The measure of a truly effective team lies in its ability to aggressively pursue and uncover multidisciplinary, value-creating solutions. This pursuit is made possible by adept facilitators who play a crucial role in enabling teams to achieve their goals. The ability to facilitate is a game-changer in our industry and a critical skill for every level of designer, not only project leaders.
A design team’s ultimate objective is to maximize a project’s value. Each project involves diverse team members, each possessing specialized knowledge. Within this specialized knowledge lies a wealth of undiscovered value-creating solutions. The path to uncovering these solutions is paved with the project’s unique aspects.
While team members often leverage their knowledge within their respective domains, they soon realize that many value-creating solutions cross disciplinary boundaries and necessitate evaluating their impact across multiple disciplines.
Hearing from All at the Table
Our industry boasts an abundance of technical experts who are masters in their respective areas of knowledge. These experts possess invaluable book smarts, such as a degreed engineer, or craft smarts, like a skilled pipefitter. Both types of knowledge are crucial for making optimal project decisions.
However, technical expertise doesn’t always align with strong interpersonal skills and the ability to consider broader project objectives. Some of the best engineers and field workers I’ve worked with have been poor communicators. This is where a facilitator must step in and ensure this knowledge is extracted and used to its full potential for the benefit of the project.
Team members may often be driven by incentives not necessarily aligned with the best interests of the project. For example, a design team might prioritize a solution within its existing expertise, a vendor might try to sell equipment that isn’t a good fit, or a contractor might hold on to its scope. A facilitator needs to understand the invaluable knowledge held by each team member while also recognizing the potential biases that could cloud judgment.
The primary limitation of individual team members is their restricted view of the project, limited to their vantage point and lack of understanding of other team members’ objectives. An effective facilitator overcomes these challenges. A useful exercise is to have each team member explain what works best for them from their point of view. This educates the team on key drivers so that all can work together to meet each other’s objectives.
Foundation of Trust
Being an adept facilitator begins with genuine curiosity — an eagerness to learn from every team member. Curiosity manifests itself in the form of asking questions. These questions serve several objectives, including fact-finding, uncovering true motivations and objectives, challenging existing paradigms, and creating a learning environment for all team members. Asking strategic follow-up questions is crucial for delving beyond surface-level answers and getting to the real issues.
Allow me to share an anecdote from my experience. Once, a facility manager at a large defense contractor emphatically stated, “We will never, never ever use that technology on our campus.” In response, I half-jokingly said, “Would you like me to arrange for the product representative to review the technology with you and your team?” Surprisingly, the facility manager replied, “Yes, that would be great.”
This unexpected response exposed that the initial answer did not truly reflect his perspective, and the real hurdle was a lack of understanding of the technology. Today, that technology is widely used on the campus. Too often, we settle for the initial answer without probing deeper.
Furthermore, a facilitator must maintain emotional detachment and objectivity. Objectivity, combined with curiosity, creates a foundation that earns trust, reassuring the team that you are genuinely pursuing the project’s best interests. The team learns with every answer provided. As each team member develops a deeper understanding of the overall project values, they begin offering information directly relevant to the project’s success.
Toward the end of a meeting, decisions must be made and alignment on the path forward must be achieved. Ideally, the facilitation process uncovers the multidisciplinary ramifications, equipping the facilitator to recommend the best solution for the project. While not everyone may completely agree with the decision, especially if it has negative ramifications for their role, they will understand it because they have gained insight into the broader project objectives.
However, if the solution is still unclear, the facilitator may pose the question, “Where do we go from here?” This prompts further discussion that could lead to uncovering the solution or identifying additional steps required before deciding.
Better Outcomes through Understanding
The facilitator skill set is not solely reserved for project leaders; designers can apply it at every level within a project. Developing facilitation skills enhances learning, challenges paradigms and leads to better outcomes, whether at the team or departmental level, or during one-on-one conversations with co-workers, customers and vendors.
It is rooted in maintaining an open mind and consistently seeking a deeper understanding. I’ve personally learned that assuming I know something for sure often leads to unfortunate outcomes. I am often proven wrong. Consequently, I’ve realized that testing assumptions first is a more effective approach than starting with answers.
Finally, facilitators not only represent team members but also serve as representatives of relevant information for decision-making. Many times, teams may not possess a comprehensive understanding of the nuances of codes, regulations and manufacturers’ installation instructions. Regrettably, I’ve attended meetings where alternative solutions were discussed at length, only to discover later that the proposed solution didn’t comply with the code or the manufacturer’s recommendations.
The facilitator skill set is, without a doubt, the most underrated skill set in our industry. I strongly encourage us to intentionally develop facilitation skills in our new hires and experienced designers alike. Cultivating a curious mindset and actively seeking a deeper understanding ensures that we never get stuck in a rut and enables us to enjoy rewarding careers filled with continuous growth.
Justin Bowker, PE, has been part of the engineering team at TDIndustries since 2001. He became the manager of this team in 2009 and vice president of engineering in 2016.