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One of the worst questions a facilitator could ask is “How would you like to categorize these?” They don’t know how. That’s why they hired you.

Categorizing and creating clusters of related items (or processes) makes it easier for a group to focus their subsequent analysis and decisions. Learn the logic behind 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. Frequently we refer to the labels as “triggers” because they rely on a a single term for triggering back to the meaning and definition behind it. For example, “budgeting” refers to the activities and resources required to project, track, and balance accounts. When focused on “budgeting” the group is less likely to focus on the details of “accounts payable” or “accounts receivable” or other discrete clusters. Categorizing also makes it easier for the team to analyze complex relationships and their impact on each other.

When Facilitating, How to Categorize

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 suggested below 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 verb). 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, simple phrase, or label that captures the meaning of each cluster.


For verification or to manage items that are not underscored, ask “Why _____?”  The logic and secret behind categorizing follows.

NOTE: Items that share a common purpose likely have a common objective and can be grouped together. Verify that each item is WHAT they are doing and not HOW it gets done. Ask “WHY do you do this?”. Write the purpose next to the item. Continue with the next pairing—if it has the same purpose, then it will group together. When a number of activities relate—due to common purpose—have the group name the cluster. Put a visual box around the name for the cluster.


Ask for a volunteer to take the underscored items and create a new statement or gerund that combines, integrates, and reflects the sentiment of the commonly underscored items. Write the new statement or gerund expression that signify a grouping and on a new and separate page. The terms may be more fully defined and illustrated with the list of all items that belongs to each cluster. Notice how salt, mustard, chutney may be grouped as “condiments’ because they share a common purpose. Use the MG RUSH Definition tool to build a consensual and robust definition if required.

NOTE: Format clusters as “gerund-like phrases.” That is, a noun followed by a gerund (a verb acting as a noun and usually ending with “ing”, “ment”, “tion”, or “ble” including “able” and “ible”). Examples are “Order Processing” or “Account Management” or “Resource Generation” or “Accounts Payable”.

Avoid vague terms such as “Management Reporting”—that have no specific goal. If the group includes a number of challenging processes, write these as a side list of “concerns” and continue with additional activities. Revisit the problem areas or concerns later, after the group has developed some momentum.

Avoid letting the group simply define their organization. For example, insurance companies have a tendency to define their “processes” as Underwriting, Claim Adjusting, and Operations. What they do from a process perspective (regardless of how they are organized) is: Risk Assessment, Claims Payment, Portfolio Balancing, etc.

Transposing requires artful patience. Remain highly fluid and flexible. Activities may move around and processes may be re-labeled. There is no universally correct answer. Seek the terms that work best for the group that you are serving. And as always, seek to understand rather than being understood.


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.

Here is another example of using activities for creating the processes that support the function of Mountaineering.


Support Activities



Order supplies Perhaps part of the same process as Pack supplies such as Provisioning


Make ascent Supports process called Ascending


Establish camp Supports process called Sheltering


Erect tent Determined to be HOW they support Sheltering because a tent is a concrete term and not an abstract concept


Measure distance Supports process called Navigating


Determine altitude Supports process called Navigating number 5 from above


Predict weather Deemed to best support the Navigating process, rather than a stand-alone activity


Confirm location Supports process called Navigating numbers 5, 6, and 7 from above


Make fire Also determined to be HOW they support Sheltering because a fire is a concrete term and not abstract


Pack supplies Supports process called Provisioning, along with number 1 from above

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.


One clusters or processes have been created, you can then further decompose into the various activities required to support the process. For example, with the process or cluster of “Navigating” we might find the following activities:

Reversing the Categories

(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. #facilitationtraining

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.) #facilitatortraining

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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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