Five workshop roles and their five responsibilities

When you put strong personalities from competing business silos into a room early in the morning with old pastries and burnt coffee, it can get rough wrestling egos, soothing fears, and then? You still have to facilitate the conversation and collaboration that you need.

 Five workshop roles

In a successful workshop, attendees fall into one of five roles:

  1. Facilitator

  2. Co-facilitator

  3. Collector

  4. Participant

  5. Listener

Each role plays an important part in making the workshop successful, and each role has specific responsibilities.

1. Facilitator

The facilitator frames the conversation, guides activities, follows rabbit holes, and brings everyone back on track. The Facilitator owns the clock and runs the workshop. The facilitator is a full-time job. Other than the collector, the facilitator is the only other role your workshop must fill.

2. Co-facilitator

If the facilitator is like the figurehead who can't leave the front of the room, the co-facilitator is the special forces that can go anywhere and do anything. Need more stickies? Does a group need help? The co-facilitator keeps the machine running.

3. Collector

The Collector's only job is to document workshop outputs. Like the Facilitator, collecting is a full-time job. This means that for any workshop, you will need at least two people: one to facilitate and a second to collect.

4. Participant

Participants are almost always limited to people outside your specific project team, stakeholders from other groups, and clients. Participants ask questions, answer questions, and participate in activities.

5. Listener

Listeners are everyone else. Usually listeners come from the broader project team. Listeners are not facilitators, collectors, or participants. The listeners job is to be quiet and listen. Although all workshop participants are expected to ask and answer questions, listeners are encouraged to hold back and only interject when necessary.

Each role has its own set of do's and don'ts that help make workshops run well. Before we look at each role in depth, let's do a quick run down on specific responsibilities.

Five Responsibilities

To achieve the good, collaborative environments that workshops provide, each role must play their part. There are five responsibilities each role can be accountable for (table 1).

  1. Own the clock

  2. Manage participants

  3. Collect findings

  4. Ask questions

  5. Answer questions

Table 1: Workshop responsibilities for each role
FacilitatorCo-facilitatorCollectorParticipantListener
Owns the clock Yes
Manages participants Yes Yes
Collects findings Yes Yes Yes
Asks questions Yes Yes Yes
Answers questions Yes Yes Yes

1. Own the clock

The facilitator is responsible for making sure all necessary activities and discussions are completed within the time allotted for the workshop. Facilitators own the clock.

Good workshops include participants from different backgrounds and organizational silos with a stake in the project and who can make decisions. You invite these senior people to step away from their jobs or several days and work wth you. Time is a premium and cannot be wasted.

This means that facilitators start on time, end on time, extend time for activities that need more time, and cut discussions short when they stop generating valuable insights. 

2. Manage participants

Only the facilitator owns the clock. However, both the facilitator and co-facilitator manage participants. As the facilitator controls the clock to start and stop activities, both facilitator and co-facilitator must help groups stay on task, help participants who are floundering, and minimize side conversations. 

In order to own the clock, your must be able to manage each attendees participation.  

3. Collect findings

Every workshop needs someone to collect the information that participants generate. In a good workshop, participants collaborate to generate concrete outcomes. Interface workshops end with wireframe sketches. User workshops end with ad hoc personas.

You'll waste your time in the workshop if outcomes aren't collected. And outcomes need to be collected, so they can be shared and analyzed after the workshop. 

4. Ask questions

Workshops, like conversations, require participants contribute to each discussion. Facilitators and co-facilitators will lead and spark conversations with specific questions. Good workshops require other participants also ask questions as well. 

5. Answer questions

Just as facilitators and participants propel conversation forward with questions, everyone must also contribute answers and responses. Good collaboration requires everyone is included and that everyone respond to each other and contribute to the conversation. 

 

the five roles in depth

If you've never been in a workshop, it can be hard to understand what you actually do if you're in a given role. How do you meet your specific responsibilities. Let's walk through what each of the five roles do.

 

Facilitator

The facilitator frames the conversation, guides activities, follows rabbit holes, and brings everyone back on track. The Facilitator owns the clock and runs the workshop.

Do

  • Introduce each workshop module

  • Frame discussion

  • Ask follow-up questions

  • Demonstrate activities

  • Move discussions to "parking lot"

  • Close discussions

  • Generate participation

  • Manage participation

Don't

  • Collect workshop outputs

  • Participate

Because owning the clock and managing participation take all of your time, you cannot both facilitate a workshop and collect findings. You will always need to designate a second person to collect findings.

If you do not designate a separate collector, you will manage the workshop and discussions poorly, or you will collect findings poorly. Either way, you waste valuable workshop time.

Facilitators can shift from workshop to workshop and activity to activity. Where I work, our workshops will cover a range of user experience, strategy, and technical topics. As the workshop changes from a UX activity to a strategy activity, it's natural for the facilitator to change. What the facilitator does remains the same, but a different person now fills that role.

Changing facilitators can also give you a much-needed break. Managing a room full of competing egos requires a lot of energy and focus. To keep yourself energized and focused, plan to have someone else facilitate an activity every so often.

 

Co-facilitator

If the facilitator is like the figurehead who can't leave the front of the room, the co-facilitator is the special forces that can go anywhere and do anything. Need more stickies? Does a group need help? The co-facilitator keeps the machine running.

Do

  • Ask follow-up questions

  • Assist participants with activities

  • Generate participation

Don't

  • Collect workshop outputs

  • Participate

  • Demonstrate activities

You might think of a co-facilitator as like a teacher's aide. The teacher is at the front of the room. The teacher's aide provides assistance to the teacher and help people in the room who miss an instruction or need help with an activity.

Where every workshop requires a facilitator and collector, a workshop needs co-facilitators when the number of attendees grows too large for one facilitator to manage on their own.

When you do have co-facilitators, it's important that they never lead facilitation of the overall workshop on their own. They should only support the facilitator. The facilitator is only a figurehead, but they're authority to own the clock and manage participation requires that they are ever the only facilitator.

 

Collector

The Collector's only job is to document workshop outputs. That's it.

Every workshop requires someone fill the role of facilitator and someone else fill the role of collector. Each of these roles are full-time jobs. One person cannot do both, no matter how small or easy the workshop seems to be.

The collector is not a notetaker. Instead, the collector captures workshop outputs using the same worksheets and canvases the facilitator uses to guide activities.

Do

  • Collect workshop outputs

Don't

  • Introduce workshop modules

  • Frame and manage discussions

  • Ask follow-up questions

  • Demonstrate activities

  • Generate and manage participation

  • Participate

Traditional note taking captures each speakers comments and questions as conversation progresses. In my experience, the collector is unable to both take notes as well as capture output. However, focusing on workshop outputs makes notes irrelevant.

Workshop outputs represent the group's decisions. Collecting the output from each activity records how the group made the decision. The workshop experience brings a shared vision to each of the participants. Explicit notes about the conversation are less useful in these contexts.

If you must have a note taker, it won't distract from the workshop. However, the collector cannot both collect and take notes, so someone else will have to take notes.

 

Participants

Participants are almost always everyone in the workshop who is not a facilitator or collector. Participants are the stars of the workshop. They have all the answers, all the insights, all the right questions. The workshop exists to help participants generate specific, concrete outcomes.

In the workshop, participants ask questions, answer questions, and participate in activities.

Do

  • Ask questions

  • Answer questions

  • Participate in activities

Don't

  • Frame and manage discussions

  • Generate and manage participation

  • Collect outputs

 

Listeners

A listener is a special role that not does not appear in every workshop. Listeners are not facilitators, collectors, or participants. The listener's job is to be quiet and listen. Although all workshop participants are expected to ask and answer questions, listeners are encouraged to hold back and only interject when necessary.

Do

  • Listen

  • Answer questions directed toward you

  • Take notes (but they will not be included in the workshop outputs)

Don't

  • Frame and manage discussion

  • Ask follow-up questions

  • Generate or manage participation

  • Collect workshop outputs

  • Participate

Usually listeners come from the broader project team, and they attend the workshop because everyone on the project team should attend the workshop. They're there to hear what participants are saying. 

Listeners often have a set of specialized skills and will answer specific questions related to those skills. For example, in my workshops, a technical architect usually attends who can answer specific questions about a solution's technical capabilities. For example, if during an interface workshop, a participant asked, "can we even do that?", the technical architect can chime in with a yes or no.

If you plan to have additional team members facilitate specific activities, then they will act as listeners until its their turn to facilitate. And while you take a breather and relax, you will be a listener until it's your turn to facilitate again. 

How many people do you need?

At a minimum, any workshop needs two people: one to act as a facilitator and another to act as a collector. Obviously, one facilitator can't manage a room of 30 participants. So, when do you need to add additional co-facilitators?

As a general rule of thumb, you want to have one facilitator or co-facilitator for every 5-6 participants. 

When you facilitate workshops with large groups of people it's common to break people into groups. Groups make large groups of participants more manageable. You will usually break participants into a handful of groups with 3-5 participants in each group. 

A single facilitator can manage two groups on their own. For every group after that, a co-facilitator needs to help out.

Table 2 shows the number of facilitators, co-facilitators, and collectors needed for different numbers of workshop participants.

Table 2: Facilitators needed by number of workshop participants
Number of Participants Facilitators Co-facilitators Collectors Total Team
Up to 10 1 1 Same person as the co-facilitator 2
11-17 1 1 1 3
18-23 1 2 1 4
24+ 1 3 1 5

Workshop roles ensure successful collaboration

In the heat of a workshop, the facilitator has to manage participation, own the clock, and drive to the workshop outcomes. There isn't any time to think about how to handle running out of sticky notes or taking pictures of whiteboards.

Just as workshop planning lays the foundation for successful collaboration, assigning clear roles and responsibilities among your team members provides a people foundation. Clear roles and responsibilities lets you work together as a team to ensure great collaboration with your workshop participants.