The State of the Facilitation Profession PDF Print E-mail

April 2007 - The FoCuSeD™ Facilitator eNewsletter

gary rush facilitation

The State of the Facilitation Profession | Gary Rush Facilitation

Artists study art history to know where their craft came from. Musicians study music history to know the evolution of music. To study the history of your profession is important. At the March IAF conference, I attended a number of excellent sessions. Two of the sessions asked the participants about the history of facilitation. To my surprise, most of the participants had little knowledge about the pioneers who were in the room or the pioneers who had gone before them and paved the way. This is my effort at sharing what I know about our facilitation profession, how I’ve seen it change over the past 24 years that I’ve been facilitating and training, and where I’d like to see it go tomorrow. Please feel free to contact me with new information or regarding inaccuracies – I’ll incorporate it into the history and share it later. Together we can reconstruct and understand the past and build the future.


facilitation history

Below is a chart of the Events that shaped the Facilitation Profession along a timeline that also shows the relative growth of facilitation based on use and number of facilitators in the world.


A Brief History 1800 to 1980 – The Infancy of Facilitation


Facilitation actually began in 19th century France. An event called a charrette was introduced as essentially intensive work-groups around design – interior design, landscape design, etc. Design teams would cram in the final work during the days preceding a design deadline. Charettes are still in use today. They are a precursor to the consensus-based workshop, as we know it.


  • In 1939, Alex Osborn coined the term brainstorming and defined one of the most used tools in facilitation. His books beginning in 1950 spread the use of brainstorming.
  • In the 1940’s Kurt Lewin developed sensitivity training and wrote papers on the “Frontiers in Group Dynamics”. This influenced Carl Rogers who developed Rogerian Theory around client centered clinical psychology.
  • Work by Rogers influenced people like Dr. Walter Leibricht, who was the first director of The Ecumenical Institute in Chicago – the organization that founded the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA). The ICA was organized in 1954 and spun off as a separate entity in 1973 when the ToP™ method was developed. The ICA did most of its early work with churches, community groups, and volunteer groups. The ICA and its affiliates have trained many facilitators worldwide since 1962.
  • Work by Rogers and Osborn also influenced George Prince as he investigated and developed tools for creativity when founding Synectics in 1960.
  • Juran, Crosby, and Ishikawa developed Total Quality Management (TQM) in 1961.
  • Interaction Associates formed in 1969 in San Francisco, including Michael Doyle and David Strauss who wrote, “How to Make Meetings Work” in 1976. This book led Chuck Morris of IBM to develop JAD (Joint Application Design) in 1977, which Tony Crawford of IBM Canada refined in 1980.
  • David Sibbett developed graphic facilitation in 1978 founding what has become Grove Consultants in San Francisco.


history of facilitation


During this time, facilitators generally worked part time with other “real jobs” to pay the bills. Most people had a difficult time understanding what facilitators actually did. Chuck Morris even went so far as to rename them as Session Leaders to make it clearer.


The 1980’s – Facilitation as a Young Child


In the 80’s a lot began to change. Prior to 1980, reaching consensus in government or private corporations was unnecessary. Consensus meant that you did what the boss said or you looked for a new job. In the 80’s, corporations and agencies began to flatten out – fewer layers of management and a greater need to push decision-making to people. That required involvement of more people, communication, and consensus building. Facilitators now became added value. Some corporations began to use JAD from IBM.


  • In 1983, I was taught JAD by Chuck Morris to help improve systems development and in 1985, I developed FAST to expand structured facilitation to cover a broader spectrum of workshops. Between JAD and FAST, we trained the majority of structured facilitators through the 1990’s.
  • In 1986, Sam Kaner started Community at Work in San Francisco to bring facilitation to communities and to codify how to facilitate.
  • In addition, technology began to keep up with the needs of the industry and electronic support systems began to arrive on the scene.


Facilitation was still new. It was still a difficult sell to get organizations to understand the value of facilitation and even what a facilitator did. We often had to resort to saying that we were “like mediators only not used for crisis situations.” Or, we would simply call ourselves Session Leaders.


The 1990’s – The Pre-Teen Years of Facilitation


The 90’s made a major jump in facilitation. Major publishers published the first books with the word facilitator in the title. New techniques arose from those who had learned TQM, Quality Circles, JAD, FAST, and Peter Senge’s Systems Thinking. Electronic tools gave us the ability to document workshops efficiently and some even allowed us to communicate via the new Internet.


The biggest contribution to the growth of facilitation came in 1994 when 75 people formed the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) in Virginia as a nonprofit professional association to support the profession and share ideas. In 1995, the IAF membership blossomed to 300 at their first major North American conference in Denver and they haven’t looked back since. The IAF holds conferences in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australasia. In 1998, the IAF defined a set of competencies and certified the first Certified Professional Facilitator (CPF) in the UK, bringing it to North America in 1999.


Facilitation was becoming accepted. Companies used facilitators for a variety of situations such as strategic planning, problem solving, team building, and systems requirements in IT. Some companies even had a full time staff of facilitators. More people understood what a facilitator did and people were making a living as full time facilitators.


The 2000’s – The Adolescent Years of Facilitation


A lot has changed since the year 2000. The IAF as the official industry association has grown. The number of IAF CPF’s has also grown to over 550 in 35 countries and IAF membership is near 1500. The IAF conferences have grown and matured bringing more effective speakers and trainers.


The world has changed, largely bringing more anxiety and demanding more consensus building, thus more use of facilitators. When I started training facilitators in structured facilitation, there were 5 others in the world teaching structured facilitation. Today, there are 100’s and the market for training has expanded and matured exponentially. Nearly half of the facilitators at the IAF conference in March became facilitators since 2000. Electronic tools such as GroupWare, Team Focus, Net Meeting, WebIQ, and others have enabled facilitators to conduct workshops with participants from all over the globe at the same time via the Internet. Structured facilitation techniques have evolved beyond, “here is the agenda” to understanding the people side as well. Previously “unstructured” facilitation techniques have incorporated agenda structures. Graphic facilitation is now a major field and used by corporations, non-profit groups, and government agencies around the world. Graphics have found their way into the other forms of facilitation as well. Facilitation is maturing.


At the same time, other certification programs have sprung up in North America, Europe, Asia, and South America, but are tied to a commercial concern and follow different standards. Some promote different levels of certification and has caused unnecessary confusion and conflict in the industry because facilitators are uncertain about which certification is an official industry certification.


The Future of Facilitation – A Crossroads


Today, the profession of facilitation is at a crossroads. Like many adolescents, the industry has gone through its rebellion and its inability to make clear decisions. We are struggling to define who we really are and what we really want in life. We talk about being a profession and being professionals. I think that we should be a profession; given the history we have evolving from clinical psychology, sensitivity training, ecumenical work, creativity research, and systems development. The world is in great need of collaboration. Collaboration is key. After listening to the attendees at the IAF conference in March, I thought that I’d give my list of proposals as to where the facilitation profession should be headed.


First, I want to set the stage by defining some terms that will help us – Profession and Professional. I looked them up in Wikipedia and found some interesting definitions.


Profession: an occupation that requires extensive training and the study and mastery of specialized knowledge, and usually has a professional association, ethical code, and process of certification or licensing. A common inquiry used to evaluate if a particular occupation is, in fact, a “profession” is the “advocacy test”. Simply: If an occupation requires that one regularly act as an advocate for another individual, group, or entity who lack the specific knowledge required for such advocacy, then that occupation meets the test and can be deemed a “profession”.


Professional: a worker required to possess a large body of knowledge derived from extensive academic study, with the training almost always formalized. Professions are at least to a degree self-regulating, in that they control the training and evaluation process that admit new persons to the field, and in judging whether the work done by their members is up to standard.


As I read the definition of Profession, facilitation qualifies. The same holds true for Professional. But, as professionals, we need to make sure that we live up to the definitions – that’s why we are at a crossroads. As a colleague told me at the conference, facilitation is sacred – the work of making easier (the definition of “facilitation”) is held as an important concept in Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and others.


So, to move into adulthood and become true professionals, I offer the following proposals to “the facilitation profession” as follows:


iaf comment

  • The IAF as the official industry association must define Facilitator. If this is our profession, we need to have an industry standard definition of what we do and what we are. Many definitions exist. The IAF needs to establish the standard.
  • All facilitators should join the IAF and become a Certified Professional Facilitator (CPF). This is in the best interest of everyone. In other professions, this is virtually required and has improved quality, increased awareness, and helped those in the profession advance their skills.
  • The IAF should look at the model of a successful association such as the Project Management Institute (PMI) or the American Culinary Federation (ACF). For instance: PMI has grown tremendously in the past 10 years and has thousands of Project Management Professionals (PMPs). This has become a defacto requirement in the project management field. This has raised quality of project management and made organizations look at project managers with more respect.
  • The IAF needs to expand the CPF program. This must include the addition of a number of levels up to an advanced or master facilitator certification. This must be a true master certification. A master facilitator must know the history of facilitation from charrettes to today, understand academic concepts behind our profession such as clinical psychology and group dynamics, and be able to demonstrate the ability to facilitate different workshops such as dealing with community crisis, strategic planning, requirements gathering, team-building, and diversity sensitivity using a variety of tools such as conversation modes, agenda structures, group exercises, and graphic facilitation. That would make becoming a Master Facilitator important, honorable, and truly masterful. For instance: In the ACF, becoming a Certified Master Chef requires knowing the history of chefs from Carême and Escoffier to today. They take a 5-day intensive test to demonstrate their abilities to produce not only the classic French sauces and techniques, but also techniques from around the world such as a Mexican Mole, a Thai soup, and Indian curries. In other words, they can’t mail in their resume, a menu, and a video of them cooking – they must demonstrate master quality (one out of three pass the test making becoming a Certified Master Chef a major accomplishment and honor).
  • The IAF also needs to certify trainers and training programs. This requires that the IAF evaluate the programs to ensure that they are in line with the IAF competencies and ethics. This enables new entrants into the profession to seek appropriate training.
  • Facilitation training should be expanded to schools and universities. You don’t have to be out of college before you can learn facilitation skills. This helps meet the requirement for academic study.




If it sounds like this is on the shoulders of the International Association of Facilitators – it is. The IAF is the only international, nonprofit, official industry, professional association we have. It has the only non-commercial certification process. Certification must remain nonprofit, association-based to be effective.


If you look at the time line on the first page of this article, you’ll notice that a major increase in facilitation occurred when the IAF was formed. There is a reason for that. We took the first steps towards becoming a profession. To shape our future effectively, we must work as a profession collaboratively. The International Association of Facilitators is the only vehicle with which to do this. logo