Responding to changing situations and needs with ToP Consensus Workshop – #FacWeek -5

This is the first of a series of six weekly posts to mark International Facilitation Week 2017, starting just 5 weeks from today. Drafted as I enjoyed a welcome opportunity to pause and reflect this summer, the posts share a series of examples of how I have applied, customised and adapted the ToP Consensus Workshop method in my practice over the past year. 

How will you celebrate and promote the power of facilitation this year? Please share online with the #FacWeek hashtag, or in a comment below…


So you have a great facilitation tool or method, and you’re keen to apply it. But what if your group is too large or too small, or you have too little time or nowhere to put a sticky wall, or you’re just not sure that it is going to be what your group needs?

Tried and tested “off-the-shelf” facilitation methods can be enormously powerful, and there is no point in reinventing the wheel if you have one that will serve the purpose. There are hundreds of tools and methods available in the IAF Methods Database and in online resource libraries such as Participatory Methods and Participation Compass, and in popular books such as Liberating Structures and the Handbook of Large Group Methods.

However, if the only tool you have is a hammer then there is a risk that every situation you approach will look like a nail – or at least that you’ll be spending more time and energy searching for problems in need of your solution than in crafting creative responses to real groups and their real and changing situations and needs.

The IAF Core Facilitator Competencies framework makes clear that good facilitation requires more than just using a great tool or method and using it well. To be successful facilitating in a wide variety of environments, facilitators must be able to “select clear methods and processes that… meet the client needs” (competency B2) but also, among other things, be able to “design and customize applications” (A2) and “adapt processes to changing situations and needs of the group” (D3).

So what of ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP) facilitation methods, my own speciality as a facilitator? Developed and refined over 50 years, by countless practitioners working with communities and organisations worldwide, ToP methods can appear at first to be somewhat rigid and inflexible because of the great detail and rigour in which they are demonstrated in training and described in writing. As a ToP trainer myself I advise less experienced facilitators to find appropriate opportunities to practice the methods first as they are detailed in the course workbook, before adapting or customising them, in order first to best understand the underlying principles that are key to successful adaptation. For skilled and experienced facilitators, however, the greatest potential of ToP and other facilitation methods is in their creative application in service of a particular group and its particular needs and context.

For an overview of the ToP Consensus Workshop method and its key elements, click on the image for an excerpt from the ICA:UK Group Facilitation Methods course workbook. See also Brian Stanfield’s ‘The Workshop Book and my own earlier and more in-depth case studies of applying the method – with Manchester Primary Care Trust, Connect In The NorthWigan Borough Council and, more recently in the context of strategic planning, with Oxfam Lebanon.


Example 1 – Initiatives of Change, Caux

A good example an application involving minimal adaptation was the annual meeting of the Caux Reference Group that I facilitated in Switzerland in June of last year. The group of about 35 included key staff and Board members of the CAUX-Initiatives of Change (IofC) Foundation plus diverse representatives of Initiatives of Change International, the global movement ‘working to inspire, equip and connect people to address world needs, starting with themselves‘.

The ‘rational aim’ for the afternoon session was to ‘share ideas and develop practical approaches for what it might mean for the Foundation and IofC internationally to address the root causes of violent extremism, at Caux‘.  The ‘experiential aim’ for the day as a whole was ‘to build shared trust, agreement and ownership, and gain inspiration, support and feedback from [our] diverse perspectives‘. Two and a half hours with a break allowed ample time for a Consensus Workshop with the Focus Question ‘What can we do to address the root causes of extremism of all kinds, and what role can Caux play?

In a minor departure from the textbook approach, the workshop was preceded by a short presentation from IofC International leaders on prior work and conversations that had led to this particular topic for this particular meeting. The opening Focused Conversation in the Context stage was used to reflect on that in relation to participants’ own contexts and experience, and implications for the group and the workshop. Participants then brainstormed individually at first, then shared their ideas at seven cabaret-style tables of 5 and and wrote some of their best together on half-sheets of A4 paper. In plenary I posted their half-sheets a few at a time on the sticky wall, and invited clarifications before taking suggestions to cluster similar ideas.

Nine clusters finally emerged, and were named by the group to represent their best collective wisdom in response to the Focus Question. The clusters were titled: Campaign for change; Offer/ become a space to explore root causes; Review & influence policy; Education & training; Engage ‘the other’; Faith in action; ‘Start with me’ – IofC approach; Create resources; Promote economic justice.

Barbara Hintermann, Secretary General at CAUX-Initiatives of Change Foundation, wrote this September:

“Martin facilitated our Caux Reference Group meeting in June 2016 held in Caux/Switzerland. The Caux Reference Group is an international advisory group to the CAUX-Initiatives of Change (IofC) Foundation, composed of about 50 persons from the International IofC network. Martin facilitated the meeting with the necessary calm and used various facilitation tools to engage the group actively. While there were some rather emotional moments, Martin managed that the participants delivered the key elements for a variety of changes that needed to be reviewed by the foundation. Martin was appreciated by the audience but also by the Foundation management.”


For more on my work, and what others have to say about it, please see how I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies – or view my profile and connect with me on LinkedIn.

You can connect with me also by joining my free facilitation webinars online, and IAF England & Wales’ free facilitation meetups in London and elsewhere.

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