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One of the worst questions a facilitator could ask is “How would you like to categorize these?” That’s why they 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 underscoring method 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.  Verbs typically precede the object in a sentence as in “pay bills”. Use a different color marker for each group of nouns. By pointing to the underscored terms, ask the team to offer up a term or label that captures the meaning of each cluster.


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 MG RUSH 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


Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH  professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.

Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, as well as 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.)

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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 Facilitation Best Practices 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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