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March 2017
| Issue #7

Building a reputation beyond your favourite tool

By Trevor Durnford

How do you build a successful facilitation business? Let’s look at some lessons from facilitation practice.

Mike’s story

I once knew a facilitator, let’s call him Mike (not his real name of course). Mike’s specialty area was working with clients who wanted to embrace lean thinking. He had a process simulation called the Lean Game. Using stickle bricks, this fun, highly participative game surfaced profound insights into bottlenecks, flow, waste and countless lean challenges.

The Lean Game worked wonders for delivering lean outcomes and Mike’s clients started asking for other outcomes too, like strategy work, teambuilding, or after-action reviews. And this is where a problem arose. The Lean Game was Mike’s only tool. He felt very comfortable using it. So he used it in these projects too. But this was a little like using a rubber to sharpen a pencil - it was the wrong tool.

Eventually Mike began to get feedback that his sessions - though enjoyable - weren’t delivering the expected outcomes. In his consulting team he developed a reputation as a ‘one trick pony’. This in turn resulted in an emptying diary and clients only interested in lean simulation events. Mike realised he needed to broaden his repertoire and learned approaches, like Appreciative Inquiry, 6 Thinking Hats, and Open Space. Very soon, Mike started to get positive feedback from clients which, resulting in a much busier diary.

The lesson: Outcomes over tools

The lesson here is clear: clients who are looking for help from a facilitator, come in all shapes and sizes, with a myriad of potential outcomes. To ensure that facilitators are able to build a good reputation - and a full diary - it’s important to listen to the client’s situation and their desired outcomes before thinking of what tool or method you will use. Then find the right tool to get the job done.

So next time your client begins to share their thoughts, avoid that little voice in your head saying ‘I know what tool I will use here’ - there will plenty of time for that afterwards. Once you have clarity on the desired outcomes, then think of your approach – remembering not to go straight to your default or favourite tool.

You will be remembered by the client because of the results you get, NOT the tool you have used.

Some useful questions

Useful questions to ask to understand the client’s outcomes: 

  • Who is the primary client?
  • What are the objectives (outcomes and products) of the facilitation?
  • If you had a magic wand, what would you wish for at the end of the group’s time together?
  • Where, when, and for how long will the group meet?
  • What are the roles of the facilitator, leader, and team members?
  • How will we (the facilitator and client) work together in the session itself?
  • How will the group assess its performance?
  • When (if) this group works together, what patterns tend to emerge?

Questions to ask yourself: 

  • What are your favourite tools?
  • Are you overusing them?
  • What other approaches could you use?

If you are a part of a learning community or IAF Chapter, why not ask what others use in different settings?

Which would you rather be referred to, ‘the Lego guy’, the ‘ToPS specialist’, the ‘simulation expert’, or, the facilitator that really made a dramatic impact? I know which one is likely to build your reputation and therefore your facilitation business.


Trevor is Vice Chair of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) and has been facilitating in organisations for over 25 years. During that time, he and his wife Malin Moren have built a successful team of 20 facilitators in Sweden working globally with international clients such as Spotify, AstraZeneca, Volvo and many more.