The role – and attitude – of a facilitator in designing events

I had to take a stand and clarify this.

I’ve recently witnessed some event design processes that went really badly, where the ‘client’ and the ‘facilitator’ ended up at complete odds with each other. With as result a seemingly permanently damaged relationship, and the serious risk of derailing even the event they were planning together.

This incident offers me a good opportunity to restate what the role of a facilitator is at process design stage. And not only the role, but also the overall attitude. But first here’s for roles and responsibilities:

Process design is a complex map (Credits: The Value Web)

Process design is a complex map (Credits: The Value Web)

Listening (and asking questions)

First and foremost, you don’t jump on process design, you listen. Carefully. You read if you’re being given background literature. You make sure you have enough context to understand the context in which you’ll be operating. You prepare your questions to clarify that context. And consistently, relentlessly, unhesitatingly you listen and listen and listen some more and better.

You want to find out about the motivation behind the event/process, the people involved in the organising and participating sides, the possible tensions, the way things have already been organised etc. All kinds of things addressed in the BOSSY HERALD.

Helping to identify topics, outcomes etc.

In process design, of course your role then is to clarify the list of topics that your client – your ‘person in charge’ – means to address, and what outcomes they hope to achieve for each of these topics. This is not only good practice for your client to articulate their objectives, but also for both of you to get a sense of realism put into the time planned for that event or initiative against the objectives set.

Your role is to develop processes for each of these topic outcomes, but you need to get that first part right. And how do you do it? You guessed it, by listening (see point 1).

Help check logistics

A very important aspect that could easily fall between the cracks otherwise is the logistics of the meeting. Help your client make sure they have booked a proper room, have all the equipment you and they need, have instructed people to help with e.g. the set up of ICT tools etc.

You can also refer to my 10 advices to dramatically improve un-facilitated meetings; they contain some ideas about this.

Teasing issues out 

I alluded to this earlier in the listening part. Your role is to understand what is invisible, unspoken, but actually playing a critical role. This kind of a teasing out is a business critical skill when it comes to developing your network, as you need to be able to recognise the challenging gigs from the simple ones (and to decide whether to take them on or not).

So keep asking questions: about who has the power to decide things, who is missing in the room, what topics cause frictions, who is possibly at odds with who else, why things have been done in a certain way, what decisions have been made to do things differently and why etc. etc.

In the process you may also find out about some useful procedures, frames of reference, templates etc. that could shape your event. But tease things out you must.

Clarifying who takes decision etc.

A specific point that requires more emphasis here is the question of ‘who has the power to make a decision’ – whether the decision be about the process design or about any point of content discussed during the event. It remains one of the difficult but very impactful elements of your work.

I tend to work with a clear ‘person-in-charge’ whom I feel free to call upon during the meetings to take decisions (about time allocated, about choices in adjusting design, about deciding the issue). It can (and should) follow a much more thorough process of clarifying the decision rule, but even in the absence of that, you can’t get away without asking who calls the shots, unless you’re ready to fall into a nightmare scenario.

Remaining neutral

Apart from some specific cases that I’ll explore in an upcoming post, you’re not supposed to take decisions for your person(s)-in-charge. You’re supposed to focus on the process and on how to help everyone do and share their best thinking. So in the process design phase you can make suggestions about certain design implications, but the content items are not for you to comment on. They’re for your client.

And because things can and usually somewhat do run out of hand, your last task in this ‘process design process’ is…

Educating your client about process literacy

It’s also your job – it certainly has become my vocation – to also teach your clients about processes. So that next time around, when you work together, the design process is easier and smoother. Because you share language, and perhaps even a vision about how a process is supposed to run. This is about everything that relates to your job. You can decide to keep it all for yourself but I find that it really helps my clients to explain how I do stuff and what effect it has. Once they see process they can become better process visionaries and implementers themselves.

That little bit of building peoples’ process literacy pays back 10-fold.

Now, about that attitude…

As I got to read in the ‘culture map‘, some cultures are more ‘principles-oriented’ and others are more ‘application-oriented’. I find my culture, and my personality, are very much geared towards principles. And for me attitude is also a matter or principles. I don’t do my work without thinking why I do it. I have ethic, ethos. And so for me the attitude when designing a process is of utmost importance. And it relates to what Sam Kaner would describe as the first commandment of facilitation:

Be helpful, be supportive.

Even if as facilitator you don’t like the event, or your client, you’re there to help them,  to fa-ci-li-tate their work, not to make it more difficult.

So a facilitator should assume a globally positive and flexible behavior, no matter what.

And of course things happen and problems occur, but you learn from these and get to plan things better the next time around. So keep that in mind and until the show is over, rub it in and give your best 🙂



Good bye acute meetingitis! Plan your day-to-day meetings as a true KMer…

Another post fished from my Agile KM site that should have featured here… And now I’m caught up across my blogs.

Agile KM for me... and you?

On this blog I talk a lot about (large) events, how they’re designed, facilitated, useful, successful, impactful… or not. There is a related, mundane, day-to-day topic: the case of everyday meetings. We spend sometimes so much time that we might want to think about how to make them as useful.

And in this post, I just want to stop and consider how to plan your time in these day-to-day meetings in the best possible way, from a KMer perspective (also because good KMers are innovation conveners – and good practice-shapers).

So many (bad) reasons to hold a meeting - time to reverse the trend (Credits: Axbom) So many (bad) reasons to hold a meeting – time to reverse the trend (Credits: Axbom)

So here are some principles to get your started in planning your (attendance at) meetings:

Come prepared

Long preparation, short war so… If you’re not prepared, you’re likely going to be wasting your time and others’. And as I keep referring to meeting cost calculators (such as Meeting Ticker

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Do you suffer from acute ‘meetingitis virtuales’? Here’s some antidote

Another post fished from my Agile KM site that should have featured here…

Agile KM for me... and you?

Does this sound familiar? (Original item here)

But then repeatedly, several times per week or per day even?

You are clearly a patient of acute meetingitis virtuales (or MV88 – 88 standing for infinity infinity), a modern virus that is affecting more and more people every week, far from the public attention it deserves…

How has MV88 become such a widespread disease? We are a globally connected world, where people increasingly pay attention to their carbon footprint and try to reduce their travels (look here to calculate, very very roughly, your carbon footprint).
That’s all very well… except we can’t suffer from that typical homo socialus affliction without doing something about it!

Here are some ways to deal with THE virus of our times…

Know your enemy (the symptoms)

All the good (bad) reasons to have a meeting (credits: Brooks Language Services) All the good (bad) reasons to have a meeting (credits: Brooks Language Services)

Meetings are the mega virus of which

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Net added value in an event: networkshops and the power of contextual webs

Another post fished from my Agile KM site that should have featured here…

Agile KM for me... and you?

I’m going to preach against my chapel here: Is there actually much of a point to design workshops to get the best user experience? It seems obvious from various studies and own experience that unless a workshop (or event) is embedded in someone’s own context (see this brilliant IDS report on capacity for a change which refers to this problem), experience, current needs and aspirations, the results of any event matter little. Because they are islands of focus, of luxury of resources, of delusion or rather luxuriously delusional focus – rather than continents of realism.
In other words, unless specifically tailored for a group of people, the applicability of any event’s contents is – arguably – usually rather low.

Where the real value of these events lies is the networking. Echoes of colleagues past and present “I’m just going there to talk with x, y and z and…

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Use quality face-to-face time for synergy, not for logorrhea

I should have reblogged this earlier, just noticed it wasn’t on my agile facilitation post when it should have been 🙂

Agile KM for me... and you?

How many meetings (even one on one) are spent to regurgitate something, to present ‘stuff’ of various relevance and quality, to eruct presentation upon presentation as if the audience needed to know everything ever written about the topic at hand…

Logorrhea - and it's only getting worse... (Credits: Scott Adam) Logorrhea – and it’s only getting worse… (Credits: Scott Adam)

How many events with an avalanche of information, and so little co-creation?

Hey, I’d get it if we were in 1983 and there was no other way to get that information. But in 2015, almost everyone has a phone that can provide all the information we need. Share if you care.

Death by Powerpoint (Credits: Tom Fishburne) Death by Powerpoint (Credits: Tom Fishburne)

This single-route approach to face-to-face is not only another (often not so) disguised attempt of inducing death by Powerpoint, but it is also: a completely missed opportunity to develop something new, an insult to our intelligence and capacity, a deliberate attempt at…

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Taking stock: facilitation videos

So what videos about facilitation are out there?

This was a question one of my ‘group facilitation skills‘ trainees asked me last week. I didn’t know what to say. I learned facilitation all by myself, observing others and reading and observing my own practice, until I got myself trained on group facilitation skills last year.

So I had to dig for those videos…

And I have to say, I’ve been left hungry on this one… Rather unimpressed with the top suggestions by supposedly omniscient Google.

But I have to do due diligence to the people who asked the question to me. So hereby a tour of facilitation videos I personally encountered, with my short commentary on them. There are many more videos I checked but not enough was worthy (in my eyes) of sharing those videos for.

So here you are for my totally subjective take on useful facilitation videos. They are split between videos that a) explain generally what facilitation is and what facilitators do, b) share some tips and tricks for more effective facilitation and c) show in practice what it looks like.

What is facilitation, who are facilitators, generally?

The art of facilitation

This TedX video is by a facilitator (Jay Vogt) introduces what facilitation is for him and highlights his specific experience, whose aim is to “transform the way we meet”… It’s a bit longer than the other videos but really shares some of the ‘what happens when there’s no facilitation’ and Jay Vogt gives me the idea he’s got a practice that I would really value. Selfless, supportive, engaging. A good introduction!

Facilitation best & worst practices

Already introduced in my last post, this video features – in an animated whiteboard kind of format – some of the fundamentally good and fundamentally wrong practices that facilitators (might end up) do(ing). I don’t agree with everything (e.g. documentation is not necessary a requirement for facilitators) here but roughly this video is getting it ‘right’ (in my totally objective opinion ahem).

What do facilitators do

This video is probably the closest to explaining what a facilitator is. You can also read my recent post clarifying what a facilitator does, as opposed to a moderator, chair, MC etc.  In that same post I covered this video in more details. Even though I’m not raving about the video itself it’s probably the most sincere attempt at explaining what facilitation really is.

Four essential functions to facilitating meetings

The set up of this video is a bit strange but the tips given are also on the ball – with my reserves on the drawing/documenting at the same time as facilitating, and on the fourth part where this type of facilitation seems to also push to consensus.

Some tips…

Facilitation tips and tricks for newbies

Viv McWaters is one of the facilitators that is listed on the list of background resources on this blog and for good reason. In this long recorded webinar (47’06”) that unfortunately has a not-all-too-great sound, McWaters explains very articulately the moments when you need a facilitator (e.g. when you’re stuck / when you need to frame / when you need to disrupt) and gives five tips and tricks for facilitation groups. This is possibly the best video of all the ones here in terms of its content. And an extra emphasis on this tip: remove the tables, as they get in the way!

Six quick facilitation tips

This video is much closer to my own practice than most of the other videos (McWaters’s aside). And though the 6 tips are quickly served, they are good! Have a check 🙂

Seven key skills of workshop facilitation

This presentation is a quick glimpse onto some of the basics of facilitation, particularly in terms of the attitude the facilitator should adopt. Nothing ground-breaking here but some good tips – with the caveat that ‘challenging’ is ok at design stage, not in the conversation itself (when they should be managing the process)…

The importance of energy in facilitation

Michael Wilkinson is one of the commercially busiest facilitators. I’m not won over his style, which makes facilitation sound quite mechanical, but in this TedX video he touches upon the important aspect of energy in facilitation – or rather energy in the facilitator, which helps energise the topic, the participants and the facilitator. Pity this video doesn’t talk directly about the energy of participants. Still, a good point is being made here. Inform-excite-empower-involve in the first 15 minutes!

Facilitation techniques – part 1 of 3:  

This guy clearly has quite some experience, and he introduces some interesting basics of facilitation. So overall the point is there. But his approach has a number of aspects that I don’t feel really excited about – to say the least – e.g. ‘no stories’ reinforces the point that participants should shut up (NOT a good idea); I’m also not convinced about the ‘justification rule’ – sometimes you can’t justify every of your point and it might condemn you to shut up if you feel you can’t justify. The presenter also confuses ‘paraphrasing‘ for ‘mirroring’.

Meeting facilitation

About this video, I would like to just point to the useful HALT acronym in this video (Hungry – Angry – Lonely – Tired). The facilitation approach suggested is quite pushy otherwise.

Facilitation in practice (demonstrated)

This has been difficult to find. But my KM4Dev friends came to rescue and:

Nancy White mentioned that the site ‘Liberating Structures’ has peppered its pages with videos. Some of them are available here:

And these videos featuring friend and fellow facilitator Camilo Villa (in Spanish but giving an idea of the dynamics):

With International Organization for Migration:
With WorldBank, MetroLab in Argentina:
Sophie Alvarez also mentioned: Our wikipage for the Participatory Impact Pathways Analysis (PIPA) methodology, which has, sadly, been a bit abandoned lately, has some facilitation of parts of a PIPA workshop in videos, here: you can see problem tree and network drawing in action (in Spanish, with English subtitles), and some ways we facilitate it.
Carl Jackson mentioned: “here’s a nice video of using Open Space facilitation to support CLA strategy development for USAID Indonesia Country Office:”.
At last, Chris Grose mentioned: “Our videos at IMA International highlight much of our face to face work.  They can be found here:” 

And finally – a facilitation model for group dynamics


This is a different video, featuring Sam Kaner talking about ‘Participatory Decision-Making in Multi-Stakeholder Collaborations’. The group dynamics framework he offers is explained from minute 51 or so. As usual there’s some really rich content there so I hope you find this useful too!

What facilitation videos do YOU refer to?


What is the role of a facilitator (and of a moderator, MC, chair etc.)?

I briefly touched upon this topic on the ‘about’ page to this blog. But not quite seriously enough.

And as I gave training on group facilitation skills last week, this question came up in various shapes until I had to nail it down, on the spot, thus without additional resources on the topic.

So hereby some attempt at clarifying what a facilitator does… and what some related functions are all about.

What is a facilitator? (Credits: Brefi Group Ltd.)

What is a facilitator? (Credits: Brefi Group Ltd.)

When I started drafting this post, I had just read this blog post by Martin Gilbraith, a former chair from the International Association of Facilitators. The video he featured has interesting features – particularly on the architect metaphor – though I wonder if there’s not a better local metaphor than the airplane pilot or the rowing galley leader to what a facilitator is and does.

In my view the facilitator metaphor might even work better with an object perhaps: a reflector (like a mirror), agent provocateur, lighthouse… for sure there’s no clear-cut answer to this question. Perhaps a facilitator is some kind of ‘everyday shaman’ who helps people reveal their own visions, though we (facilitators) don’t use magic mushrooms, lick magic toads’ backs or do other funky things to invoke any kind of magic… Perhaps a facilitator is simply a group coach…

Or using the Community at Work language, the facilitator is someone who ‘stays out of the content and manages the process, to help everyone do their best thinking’.

What can be confusing is that in practice many people have different definitions. So let’s have a look at a number of functions that are commonly associated with or confused for facilitator:


The moderator (Credits: Gaspars Karda/FlickR)

The moderator (Credits: Gaspars Karda/FlickR)

As this post is helpfully clarifying, “A moderator at events, meetings, and networking gatherings will concentrate on keeping the communication and information flow clear and accessible to everyone that participates, at all times. So, the moderator is sort of like an information manager. In an Internet-based environment, he or she monitors the flow of communication, makes digests and summaries, approves posts, and even maintains the online environment. The moderator is usually invisible, but still very essential.” The same post continues saying: “An event moderator offers assistance to presenters and the audience. A facilitator keeps things moving along and makes sure everyone is participating.” Here is where things get more complicated: in French ‘Modérateur’ is often the name used for facilitators. But here you have a technical distinction…

Key distinction: The moderator works on getting content flowing VS. the facilitator focuses on the process that helps everyone participate in the best possible way.


MC (Master of Ceremony) 

The Master of ceremony (Credits: Martin)

The Master of ceremony (Credits: Martin)

The video below gives a short aussie glimpse of the difference between MC (also interchangeably called host) and facilitator. It suggests that “the MC, in very formal settings, conducts the event” – like a TV presenter would. This means they could really meddle with the content, not care so much about the feelings of participants and actually probably focus more on the on-stage guests than on the audience etc. A facilitator really has to pay attention to remaining neutral (on the content and on relationships) and acting in the best interest of all the participants. So there you have it!

Key distinction: The MC is the host to a formal event conductor who focuses on the speakers and guests VS. the facilitator is brought by a host to help focus on the process and on the participants.

The chair, to the left (Credits: OECD)

The chair, to the left (Credits: OECD)


This post offers one reason behind the confusion: these two functions are often played by the same person – though they are very different and “The Chair is responsible for the meeting’s outcomes and work product. The facilitator is responsible for the process of the meeting(s).” The same site suggests that when there is a high(er) chance of conflict in the meeting or process, hiring a separate facilitator is a good idea. In my experience with academic events, the ‘chair’ is also the person that tends to introduce the speakers and sometimes summarises key insights at the end. So a chair(person) is definitely a content-rich and high-stake function, whereas the facilitator “stays out of the content and manages the process” and is not the person calling the shots for what has to be achieved with the meeting but rather helps the leader with ‘how’ to achieve the objectives that matter to them.

Key distinction: The chair focuses on outcomes and work product VS. the facilitator focuses on getting all participants to these outcomes by bringing in their best thinking.

The leader (Credits: Christian Pierret)

The leader (Credits: Christian Pierret)

Leader / person in charge 

The leader – or person in charge – is the person that makes the decision, gives direction, calls the shots, decides about hosting a meeting or an event, has to clarify what their intent and expected outcomes are about it and thus it is someone that has important stakes in that event. They are the person(s) that the facilitator should come back to when some decisions need to be made on e.g. ‘spending more time on this conversation’ or ‘moving on to the next agenda point’ etc. The leader is a sparring partner for the facilitator when designing events. But the facilitator clearly should be a distinct function from the person in charge, even though it’s not always possible…

Key distinction: The person in charge decides the topics and objectives (the what and why) VS. the facilitator focuses on the process (the how) that gets participants to address the former.

Time keeper 

The time keeper (Credits: ios online)

The time keeper (Credits: ios online)

As indicated, this function is about keeping track of the time. Which is often what a facilitator also has to do – among many other things – but this is not the most important of his/her many tasks. And actually it’s usually more helpful for a facilitator to not really manage the time and rather manage the process and the relationships with all participants (making sure that everyone feels involved and valued). This is a very narrow window to the world of facilitation.

Key distinction: The time keeper makes sure things stay ‘on course, in time’ VS. the facilitator focuses on getting people to engage most meaningfully, even if that may mean getting over time.

The rapporteur (Credits: European Parliament)

The rapporteur (Credits: European Parliament)


Sometimes the facilitator is being asked to document conversations or the entire meeting. And that can be fine – though not alone and certainly not when the facilitator is ‘facilitating’ but typing up charts, sharing other notes etc. can be ok. The formal rapporteur of an event, however, really has a 100% mandate and dedication to their very job: paying attention to every point being shared, clarifying anything that is unclear and making sure that the entire content is captured and reported in a formal ‘output’ whether verbatim or usually in a synthesised format. So once again a very different role from the facilitator’s.

Key distinction: The rapporteur writes the formal content report from the event and shares it afterwards VS. the facilitator manages the process of the event while it’s happening.

Chart writer 

The chart writer (Credits:

The chart writer (Credits:

Another kind of person that ‘documents’ meetings in a specific way is the ‘chart writer’. The chart writer works in tandem with the facilitator to live ‘chart’ the key points that the facilitator is feeding him/her (as they take the cue from the facilitator’s paraphrasing). This function is about ensuring the collective group memory is kept and everyone sees their comments validated etc. But in any case facilitator and chart writer work together and are thus not the same function, even though in practice with my colleague here we alternate facilitating and chart writing for each other.

Key distinction: The chart writer collects and writes ideas from participants (often fed by the facilitator) VS. the facilitator manages the conversation process to hear these ideas.

So there are many possible distinctions – and aside all of the above the facilitator often plays different roles:

The many roles of a facilitator (Credits: IAF)

The many roles of a facilitator (Credits: IAF)

And here I’m not even covering other specific functions such as the graphic facilitator – as that deserves a dedicated post on its own, for some other time. And there are yet other distinctions…

Trainer vs. facilitator vs. consultant (Credits: Doug Caldwell)

Trainer vs. facilitator vs. consultant (Credits: Doug Caldwell)

This post is also just an invitation to my next post on this blog, which will be – by public demand from the same group of trainees this week – about videos on facilitation…

For now, here’s just a teaser that points to some of the fundamentals of what a facilitator does. Don’t mind the commercial ending (better: stop the video when it starts 😉

This video is not perfect – and the take on ‘documenting’ is not a requirement for a facilitator, just an option, but it certainly points to some of the basics. More (and deeper) soon!