The Brilliant Strategy of Facilitator Guides

(This article was published in our March 2011 Newsletter)

In recent months, a former client from Canada contacted me about an event that I had lead and co-facilitated in 2001. He asked me if I would give him permission to use the detailed facilitator guide that we had produced for them and literally duplicate the same processes that we had used 10 years ago. I was astounded! What we had done 10 years ago was create a 1.5 day event bringing Northern, mostly native communities together from 52 different locations and helped them strategize around how to empower their communities to be more self-governing. We were, in fact, implementing the next step to a big culture change helping Northern communities reduce their reliance on government resources and support.

Frankly, I was amazed from two points of view: 1) I did not believe that a process design from 10 years ago would be as valid today and 2) I did not think that a group of staff members that are not professional facilitators could pull of such a complicated event on their own.

Two my surprise, both were not true. The fact that we had designed and thoroughly documented every detail of the process, and written out every small group instruction, was what allowed this to happen. I just heard back from my clients a week ago. They were very pleased with how the replicated event went. All they had done was use 6 hours of my time to coach them through small adaptations to the guide, adjustments to the small group instructions, and help them think through the overall tone and purpose of the event. Thus, the brilliant strategy of a well-crafted facilitator guide!

In truth, what also happened was that we had trained their staff 10 years ago to facilitate the breakout groups for this event. There were 2 out of 8 staff still employed in 2011 who made up the new staff facilitator team. In addition, most of the new/old staff facilitator team had participated in workshops using similar methodology as we had used in 2001.
The article below describes the what, why, when, and how of developing powerful facilitator guides that are easily understood by non-professional facilitators and that may (you never know!) find useful for future events and different clients. If you want an example of a guide we have used in the past for a large group event, please email us.  Or click here to view a brief sample.


A good facilitator guide is a Word/Excel document generally 10-15 pages long that outlines the purpose of the event, the logistics of the space set-up, and detailed instructions on each piece of the agenda process. It also includes notes, supplies for each activity and the intent of each activity.


A very detailed facilitator guide allows for consistency between facilitators (assuming the guide is for large events and you had several co-facilitators). It also allows you to think through every detail so that you feel fully prepared before the event. It will ensure you have the right supplies, the right questions, the right small group instructions for example. This is especially helpful when you are using people who are not experienced facilitators and you want to achieve consistent, powerful results from every small group activity. Again, the guide approach assumes there is one lead facilitator who has a lot of experience.


Use a detailed facilitator guide when:

  • You have less experienced facilitators assisting with the event
  • You have experienced facilitators but it’s essential you achieve consistent results from each facilitator
  • You have a lot at stake and you want to be sure that things appear seamless to the client and group
  • Your events have a lot of levels of complexity (this obviously applies to large and/or multi-cultural/lingual facilitated events)


After viewing a sample guide from the link above, you get a little bit of a feel of how to do it. More explicitly, you might use the following process to get this level of a detailed guide.

1. The first thing to do is draw a visual sketch or mind map of how you want the event to unfold. Think of an overall title that captures the tone and product that the client is looking for. 

2. Imagine the event moving progressively through the 4 levels of thinking: give them the data (objective level); let them react to the data (reflective level); help them interpret their response to the data, strategize and find meaning in the data (interpretive level); and come to a decision, solution or commitment (decisional level). These 4 levels are based on the Technology of Participation methodology. See also the book, The Focused Conversation by ICA Canada.

3. Begin to flesh out the tools and processes you want to use for each portion of the agenda.

4. Write detailed instructions as though you were a new facilitator giving yourself excellent crib notes.

5. Think of all the supplies needed for each of the activities.

6. Estimate timing for each activity.

7. Double check timing, flow and tone of the event.

8. Enter these steps and all of the thinking around this event into a Word or Excel table that generally has 3 or 4 columns with all of the details noted above. For example, columns could be labeled “TIME”, “AGENDA ITEM”, “FACILITATOR INSTRUCTIONS/NOTES”.

9. Do a dry run, walking through the facilitator guide with co-facilitators to make sure they understand the mechanics and intent of each piece.

I’m sure many of you have your ideas on using your own guides. We’d love to hear back from you. We’re happy to share more on this in a future newsletter article.