Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Some of the best facilitators are NOT Subject Matter Experts within the topic and scope of the discussion; however, NOR can they afford to be subject matter ignorant. They need to be subject matter conversant and understand the terms being used and the relationship of those terms to the deliverable, but they do NOT have to have an ‘answer.’

Subject Matter Experts

Subject Matter Experts

For example, this author facilitated sessions in North America, Europe, and Asia with radiologists and directors of radiology for a manufacture to help them design their next generation of CT (Computerized Tomography) scanners. While NOT a physicist or radiologist, with strong preparation to understand the basic and essential principles of operation, we were highly effective at facilitating discussions around pain points and possible solutions.

Neutrality, curiosity, and willingness to challenge assumptions are far more important facilitator skills than being expert on the topic. Without the humility that encourages one to ‘seek to understand rather than being understood’, participants will drop out, go quiet, and disengage because they are thinking: “If this person (the leader or facilitator) already has the answer, then why are they seeking out my opinion?”

The better challenge or question may be, “What is the unit of measurement for distinguishing between ‘subject matter expertise’ and ‘subject matter conversant’?” For us, the answer is simple.

Context Preparation

Before the session begins, the facilitator and participants ought have properly prepared. Optimal preparation includes writing down the meeting purpose, scope, deliverables, and simple agenda before the meeting begins. Make sense? Hopefully you understand that the facilitator, at minimum, better know the reason of the meeting, WHY it is important (ie, purpose), WHAT will be covered and NOT covered during the meeting (ie, scope—that is necessary to prevent meeting scope creep, the number one killer of meetings), WHERE the group is headed (ie, the deliverable or what DONE looks like), and HOW they are going to get there (ie, the agenda or prepared structure).

Therefore the unit of measurement becomes the glossary or lexicon. How much does the facilitator understand the terms being used in the prepared meeting purpose, scope, deliverables, and simple agenda? To what extent does the facilitator’s understanding of those terms harmonize with the understanding of the participants, their culture, and the project team or work that must occur after the meeting concludes? To what extent do the participants share the same or identical meaning of the terms used?

We illustrate this importance by challenging you to explain the difference between a ‘goal’ and an ‘objective’. To us, they are NOT the same thing. We prefer an operational definition suggesting that ‘goals’ are directional and somewhat fuzzy. For example, a mountain climber may have a ‘goal’ of getting some good photographs when they reach the summit. An ‘objective’ however is truly SMART—ie, Specific, Measurable, Adjustable (our preferred deviation from Deming’s original definition of Achievable), Realistic, and Time-based. For example, a mountain climber may need to be sheltered in a tent and sleeping bag at 3,000 meters by 17:00 before a storm blows in or they risk freezing to death.

Cultural Considerations

Some cultures define ‘goals’ and ‘objectives’ the opposite of our preference, defining ‘objectives’ as fuzzy and goals as SMART. A good facilitator is agnostic and can use either set of definitions. They also know the importance of determining the optimal definitions BEFORE the meeting begins. They are responsible for controlling the context (ie, contextual expertise) and not the content (ie, subject matter expertise).


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.)

Want a free 10-minute break timer? Signup for our once-monthly newsletter HERE and receive a timer along with four other of our favorite facilitation tools, free.


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.

Visit Our Website


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.