Four Facilitator Archetypes

This post is one in an occasional series to help guide those looking to hire a facilitator.  If your questions about facilitation are not answered, please don’t hesitate to email me and I will be glad to help!

On more that once occasion in my consulting practice I have been called into projects somewhere in the middle of the process.  At such times, I feel like the relief pitcher being called in when the arm of the first pitcher is failing.  In these situations,  clients often talking about the first facilitator’s wild pitches, consecutive walks or even the occasion “grand slam” error.  The challenge of walking into a project in mid-process is that the psyche of the team is often shaken and the progress to date ranges from “behind schedule” to “disarray.”   While this post does not present an exhaustive discussion of why facilitation fails, I would like to suggest four facilitator archetypes that can help guide the the hiring of a facilitator and prevent facilitation failure.

At the outset, let us be very clear.  Facilitation is a totally unregulated discipline.  No training, degree or certification is required for a person to consider him/herself a facilitator.  Indeed, of the training and certification programs that do exist, many can be misleading as they often are bought for a price, have a nominal process of vetting of skills and are perpetuated by the mere payment of annual dues and/or training fees.  Further, what actually constitutes strong facilitation skills is not very well defined. As a result, many portray themselves as a facilitator because they have dry erase markers and three books on their shelf.  One book focuses on ice-breaker activities, the second focuses on team-building activities, and the third focuses on running effective meetings.  In this context the due diligence for preventing facilitation failure becomes critical.  One way to think about assessing potential facilitators is to consider the dimensions of Breadth of Skills and Depth of Experience.

Breadth of Skills: When interviewing potential facilitators it is important to ask candidates to describe their breadth of skills.  Be cautious of facilitators who have trouble with this question.  There are many facilitators who get stuck using one or two strategies.  In these cases, the facilitator is like a carpenter who only has  a hammer is in his/her toolbox.  After a while of just carrying a hammer then everything starts looking like a nail.  Facilitators should be able to describe with confidence a broad array of facilitation methods and models and connect their knowledge with actual clients.

Depth of Expertise: The second dimension in the vetting process is to explore the experience and expertise of the facilitator. Not all facilitation is equal. The complexity and the content of a facilitation process should drive the selection of a facilitator.  The conventional wisdom is that facilitation is impartial and agnostic, however, it is my experience, that failure to account for the content expertise and technical knowledge of a facilitator can lead to mediocre outcomes –if not outright facilitation failure.

A useful way to think about these to dimensions is to place on a horizontal axis of low to high the dimension of Breath of Skills and on a vertical axis of low to high the dimension of Depth of Experience & Expertise.  In this way, you create a two by two matrix.  Each of the four matrix quadrants represents a different facilitation archetype that can be defined as follows:

Entrant (Low Expertise – Low Breadth of Skills):  At face value one might ask themselves why they would ever consider hiring a facilitator in this quadrant.  However, when the outcomes of the facilitation process have lower consequence or value and/or the facilitation process is predefined or routine, it might make sense to utilize a facilitator in this quadrant.  For example, for routine team or staff meetings and agency might use inexperienced internal facilitators as a way to build the  facilitation skills of staff or team members.  Or in cases where the “stakes are low” but an impartial/outside facilitator is required to give some neutrality to the process, an agency might be able to hire an entrant at a lower consulting rate.

Generalist (Low Expertise – Higher Breadth of Skills): When meeting process and the accuracy of the proceedings are important outcomes then an agency might consider a generalist facilitator.  A generalist can employ a variety of facilitation methods and tools to ensure a well managed meeting.  Noncontroversial community dialogues, focus group facilitation, and operational planning staff retreats, might be examples of facilitation processes that require strong generalist facilitation skills to ensure process and narrative outcomes that are meaningful. Facilitators in this category should be able to substantiate experience in  a range of facilitation techniques that represent inclusive and participatory facilitation processes as well as strong post facilitation documentation.

Specialist (Higher Expertise – Lower Breadth of Skills): While content expertise may not matter in the lower tier of the matrix, there are times when knowledge and content do matter.  For examples, technology planning, executive transitions, implementing a capital campaign are facilitation processes that require more than an impartial facilitator.  Such specialized facilitation requires knowledge and judgment in addition to basic facilitation skills.  Hiring a facilitator in this quadrant values his/her specialized knowledge more than a broad range of facilitation skills.  A highly customized and tailored facilitation process might be sacrificed for the application of knowledge and content to a more generic facilitation process.

Sector Expert (Higher Expertise – Higher Breadth of Skills): The final cell in the matrix is the combination of high expertise coupled with the deep breadth of facilitation skills.  In my view the sector expert differs from the specialist in that the sector expert has cross disciplinary content expertise in addition to a deep range of facilitation skills.   The sector expert has a handle on the facilitation tools and processes required to create a customized and tailored approach to facilitation.  In addition, the sector expert has deep cross-sectional knowledge that can shape the content and knowledge base of the assignment.  A sector expert brings expertise to such complex processes as strategic planning, public policy change, or partnerships and mergers.

These four facilitation archetypes are by no means complete or definitive but rather the the archetypes provide useful heuristics when considering a process of hiring a facilitator.  While the “cost of hiring a facilitator” is a Google search term that drives a lot traffic to a couple of posts that I wrote on that topic (post 1post 2), it is my belief that considering the cost of a facilitator as a primary determinant is short-sighted.  More critical to hiring a facilitator is the matching of facilitation skills, process, and content depth to the task at hand.  To this end, considering the four facilitator archetypes is a useful frame for facilitator hiring success.

Still have Questions? Contact us, we would love to help.


Photo Credit: ammcintosh1


Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.