The facilitator as a guide


The facilitator as a guide

In terms of 'codifying' what we've learned - and are continuing to learn - about facilitation, the topic of 'front of room facilitation' is probably one of the more challenging, especially when it comes to education for relative beginners to the field of design and facilitation.  One of the questions that Jules and I are often asked is generally along the lines of: "How do you manage a conversation or a group, especially when things don't go to plan?".

We've thought long and hard about how to best respond to this in a way that neatly conveys lots of meaning in an efficient and easy-to-understand way.  And to be honest we still can't beat the power of metaphor and analogy.

So here it is.  Front-of-room facilitation is a lot like being a 'guide', as in one who is guiding a group through natural, and often treacherous, terrain.

A guide will often have a compass: For the facilitator, the equivalent of the compass is the purpose of your session, in particular the outcomes of your session.  When you're lost, go back to this purpose-compass and it will help you get your bearings and find a new path. 

A guide will often have a map: For the facilitator, your map is your session design or agenda.  Be aware though that your 'map is not the terrain', but rather a representation of this terrain.  What it won't show is the massive log that's fallen over the trail or path that's being washed out by flooding.  Given these unexpected encounters, the facilitator must adapt to this new situation.

A guide is constantly looking and listening for signals from the environment and the group: In the natural setting, the guide will look for clues that lead to food, water, rescue or shelter as well as signs of possible danger.  She will also look for signs of fatigue or conflict from the group.  Similarly, the group facilitator is constantly scanning for and tuning into verbal and non-verbal signals from the group and from the workshop environment.  

Signals suggest possible courses of action for the guide: the guide should always have options, but may not always have 'the' answer or decision-making power.  For example, she might notice signals of inclement weather and a tired group member and make the recommendation that the group make camp earlier then they otherwise might have.

Similarly, the facilitator will process the multiple signals that she has sensed from the group and her environment to develop a mental model of what's happening and what choices the group has to make.  

As the facilitator, ask yourself, ask some ‘navigational’ questions to get your bearings:

  • Does the group need to open, explore or close?
  • Do they need to zoom in or zoom out?  Are they getting stuck in the detail or do they perhaps have their heads in the clouds and avoiding the detail?
  • What is the right mode of work?  Individual?  Small group?  Whole group?

The guide leverages the natural environment for the group's advantage: The guide is extremely resourceful and is constantly scanning for what she can leverage and harvest from her natural environment to the benefit of her group.  It might be water, food or firewood.  It might be a piece of glass which she could use to make fire or use as a reflector to signal rescuers.  Similarly, the facilitator must harvest and capture the most useful elements of participant's work and conversation to then reflect back to them in a way that will support the group's purpose.  This could take the form of a really novel insight or idea or a powerful story that would help the group move forward. 

The guide is at the service of the group: This is perhaps the most important way that the facilitator is like the guide. There have been countless stories of selfless sherpas who take enormous, and often deadly, risks to help climbers reach the peak of Everest.  No one is expecting the group facilitator to risk her life for the sake of the group. Rather the key point to emphasise here is that as a facilitator, it's not about you, it's about the group and how you are a steward to helping them achieve their purpose and their potential. 

So the next time you're at the front of the room, get yourself into the mindset of being the 'guide' for the group and then reflect on what impact this had for you and the group.


Tips for designing your workshop process


Tips for designing your workshop process

'Session design' or 'process design' is one of the 5 key jobs of the facilitator.  

It also happens to be one of my favourite things to do as a facilitator.  I also get asked a lot of questions about how to do it and see a lot of examples of it not being done well (IMHO).  

Here is a process and some tips for when you're designing your next workshop process, or indeed a process for any collaborative group work:


On managing time during your session...


On managing time during your session...

I'm often asked about managing time in workshops.  I've found through my experience that, as with many things in life, it's part science, part craft, part black magic! 

Here are some practical tips, and a tool, you can use to help you manage time in your next workshop...


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The What, Why & How of this blog


As I'll share with you in the very next post, having clarity of purpose is the starting point for any workshop.  Consistent with this principle I wanted to share with you our intent and our ambition for this blog.  

Perhaps the first thing to say is that although I enjoy writing, blog writing is not a habit I've developed just yet (does twitter count?).  Alas, inspired by Austin Kleon our ambition here is to regularly 'show our work' here in a way that is hopefully useful for you!  One hypothesis we have about facilitating this regular sharing is having a consistent structure for our blog posts.  What we're starting with is a simple structure which we use for introducing activities in our workshops: What, Why and How.  So in the context of this blog, 'What is the idea?', 'Why is it important?' and 'How do you do it in practice?'.  This is the theory anyway, maybe a better structure will reveal itself in the course of time. Any ideas?    

So what will we be sharing?  We'll be revealing the behind the scenes of our workshop design, preparation and facilitation as well as key insights and learnings, sources of inspiration and anything else which we think helps short-cut your move up the learning curve on your facilitation journey.  

Oh and another concept you'll hear us talk about a lot is 'iteration' in design and collaboration work.  It is our intent that these blog posts will be iterated based on your feedback and also on our own habit of iterating our work based on feedback and new ideas. Consistent with this theme of iteration, one thing you'll notice, and which I'm curious and excited to try, is that rather than drip feeding posts once they're done I'm releasing the topics and outlines upfront.  My intention is that each week I'll complete one post and then share this as an update.  I'm trying this for three reasons.  Firstly, I'm impatient!  Secondly, so you can see what's coming.  Thirdly, because you can see what's coming it keeps the pressure on for me to complete the posts!  I'd love to hear what you think about this idea (:

Great to have you here and we look forward to your comments, to your feedback about how you've been able to apply some of what you're reading. and to any requests for our thinking on specific topics.

Happy reading!

P.S. If you like what you're reading, you might want to sign-up to our expression of interest list here


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The 5 elements of every collaboration session

The mental model we'd like to introduce here is a really useful one to understand first and to keep in mind as we layer in other mental models and practices.  The model defines 5 design elements of every collaboration session.  At the most basic think of these as a checklist of the intersecting elements that you, as the facilitator, needs to design and prepare for any session. We won't be going into the detail of 'how' rather defining each and how they relate.  You'll see that we have posts scheduled that will drill down into each of these elements further.


It all starts with Purpose.  All the other elements we describe here hinge on having a clear and meaningful shared understanding of why the session is being run and vision for the impact it needs to achieve.  A statement of purpose should also be precise enough to serve as an anchor against which to course correct during your session and also to evaluate the success of your session.  It should also be precise by clearly define the scope and boundaries of the group's collaboration.  Quite often Principles will also emerge from your understanding of your client's needs that serve as anchors for solutions you generate.  In addition to being precise and meaningful, the purpose statement should inspire the active participation of your group of participants to dedicate their valuable time and energy towards.  

Don't rush through the process of defining the purpose of your session.  Take time to test and iterate the purpose statement, rather than settling on the first idea that comes to mind.


We understand the temptation of jumping straight into identifying and then assembling  a series of activities.  However we strongly advocate that a 'run sheet', 'agenda' or 'session design' is definitely the output but never the starting point when designing the workshop process.  Rather the process is in service of the session's purpose.  It needs to be designed to take the participants on a journey which will help them achieve their purpose and fulfil their potential as a group.  We will elaborate on this is a series of posts on session design, but for now the word 'journey' is instructive in terms of how to think about session design: a connected narrative with characters, plot and scenes rather than a disconnected sequence of activities that might be fun and novel but don't have any coherent intent.  More so than the session purpose, the session design should be iterated and tested many times from different perspectives and from varying levels of detail.  


What's a workshop without people right?  But who do we need in the room for the work we need to do to achieve our purpose?  What different perspectives, knowledge and decision making roles do we need in the room?  Will we be able to surface the right tensions and get to the right level of detail with the group that we've curated?  And 'curated' is the right word here: a group that's been carefully selected rather than invited by open invitation.


Content is about the information we feed into and then capturing the output generated during a session.  There are a few dimensions to consider for content:

  • Whether it's purely informative and directly related to the topic at hand versus content that provides inspiration for new ideas
  • How and when it needs to be fed into a session
  • The type of content media e.g. print, video, audio 


Experience is a broad topic but one that so often overlooked or considered as an afterthought.  If we accept that a good workshop should create a strong memory for participants which anchors them to a pivotal occasion, it's not hard to imagine that experience is an important contributor to the creation of this strong memory.  The way I think about experience is how and what participants see, hear, think and feel during your session. Tangible drivers of experience include sound, light, use of space and furnishings, graphics, and the availability, accessibility and quality of workshop resources.  

A bad workshop experience - such as poor quality catering or hot/cold rooms - can legitimately undermine all the other hard work you've put in to designing and preparing your session.   


Check out this really great story by Chris Burke and Tara Dulaurence as a resource for this framework.  



What are the jobs and roles of the facilitator?

There is so much to learn about being a facilitator so where to start?  If you're anything like me, it's at 30,000ft.  This blog post will look at the key jobs of the facilitator and how we can understand the role of the facilitator in each job, using metaphor.

I recently purchased and read a magnificent book on facilitation for more experienced practitioners, especially MG Taylor practitioners: 'From the Front of the Room' by Dan Newman.     

There are many excellent things about Dan's book which I will reference in other blog posts. Perhaps the best for me is how he has such great language to describe what the facilitator does. For this blog post, I'll refer to how Dan describes six jobs of the facilitator but will summarise these into five jobs!

1. Scoping and session definition

Spending a lot of time with your client to properly understand and unpack the challenge they're facing and then defining and clarifying the real purpose and boundaries for their collaboration session. 

2. Design

Designing an agenda which delivers on the purpose of your session.

3. Preparation

Getting all the detailed logistics in place, such as venue, catering, supplies, content, equipment and invites.

4. Facilitation

The standing in the front of the room and waving your ams around bit!

5. Value capture

Capturing participant work and the actual event journey through photo, video, graphics and writing so that it can be packaged and then shared back to participants and wider community.

Now, even if you're not an MG Taylor practitioner I imagine most facilitators would do these jobs in different ways for their own group sessions. 

So this is a view of the jobs of the facilitator and each of these are entire topics and sub-topics in themselves.  Indeed entire blog posts will be written about these jobs.  But for now, we think the way to ease into this deeper level of understanding is to share useful metaphors that illustrate some of the core the mindsets, skill-sets and toolsets required for each of these jobs.

So here are each of the 'jobs', re-cast as 'roles', using metaphors.

1. Scoping and session definition

The most useful metaphor to understand here is Facilitator-as-Doctor.  Scoping and definition is about deeply understanding both what IS and ISN"T been said.  It's also about mapping your client's symptoms, with underlying root causes.  A Doctor will go through a process of diagnosis by initially asking open-ended questions and performing simple tests on a patient.  They'll listen and ask more questions, sometimes these are more closed in nature e.g. "Does it hurt here?".  All the while, the Doctor is establishing a hypotheses about the patient's condition and possible tests and treatments.  A good Doctor will also look for what's not being said and what is sometimes conveyed through body language rather than spoken word.  Sometimes the patient can't, or doesn't want to, communicate what they're really feeling or thinking.  The challenge for the doctor is to be able to surface these unspoken needs in a way that is respectful to the patient and moves towards a proper diagnosis.  For the facilitator this is about deep listening, observation, note taking and empathy.  One of my favourite resources on the topic of empathy is this excellent, short animated-video by Brene Brown.              

2. Design

There are several great metaphors for session design, but two that we will use here are Facilitator-as-Architect and Facilitator-as-Author.  

Session design is like architecture in that we need to be able to translate the needs and desires of a client into a blueprint and a model which externalises these needs and desires.  The model we create needs should provide greater shared clarity between the client and the architect in terms of what is and isn't desirable, feasible and viable.  The model should facilitate iteration of the design based on interaction and testing of a model.  And ultimately the model serves a means of translating the client's desires into language and formats that can be used by those who need to actually build the structure.  Without a real model we're left with words and ideas which are really hard to translate into reality.  In session design, this model is typically the agenda with details about activities, timings and logistics.

Session design is like being an author in that we are writing a story.  The story has a structure e.g. opening, complication, resolution.  It has characters and it has a setting.  Dan Newman shares his understanding of stories as not being a linear progression of events, but rather as a series of choices that are presented to the main character in a story (the protagonist).  How the protagonist responds to these choices reveals a lot about his or her character.  These choices are pivotal, transformational events in the life of the protagonist and to the story in general.  So what?  The key point that we like here is that session design as an activity shouldn't isn't linear. Where possible it should produce session designs which present the participants with relevant challenges and how they respond to these challenges reveal a lot about them and their business.  

3. Preparation

Two metaphors I like to use here are Facilitator-as-Pilot and Facilitator-as-Chef.

Preparation is like being a pilot in that before departing, the pilots will systematically go through a series of detailed procedures to ensure that the aircraft is safe and ready for the departure.  This will involve coordination with cabin and ground crew who also play critical roles in preparing the aircraft for a safe and on-time departure.  Having systems like to-do lists, defined roles, skilled facilitation crew and team coordination protocols are essential for preparing for a successful session and this need increases with the scale of the session.

Preparation is like being a chef in that chefs will systematically do all their 'mise-en-place', or prep before a meal service.  They will arrive early to ensure that all supplies have been fulfilled, that the brigade of chefs and front-of-house staff understand the menu and the jobs to be done for the service ahead.  They will then organise stations to do all the prep required for each item on the menu.  The outcome from strong mise-en-place is not only partially prepared food components that only require a final cooking stage or assembly, but also that the chefs themselves are mentally prepared for the madness of food service.  When preparing for a session, and especially one with a facilitation team, the facilitator will work to ensure work and role clarity, that all supplies and equipment are in place and ready and will put in place systems and procedures to ensure that this work is coordinated and contributes to a shared vision.  

For both these metaphors, it's about balancing an eye for the overall picture with an eye for detail.

4. Facilitation: 

Now this is a big topic for which to find a handful of useful metaphors!  The two that might be most useful are Facilitator-as-Guide and Facilitator-as-Storyteller.

The session design process generates a map of the terrain to be navigated, but it must be remembered that this map is not the terrain. What this means is that the conditions that the Facilitator encounters during the actual session may not match the assumptions that were modelled in the session design and that he or she must adapt accordingly.  So like a guide, the facilitator must help his group of participants make an adventurous but safe passage across what might be quite treacherous terrain.  Maybe a massive tree has fallen over a trail and the group must decide how, with the appropriate tools and support from the facilitator, they will overcome this barrier. HOW this is done is probably a lifetime of trial and error.  A few things that help here include: listening and observing for signals that the energy in a group or their conversation is changing and then calling this out, having a plan B in your design if conditions don't pan out as expected, being ready to have participants decide what the best course of action to take is and then supporting them with strong process and resources.

It's fitting that if Facilitator-as-Author is a metaphor for session design, that Facilitator-as-Storyteller is an apt metaphor for the actual Facilitation job.  Dan Newman describes storytelling as one of the most important roles of the facilitator.  He goes on to say that the facilitator's skilful use of stories and metaphor provides participants with new language and new vantage points from which to view, make sense of and then to talk about their problems.  Quite often stories and metaphor also provide a safer way to talk about difficult topics.  The important thing here is to have a story, or stories, at hand that speak to the key themes that relate to the purpose of the session but in a new way.  A good story should transport participants to a different time, place and context before returning them to their current reality. Have a read about the 'Voyage and Return' basic plot here.  I think this is a key story plotline for a good collaborative session. 

5. Value capture:

A journalist captures raw stories using audio, video, photo before editing them and then sharing them, via an editor and a news medium, to an audience.  The journalist, and the editor, are constantly seeking for that interesting and relevant angle that will resonate with their audience.  The news is collected and then curated.  Similarly the facilitator is constantly listening to what is, and isn't, being said by participants and taking extensive notes.  What are the key ideas and words that keep popping up?  The facilitator parses what is being said through the lense of the session purpose.  In addition to written notes there are other media at the facilitator's disposal for capturing the work, the conversation and the experience within a session.  These are typically video, photo and graphic scribing. All of this raw media is captured, indexed, processed, edited, formatted and then fed back to an audience using an appropriate medium.   A final word from Dan Newman who uses the engineering metaphor of 'signal-to-noise' to describe the mindset for value capture. There is plenty of 'noise' that's produced in a session - irrelevant or less useful data - and our job is to filter out the 'signal' - the relevant and useful bits.  Doing this requires having a strong sense of the purpose of the session and in particular what ideas will make the impact of the session endure over a longer time horizon. 


What do you think about the metaphors we've used?  Do they make sense?  What other metaphors might you use to describe the roles of the facilitator?  Please share them in the comments below!  



It all starts with Purpose

In our experience, having shared clarity of purpose becomes the anchor for everything else in your workshop: the session design, your participant group, the content you feed into your session and the experience you create for your session.  Your purpose becomes the means of 'course-correcting' and evaluating the outcome of your session.

But what do we mean by 'purpose' and how do you go about defining it?

When we say 'purpose' we refer to the following 4 elements:


What will be different as a result of your workshop? How and where will you have made progress? A test of whether or not you've correctly written an outcome is if you've used a 'change' adjective e.g. 'more', 'greater', 'increased', 'stronger'. An example of an outcome might be 'We will have greater shared understanding of the opportunities and challenges we face for our 10 year roadmap'.


An output will generally map to at least one outcome.  It specifies the actual things you will produce and deliver from your session. An output is an object, something you can point to or hold. An example of an output might be 'a draft strategy document' or 'a model of our 5 year strategic roadmap'.


Where more focussed collaboration is needed - as opposed to a more free-ranging exploration of topics and ideas - known boundaries need to be specified.  My first facilitation mentor always said: "Don't give people a blank piece of paper if there is no blank piece of paper'.  I think people appreciate understanding the space in which they can be create, and the topics that are out-of-bounds.

Boundaries' can typically be described as scope, givens and design principles.  All three are closely related.

Most people will understand 'scope' - what topics are 'in-scope' and what topics are 'out-of-scope' for the purposes of the collaboration?

On the other hand, there is perhaps less common shared understanding around the term 'givens'.  For us, this refers to decisions and current state that are to be stated and acknowledged but are not open to change.

Design principles are especially useful when the collaboration involves designing a solution that addresses a real need.  Design principles are statements which constrain the range of possible solutions.  Examples of design principles might be: 'Any solution needs to adhere to our existing technology policy', or 'The needs of our global stakeholder community should always come first'.  

Key questions:

What are the key design questions that your workshop must respond to overall?

Attributes of good questions include:

  • They reflect the outcome and intent of the session.  
  • They get to the heart of the biggest and most complex issues and topics that the group needs to wrestle with
  • They're expansive and open-ended

There's no 'right number' of questions although I find I usually end up with around half a dozen.

Take time to really get to the heart of why your workshop needs to be run and what success looks like.

We've defined each of the four elements of purpose but how do you go about working with your client to define shared purpose?

Here are a few tips:

  • It takes more than one sitting to define the purpose.  You'll typically need to have a few iterations of the purpose statement with the client.  Each time testing the statement and becoming more precise with the wording and the intent it conveys.
  • Don't start by asking about each element of purpose directly, in particular about boundaries.  Better to follow your curiosity and open up the conversation space with your client by asking open ended questions which explore the rationale for the session.  A question I like to ask is: "What needs to be different after this session?".  For me, this question helps gets to the heart of the outcomes for the session.
  • It helps to think into the days, weeks and even months after the session.  A question like "What will you need to be able to do the day/week after the session?" not only explores outcomes, but opens up the space of outputs too.  The client might say "I need to finalise the investment case for the project..." which suggests what the outputs from the session need to be.  Another alternative is to present the client with a future-based scenario where the session has made a positive impact, and then ask the client team to backcast to how the session contributed to this success e.g. "Imagine it is 6months after the session and 
  • As we talked about in this post, the metaphor of a doctor diagnosing a patient is instructive when scoping and defining the purpose of your session.

And finally, here's a handy resource you can print off and use when defining the purpose of your session

We'd love to hear your own experiences of defining session purpose and especially if you found this post useful.  As always feel free to get in touch with any questions.