Think of the best football or basketball games you ever watched. You remember the super-human athleticism, the late game heroics, the intricate teamwork. But I'll bet you never say, "That referee was terrific, he really made the game." There's a reason for that. Referees are best when they make the right calls (and don't make the wrong ones), and when they control the game with a light, even invisible, hand. Fans often don't even notice good refereeing, they just see a fair game, well played, where the outcome is determined by skill and effort of the players, and not by a referee's call in the final seconds.

Good facilitation is just like that. When a consultant puts in the time with a client to design a meeting or a planning process, to frame key questions appropriately and provocatively, to craft discussion activities so as to maximize participation and enable the widest range of voices to be heard, to structure the schedule so that planning activities have the time they need and not too much more, to anticipate potential snags and develop strategies for dealing with them, an amazing thing happens.

At this well-designed and well-prepared meeting, the participants are engaged, energized, productive, decisive, and, rarest of all, can't wait for the next meeting. They remember the lively exchange of ideas, the key points of consensus, the energy of their colleagues' participation. And the facilitator? They almost didn't even notice him or her. The meeting went so smoothly, it practically ran itself.

And the facilitator? They almost didn't even notice him or her. The meeting went so smoothly, it practically ran itself.

By contrast, when the facilitator is ever-present and highly visible -- talking too much, forever pulling a chaotic discussion back from the brink, or inappropriately and unduly arguing a point -- the participants leave the meeting feeling frustrated and stifled. But they'll remember the facilitator, and they'll regard the meeting as a lost opportunity they don't want to repeat.

It is ironic, and a source of some amused consternation among the better consultants, that good facilitation is invisible in this way. But the client's need to get their work done is the priority, so the skilled facilitator foregoes the limelight, does the preparation, and quietly, effectively, and selflessly manages a good and productive discussion.

The next time you're in a meeting that felt successful, that generated tangible and substantive results through a process that was fun and engaging, take a minute to notice how much you didn't notice the facilitator.