by nature. There is no such thing as perfection, only collaboration. Co-facilitation requires delegating, sharing, and ceding responsibility and leadership to others who can use their talents and capacities to achieve what we cannot do alone.
As already stated, the effort involved in recruiting, setting up a co-facilitation team, and developing the skills and leadership of others can be significant. But any effort we put into recruitment, team set-up, and team management often pays off come co-facilitation time.
Money and Resources
Facilitation work is not only time-consuming, but it takes a lot of energy and resources too. Project budgets, quotes, and proposals should realistically reflect this.
Project timelines need to be based on an accurate assessment of the time required to achieve purpose. This means building in time for the above.
There are a few different approaches to co-facilitation:
Everybody facilitates in the session, taking on responsibility for different facilitation roles or sub-groups.
Lead and Shadow
One facilitator is the designated lead facilitator for the session, and another is the shadow who assists them with certain sections or roles like note taking, resource sharing, and organising breakout groups.
The lead facilitation role is rotated between sessions/phases of the workshop, meeting, or gathering. This can be combined with the Lead and Shadow approach.
Which approach to facilitation you choose will depend on your team’s purpose, skills, experiences, and processes. At The Community Organising Fellowship, we use a mixture of these approaches, with all facilitators on deck throughout the Workshop (unless they’re taking a much-needed break), and two designated facilitators for each session – a lead and shadow.
The lead and shadow roles rotate every session, so individual facilitators are directly facilitating about half the time, and lead facilitating about a quarter to a third of the time.
When they’re not directly facilitating, facilitators are performing support roles and observing the group. This equips the team with the capacity to identify appropriate facilitation interventions, identify and serve individuals who need support, and increase our ability to analyse, debrief, and learn from each experience.
Preparing for Co-facilitation
Make sure you and your co-facilitation team are clear about your goals, processes, and how you will work together. Here is a list of steps to guide your co-facilitation planning.
- Clarify your team purpose, objectives, and desired outcomes
- This should include your desired skills and things you want to learn and develop as a facilitator through the process
- Develop clear measures of success
- Spend some time learning about your individual and collective strengths, interests, expectations, and tendencies in both group work and live facilitation.
- Set roles and responsibilities
- Who does what prep work?
- Who is leading the facilitation of which sessions? Who is co-facilitating or supporting?
- Who is timekeeping, note-taking, vibes-watching, etc?
- Set rules and norms for how you will work together, such as conduct and behaviour that maximise your effectiveness as a co-facilitation team, how you will support each other, and more practical things such as the use of the space/room/time and communication
- Clarify timelines for content design, resource development, etc
- Schedule time to run through the workshop agenda together. This may be where you plan to assign roles and responsibilities for facilitation
- Go through a workshop design process to identify what activities and processes you will go through, how, and in what order, to achieve the above.
- See my article on The Art and Craft of Workshop Design for some key considerations, questions, and frameworks to guide you through the Workshop Design process.
- Design each session or section of the workshop
- Design and develop resources
- Run-through and practice the facilitation agenda
- Plan and prepare for the day
- Debrief, Reflect, and Evaluate
- What did we achieve? What are the outcomes/key takeaways?
- What did we learn? About our design, our facilitation, our teamwork? About the group and their work? About ourselves?
Co-facilitation can greatly enhance the potential impact of any meeting, training, or gathering. This article outlines some frameworks and key considerations for planning and delivering co-facilitation.
At the end of the day, the best way to build skills and expertise in co-facilitation is to start doing it; experiment and try different approaches; and learn from each other, our shared experience, reflection, and evaluation.
Now you’ve got some approaches that you can use to support your practice of co-facilitation. And if you want to learn more about facilitation, training, and working with groups, consider applying for the Community Organising Fellowship.
I realise the irony of writing about co-facilitation alone, which is why I want to thank Holly Hammond of The Commons Library for her input into this resource, for her inspiring facilitation, and for developing my leadership as a trainer through Plan to Win.
The photos in this article were taken at past COF retreats.
- The Art and Craft of Training Workshop Design
- Checklist for a great facilitator
- Diagnostic Tools for Trainers and Facilitators
- Facilitating Meetings: A guide to making your meetings effective, inclusive and enjoyable
- Community Organising Fellowship COF resources in the Commons Library
- Working in Groups: Start Here in the Commons Library