What is The Role Of The Facilitator In A Strategic Planning Workshop?

Good strategic plans and strong organizational commitment arise from strategy workshops that allow open, candid, and inclusive discussions. An expert facilitator can help you achieve that.

The role of the facilitator in a strategy workshop is four-fold: 

  • manage the agenda and ensure meeting objectives are met
  • lead through the strategy process and help formulate a clear strategic direction
  • ask open-ended questions and get everyone involved 
  • create an action plan and gain commitment for execution

For years I have both facilitated strategic planning workshops and have been responsible for their outcome as business leader. In the following I’d like to share with you the great value a facilitator can add and some tips & tricks I have picked up along the way.

Role of the facilitator: stimulate a better discussion

The role of the facilitator in a strategic planning workshop is no other than to stimulate a better discussion that leads to better results than the group could have achieved without the facilitator. Sounds simple but in order to achieve that, the work of the facilitator already begins long before the actual workshop. 

If you have been asked to facilitate a strategy workshop, clarify with the business leader up front the objectives for the workshop and the situation of the business. Understand the business’ strategic direction and what its major challenges are. Ask who should be involved and what team dynamics to be aware of.

 Tip: clarify the business leader’s expectations towards a facilitator. What is the facilitator exactly expected to do and to accomplish? What role would the business leader like to take during the session? This will avoid any misunderstandings during the workshop.

Bonus Tip: If possible, try to meet with workshop participants up front as well to build rapport and receive their input and expectations. This will make it easier to build trust during the workshop. 

Based on the input, the facilitator develops the meeting agenda, selects the strategic framework, plans facilitation tools and techniques, and aligns once more with the business leader.

Finally the workshop is here. In the meeting, the facilitator is responsible for a smooth workshop experience  and achieving all meeting objectives – on time. This includes taking charge of the agenda and time management. And depending on the length of the workshop and the scheduled sessions, this also includes sensing when the group needs a break. Fresh and focused participants are much more productive than distracted or tired participants. 

Bonus Tip: Know the ins-and-outs of the venue: where the restrooms are, the escape route in case of emergency, where to go for a smoke. You want to be as helpful as you can be. 

As the facilitator, your role is to create an open, trusting environment in which participants feel encouraged and safe to speak up, provide their input, and share their thoughts. Ice breakers are great tools to loosen the atmosphere and build rapport with participants. 

Throughout the workshop, be a good listener, capture input on flipcharts and paraphrase to ensure understanding.

As the purpose of the workshop is strategic planning, the facilitator leads through the strategy process. Where necessary, the facilitator introduces the strategy tools which may not be familiar to all participants and explains why they are used. The tools aim to provide a framework to think about various aspects of the business and to open up strategic choices. 

Want to learn more about the strategy process?

Click here to learn more about how to develop effective strategies that delivers results in 6 simple steps

During this process, the facilitator asks open-ended questions that encourage big thinking

Here it is important to get everyone involved and receive a diversity of views. The facilitator uses facilitation tools and techniques to encourage everyone to speak openly and share thoughts, questions and concerns. Everyone needs to feel involved because involvement creates commitment and commitment leads to results. Remember, the aim here is to stimulate a better discussion. 

During every part of the workshop, the facilitator gauges progress against the workshop objectives, summarizes inputs and accomplishments, and provides an outlook on what still needs to be achieved. This gives orientation to participants and keeps them engaged. 

At the end of each session the facilitator summarizes key take-aways to build up the strategic plan for the business. 

After completing the strategic process, the facilitator goes through the strategic plan which has been created during the discussions. The purpose is to check for understanding, clarity, and sufficiency. The facilitator helps the business leader gain buy-in and commitment for the strategic plan from all participants at this time. 

Afterwards, an implementation plan is discussed and the facilitator captures all actions and clarifies caretakers and timelines including key milestones and due dates. 

At the end of the workshop, the facilitator confirms that all meeting objectives have been met. It is good practice to conduct a feedback round at this time to check whether the expectations of all participants have been met, whether there are any open questions and to receive feedback regarding the quality of the meeting and the facilitation.

One more thought: I have always found it important to emphasize that a facilitator should be an impartial participant in the workshop. As the name suggests, the facilitator “facilitates” the discussions and seeks to influence and stimulate the participants to achieve better workshop results. Remaining neutral however, the facilitator does not “own” the results. Content ownership remains with the business leader and the workshop participants

What facilitation tools to use for strategic planning? 

While there are many creative facilitation tools out there, it has served me well to create a short-list of go-to tools that I have become very familiar with and deploy over and over again. 

ToolDescriptionWhen to use
BrainstormingGroup discussion technique to create as many ideas as possible in a short period of time. Participants shout out their ideas which the facilitator captures. Important: no judging, no debating, just ideas. All you need is post-its and a marker.When many ideas are needed and quantity is more important than qualityIdeas can subsequently be sorted, grouped, consolidated.
BrainwritingVariation of brainstorming. Instead of people shouting out their ideas, everyone writes their ideas on post-its in silence and puts them on the wall. All you need is post-its and markers for everyone.When many ideas are needed, quantity is more important than quality, and individual group members may overpower others 
Break-outsSmall group work or small group discussions. Break large workshop group into smaller groups of 2-3 persons to explore different topics in more depth. Small group may report out its findings to bigger group at the end.When diving deeper into a topic, when parallel-work helps to save time, or when intimacy in a smaller group can help bring out better discussion results.
Flip chartsLarge poster-like papers to write on during workshops for everyone to see. It’s useful to have multiple flip chart stands (2-3) for a strategic planning workshopAll the time! Write down everything important and hang on walls for everyone to see
Parking LotCollect and “park” open questions or issues on a flip chart and come back to them at another time of the workshop or during the follow upWhen an issue or question pops up which needs to be addressed but blocks progress at this time.
Pro/ConA simple table comparing
advantages vs. disadvantages,
benefits vs. costs,
pro vs. con
When comparing options or choosing a course of action

In addition, the facilitator obviously needs to be familiar with the strategy process and the chosen strategy framework that will be applied. 

This includes being familiar with the most commonly used strategy tools such as SWOT, Porter’s Five Forces, and Porter’s Generic Strategy Framework. You can read more about these strategic tools here.

What are important skills for a facilitator?

Being a good facilitator is a matter of practice and experience and being able to call on the following set of skills. 

  • Strong communication: facilitators tend to be good verbal and non-verbal communicators who are strong at building rapport and lead discussions
  • Active listening: facilitators need good listening skills and need to be fully present and attentive at all times. Summarizing, paraphrasing and “reframing” are good ways to actively listen to participants and ensure that all contributions are included.
  • Resourcefulness: facilitators are good at “thinking on their feet” and finding clever ways to resolve problems and overcome difficulties, e.g. moving a discussion along that has become stuck. A bag of facilitation tools & techniques is helpful here.  
  • Consensus-building: facilitators need to identify synergies, create teamwork and bring participants to making effective decisions during the workshop
  • Time-management: facilitators always need to keep an eye on the time and operate well under pressure to make sure that workshop results can be met. 
  • Questioning: facilitators are comfortable asking big, open questions and allow the answers to lead them into the discussion. Good follow up questions are important. 
  • Humor: good facilitators operate well under pressure but never lose their cool and their sense of humor. Even if something unforeseen happens, they can laugh at the mishap and move on. Keeping a positive outlook and staying relaxed and composed keeps participants engaged and leads to best results. 

In my experience, these skills can be learned and are not specific to facilitators only. Good leaders display these qualities as well. 

So if you are looking to hire an external facilitator or considering to pick someone from your team, look out for these qualities and skills. 

Should I hire a facilitator to lead my workshop or can I do it myself?

Facilitating and leading at the same time is possible, however, mixes two distinct roles. 

The leader is ultimately accountable for the strategy of the business, has a vested interest in the workshop result and most likely a history or bias regarding his or her leadership of the business and the workshop participants. 

The facilitator should optimally be a third-party without a stake in the business, who can bring in an outside perspective, can ask the tough questions and may not need to worry about long-term relationships with the participants. 

So when thinking about whether to hire an outside facilitator or to conduct the session yourself, consider the following aspects: 

Decision CriteriaBusiness LeaderFacilitator
ContentSubject-matter expertPotentially unfamiliar but bringing an outside perspective
SkillAccustomed to leading meetings and taking ownership but not a neutral partyTrained facilitator with expert facilitation skills
Nature of strategic challengeMay have vested interest in current situation Can ask the tough questions and encourage “outside the box thinking” for large change
CostNo additional costHiring a professional facilitator will incur costs. Costs will vary greatly with experience of facilitator and duration of meeting

In principle, I have found it quite useful to ask another person to facilitate my strategy workshops. This has allowed me to observe the discussions, participate when I need to and make decisions when I have to. 

The benefits of having an outside facilitator have in my experience greatly outweighed the costs. The facilitator’s ability to lift the discussion to another level and ensure that the right strategic questions are asked has made it well worth the investment. 

Having said that, a strong, experienced facilitator will not be cheap so make sure you consider that in your budget. Ask around for references, seek quotations, and meet with the facilitator before you decide which way to go. That’s perfectly ok. As the business leader, you have to feel comfortable with your choice. After all, it’s about the future of your business. 

Practical tips for facilitators

I promised practical tips and tricks and here are a few more tips for facilitators from my experience. 

  • Take flash breaks when you feel the energy in the room sinking. A quick “bio-break” (i.e. washroom break) or a “seventh inning stretch” can go a long way to get the energy back up. Acknowledge that you feel that the energy is low and ask whether others feel the same. Consider a brief exercise as an energy booster or encourage participants to go for a short walk. Allowing the brain to switch off and to recharge on oxygen is important
  • Be clear about workshop rules. Different people feel differently about establishing formal rules up front. In my experience it has usually helped to allow the participants to define their own workshop rules and to capture them on a flip chart. Display them prominently in the room as a reminder and get everyone’s commitment to abide by their rules. 
  • Stay strict with starting and closing times but remain flexible with the running agenda. Strategy workshop discussions are in my experience very fluid and durations of individual sessions hard to predict. When the team is in a “flow”, don’t interrupt the discussion because the agenda says it’s time for a break. Keep an eye on the time and communicate openly with the team about timing and logical breaks. Inquire about participants’ availability and be respectful of participants’ prior commitments during scheduled breaks.
  • Demand participation and engagement. This one might be a bit controversial. As the facilitator your role is to stimulate the discussion to help the participants achieve their desired results. You are not there for your own sake but for the participants’ sake. In my view, it’s perfectly okay to remind the participants that it’s their workshop and their results if you feel they are disengaged and not present. Be polite about it, but I think it’s ok to be firm. 

These are a few tips to get you started, however, I will continue to add to these in the future. If you have any practical tips, you’d like to add, please leave me a comment below! 

How to prepare for facilitating a strategy workshop

I have developed a thorough 14-point checklist to help you prepare for a strategy workshop step-by-step. You can find this checklist here.

Read more about how to prepare for facilitating a strategy workshop in this article.

If you are wondering what materials and equipment to prepare for your strategy workshop, you can find my material list here.


The role of the facilitator in a strategic planning workshop is to stimulate a better discussion that leads to better results than the group could have achieved by themselves.

This includes: 

  • manage the agenda and ensure meeting objectives are met
  • lead through the strategy process and help formulate a clear strategic direction
  • ask open-ended questions and get everyone involved 
  • create an action plan and gain commitment for execution

Effective facilitators display 7 qualities: strong communication, active listening, resourcefulness, consensus-building, time-management, questioning, and a good sense of humor.

I hope you have found this article useful. If you have any questions or feedback, why not leave us a comment below? Would love to hear from you! 

Read more about my thoughts on strategy and how to use the OGSM methodology to simplify strategies that deliver results.

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