One of the worst questions a facilitator could ask is “How would you like to categorize these?”  That’s why we hired you.  Categorizing and creating  clusters of related items (or processes) makes it easier for a group to stay focused in subsequent discussions.  Learn the secret now when the challenge is how to categorize when facilitating.

Rationale for How to Categorize

The purpose of categorizing is to eliminate redundancies by collapsing related items into clusters or chunks (a scientific term). A label or term that captures the title for each cluster can be more easily re-used in matrices and other visual displays. Categorizing also makes it easier for the team to analyze complex groupings and their impact on each other.

When Facilitating, How to Categorize

When Facilitating, How to Categorize

Method for How to Categorize

Categorizing can take little or much time, depending on how much precision is required, time available, and importance.  The first method shown is quick and effective.  The other methods may also be effective, but probably not as quick.

Underscore Common Nouns

Take the raw input or lists created during the ideation step and underscore the common nouns (typically the object in a sentence that is preceded by a predicate or a verb). Use a different color marker for each group of nouns.  Ask the team to offer up a term or label that captures the meaning of each cluster that is underscored.


For each item, ask “Why _____?”  Items that share a common purpose likely have a common objective and can be grouped together.


Take the new terms or labels that signify a cluster or grouping and move them to a separate list or table.  The terms may be defined and illustrated with the list of items that belongs to each cluster.  Use the FAST Definition tool to build a consensual and robust definition.


Go back to the original list and strike the items that now collapse into the new terms created for each cluster in the Transpose step above.  Allow the group to contrast any remaining items that have not been eliminated and decide if they require unique terms, need further explanation, or can be deleted.

Comparison Review

Before transitioning, review the final list of clusters and confirm that team members understand the terms and that they can support the operational definitions.  Let the team members know that they can add additional terms to the clusters later, but if they are comfortable with them as is, to move on and do something with the list, as it was built for input to a subsequent step or activity.

(In Conclusion, Other Grouping Themes)

Humans visually perceive items not in isolation, but as part of a larger whole. The most frequent cause of categories is common purpose (eg, gardening tools).  However, the principles of perception include other human tendencies such as:

  • Similarity—by their analogous characteristics
  • Proximity—by their physical closeness to each other
  • Continuity—when there is an identifiable pattern
  • Closure—completing or filling-in missing features

Become Part of the SolutionImprove Your Facilitation and Methodology Skills

To help you access our in-house resources, (e.g., annotated agendas and templates used in our FAST Professional Facilitation Training) go to the Facilitation Training Store For a nominal fee, you can now access some our favorite tools, including:

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Purchase the book “Change or Die, a Business Process Improvement Manual” for much of the support you might need to lead more effective groups, teams, and meetings.

Furthermore, the FAST curriculum on Professional Facilitation Skills details the responsibilities and dynamics of an effective facilitator and methodologist. Remember, nobody is smarter than everybody, so consult your FAST Facilitator Reference Manual. Or, attend a FAST professional facilitative leadership-training workshop offered around the world (see MG Rush for a current schedule — an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from Scrum Alliance, PDUs from PMI, CDUs from IIBA, or CEUs).

Finally, do not forget to order Change or Die if you’re working on a business process improvement project. It provides detailed workshop agendas and numerous tools to make your role easier and your team’s performance a lot more effective—daring you to embrace the will, wisdom, and activities that amplify a facilitative leader.

Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Monthly Facilitation blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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