At two recent collabora­tive events facilitated by CBI, I was struck by similar comments from highly proficient, technical participants. The com­ments went something like this: “I found out this workshop was facili­tated, and thought, ‘Great, another fa­cilitator calling on speakers and keeping the time. Is this really necessary?’ Then, CBI facilitated the workshop. You do something different – and I like it.”

So, just what is different about the services and skills CBI brings to bear for convenors and stakeholders alike? Are CBI practitioners just facilitating, or, are we doing something more?

Clearly, most facilitators or meeting managers provide a basic set of useful functions in large groups (roughly greater than 10), and particularly in large, contentious groups. Facilitators of all backgrounds and training help organize agendas, open meet­ings, suggest and enforce ground rules, call on participants, summarize statements of participants from time to time, keep track of time, and prepare meeting summaries. At most meet­ings, workshops, or events, these actions prove quite useful. Facilitators often serve as both “chairs” of meetings, effectively running them, and as staff, doing the work needed on behalf of the group, without the group having to take on such tasks themselves.

But CBI does more than this. We are not solely meeting manag­ers. CBI offers five additional benefits to stakeholders that stand out and make our work much more than just facilitation

Practitioners at CBI:

  • Actively manage the process;
  • Engage deeply in the substance;
  • Think strategically about negotiation;
  • Conduct policy analysis and synthesis; and
  • Strengthen facilitative leadership and organizational capacity.

First, CBI practitioners actively manage the process. Often projects involve numerous stakeholders, complex is­sues, citizen engagement, and tight deadlines and budgets. Success is more than running a series of “good” meetings. Success is only achieved if the overall process is managed and organized in such a way that it leads to the intended and ex­pected outcomes desired by stakeholders. That is why CBI actively conducts careful assessments to ensure the right par­ties are at the table, the information they need is available or can be found, and the issues are framed appropriately. We engage participants in extensive pre-planning to develop not only meeting agendas, but also complex work plans and schedules. We use web-based polling to advance issues and ideas between meetings. We strategize frequently with con­venors and stakeholders to ensure progress is being made, to adjust the process as needed, and to efficiently allocate scarce resources to complete the job.

Second, CBI practitioners are knowledgeable about and in­terested in the substantive issues before our clients. It is critical to the process to understand technical, legal, and policy context by drawing on experience, training and the ability to learn quickly and in-depth “on the job.” CBI practitioners are as enthusiastic about the substance of our work as we are about the process expertise we bring to bear. We see it as our job to be fluent in the substance, so that we can do more than play “traffic cop” in managing the flow of conversation. We use our understand­ing of substance to help stakeholders clarify issues and interests and identify potentially viable options. We seek to engage in and un­derstand the substantive issues at stake while maintaining neutrality towards particular out­comes. Our stakeholders expect we can aid actively in discourse around a wide range of issues such as: obscure elements of the Clean Air Act; complex funding formulas of Section 8 housing; site design for a town center; and community benefits from gas and oil development in the Niger delta. Our value comes not only from our process expertise, but also from our comprehen­sive knowledge in the areas where we typically work.

Third, CBI practitioners bring negotiation analysis to our work. Not every process or collaboration is considered a negotia­tion. Stakeholders may need to explore interests, identify a com­mon vision, develop options, and only sometimes, negotiate a final agreement or settlement. But most collective action is at some level a negotiation, where stakeholders seek common ben­efit that exceeds what each could accomplish alone, and they are willing to make a trade or exchange of some kind (for instance, their time and energy in exchange for an agency sharing informa­tion). CBI practitioners are steeped in multi-party negotiation theory and practice; draw on negotiation experiences across sec­tors and countries; and think actively about what stakeholders can do together to create value that they cannot create without one another. Our negotiation expertise helps us to identify com­mon negotiation pitfalls among parties, to sequence conversa­tions, issues, and ideas in a strategic way, and to assist participants to strike a balance among their interests.

Fourth, CBI practitioners frequently conduct policy analysis and synthesis. In many cases, involved parties have reached an impasse, not only in terms of conflicting interests, but also in terms of ideas and options to move the conversation forward. CBI listens carefully to participants in individual conversa­tions and joint dialogue, thinking about how issues are framed, how approaches or ideas might fit within a policy framework or structure, and whether the options on the table will meet their substantive interests. We may conduct policy research for stakeholders (e.g., how long-term leaseholders are handled by state and federal government landowners), or what governance structures of regional transmission organizations might look like. We may gather and synthesize technical materials on wind siting, climate change adaptation, and fish­eries management. We may organize and manage peer reviews of complex epidemio­logical studies of cancer rates in particular geographic areas. In short, we see it as our job not only to manage an effective meet­ing, but also to help stakeholders organize and advance their thinking with viable, supportable policy approaches.

Finally, where appropriate, CBI practitioners can help coach groups to strengthen their capacities of facilita­tive leadership – a core ingredient in motivating individu­als toward a culture of joint learning and teamwork, when needed. Skilled coaching is particularly important when di­verse parties seek agreement but need a guiding voice to reach higher levels of accountability and performance. CBI seeks to help organizations, not just individuals, build capacity for collaboration and mutual gains negotiation. Through train­ing, assessment, and coaching we seek to help organizations, whether a Fortune 50 company or a town of 5,000, embed collaboration in their structures and culture.

In short, CBI practitioners are skilled not only at managing meetings, but also at designing and managing complex multi­stakeholder processes; working in depth with stakeholders on both substantive issues and negotiable interests; and helping leaders and organizations build collaboration into their ongo­ing work.

That’s a mouthful, and it’s often easier to say we “facilitate” or “me­diate” than to spell out the larger value that we bring. But in fact, here at CBI, we pride ourselves on doing much more.