Evidencing facilitation competencies – CPF | Master

This is the essay that I wrote and submitted for my IAF Certified Professional Facilitator | Master (CPF | M) re-certification in December, which has just now been approved.

The requirement of the essay was to “link lessons learned since your last re-certification to the IAF Core Competences, demonstrating changes in your facilitation style / behaviour, and indicating what growth you have experienced as a facilitator during the period since your last certification”.

As in 2008, 2012 and 2016, I use the IAF competencies as a framework by which to reflect on and illustrate some of my professional experience, learning and development – this time in the four years since 2016.


A. Create Collaborative Client Relationships

I have continued to deliver around 20-25 contracts per year for around 15-20 clients, most face-to-face and some virtual or involving some virtual component – see Reflecting on another year of freelance facilitation. In recent years the balance has shifted from around two thirds facilitation and one third facilitation training to about half and half.

I have continued to work with international NGOs, foundations, associations, networks and alliances, and a few others, largely in Europe and the Middle East and particularly in London and Brussels. However, this past year has seen the return of UK local authorities and multi-sector partnerships, after many years working with such clients on behalf of ICA:UK in the 2000s. New fields for me this past year include agile coaching, software development, Results Based Management and remote team working.

After working mostly with other facilitators in my early career, I continue now to work mostly solo. However, I have enjoyed being stretched by new co-facilitation experiences in recent years. These have included working as lead facilitator for one of 6 teams of 3 (lead, co-facilitator & graphic recorder) each with a sub-group of around 35 delegates at a two-day conference of over 200 – with Lorensbergs for the New Shape Forum of the Global Challenges Foundation (featured image, above); and as a remote virtual co-facilitator supporting a few remote participants to an otherwise largely face-to-face meeting – the latter was one of many topics I covered in a recent interview with SessionLab published this month.

Much of my work in recent years has been relatively short-term and small scale, involving a single event of one or a few days or a series of two or more over a few weeks or months. One recent example of a multi-session process was with Oxfam OPTI, involving design and facilitation of a series of consultation & consensus building workshops to engage over 100 staff of 4 Oxfam affiliates based in Jerusalem, Gaza & Ramallah in operationalising a new One Country Strategy and Country Operating Model – see case study.

A longer process and more complex multi-session process was with Eurochild, involving process design and facilitation over 6 months to help to engage around 170 member organisations in developing a new strategic plan, including with around 100 member representatives at a General Assembly meeting and with 20 Board members and Secretariat staff at a 2-day planning retreat in Brussels – see case study & video.

Since 2018 I now offer the ToP Facilitating Client Collaboration course, one of the IAF-endorsed ‘ToP Facilitation Essentials’ series, which covers this competence in some depth.

For many years I have routinely gathered participant and client feedback at the close of each workshop, course or project. In 2017 I reviewed and analyzed such feedback from ToP facilitation courses, taster sessions & webinars over the previous 5 years since I went freelance – 47 training courses, 13 conference & meetup taster sessions and 7 webinars reaching a total of 1,089 participants – and began routinely to invite feedback from training participants and facilitation clients also 3-6 months after each event or project. This has resulted in 71 online survey responses received so far, and a number of client recommendations:

Neil Mehta of Water Wisdom UK wrote in July 2019: “Martin is a highly experienced and professional facilitator whom I’ve worked and collaborated with over several years in two of the charities I have led. Martin has facilitated a number of strategy retreats for our teams. He helped us think through how to successfully design and document a 3-year strategy as a collective resulting also with a clear 12-month KPI to execute for the executive/operational team. A real star.”

B. Plan Appropriate Group Processes

A regional team retreat for an international non-profit, for 60 staff of 5 country offices in Sicily in 2018, was to be held in a venue provided in-kind by a partner organisation in the old city of Syracuse.

Syracuse Institute

It turned out to be a beautiful and inspiring venue, entirely appropriate in terms of the group and the content of their work – but less so in terms of facilitation process. The Institute is housed in a restored 16th century church, a listed building with peeling walls filled with precious art and whose only large plenary room is a lecture theatre with fixed rows of seats facing a raised stage with a giant and immovable oak table in front of a screen.

It was clear that there would not be an option to use any alternative venue, so I began to wonder what sort of process could I use to turn to advantage these features that I might otherwise consider disadvantages for the sort of team-building, learning & planning that was called for.

I had recently been introduced to the Interview Matrix method at the IAF Ottawa conference, so decided to use that for a vision workshop where I would otherwise have used the ToP Consensus Workshop method with a sticky wall. I find that the Interview Matrix is not as powerful for consensus-building, but it was quite adequate for this occasion. It allowed the group to work half the time interviewing each other in changing pairs, in and between their fixed rows of seats, and the other half discerning patterns in the interview data in groups of 10-15 in smaller breakout rooms.

I had also been recently introduced to Mentimeter, at the IABC EMENA Copenhagen conference, so I decided to use that for group introductions and brainstorming in the opening and other plenary sessions. There was no alternative to sitting in rows facing a screen, so the group made use of the screen and their own smart phones, where they were sitting. We kept the plenaries to a minimum, but were able to use them well for whole group reflection & learning in-between smaller break-out sessions in other more conducive rooms.

Gnanam Devadass, Deputy Director, Campaigns, at Amnesty International wrote in December 2017: “Martin supported the design and development and also facilitated Amnesty International’s four-day Global Activism Hackathon, held at the International Secretariat in London in October 2017 and attended by 60 participants and resource people. His participatory approaches, methodologies and tools enabled the fullest participation of multi-lingual delegates from diverse backgrounds from across the globe. His facilitation was excellent and greatly appreciated by the participants. He worked well with the organising team and the steering group. His professional and flexible approach was very impressive and helped to achieve the intended outcomes of the Activism Hackathon.”

C. Create and Sustain a Participatory Environment

Reflecting on another year of freelance facilitation

In 2019 in facilitated a two-day team retreat for the 20 or so staff of an international association. I was referred by a previous client who had recommended me because it was expected to be a difficult meeting and was being approached with trepidation by all concerned. I was advised that were trust issues and difficult relationships within the staff, not least between a new management team that had been recently appointed to replace their predecessors that had left under a cloud, and who were keen to establish their leadership and new ways of working, and long-established staff who felt threatened and insecure and in some cases were suspected to be in ongoing, friendly relations with the ousted leadership.

I agreed to take on the project as a 9-day contract to allow ample time for individual telephone interviews and an online survey in advance, to consult on issues and concerns and to build support for the process and my facilitation. I coached the new Director and management team on their roles in the meeting, and consulted with a number of key stakeholders that would not be present – notably the external consultant whose investigation and report had led to the change of management. The meeting was held in a beautiful countryside retreat centre with good facilities for meeting and for more informal interaction. We used a variety of methods and approaches and we allowed plenty of time for each session and took everything slowly and surely. For the most sensitive and risky session we sat in a circle of chairs and made extensive use of silent individual reflection.

I think everyone found the meeting difficult, and probably the Director and management team most of all, but I think that they all were relieved and pleased that they had been able to talk to each other constructively and begin to address some of their real issues together. I was reassured that a slow and careful, inclusive and collaborative approach seemed to have been enough to enable them to do so.

Barbara Hintermann, Secretary General at CAUX-Initiatives of Change Foundation wrote in September 2017: “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.”

D. Guide Group to Appropriate and Useful Outcomes

The Oxfam & Eurochild case studies referred to above in (A) and the recommendation of the CAUX-Initiatives of Change Foundation were among a series of six examples of how I have applied, customised and adapted the ToP Consensus Workshop method that I shared in a series of weekly posts to mark International Facilitation Week in 2017 – Responding to changing situations and needs with ToP Consensus Workshop.

Another of these examples helps to illustrate how I have managed small and large group processes to draw out data and insight from a group, helped the group synthesise patterns and guided the group to consensus and desired outcomes – this was the 5-day International Council Meeting & Conference of the International Council of Unitarians & Universalists (ICUU) in Mennorode, the Netherlands in 2016.

This was the culmination of a 9-month strategic planning process, involving also a series of online sessions and a ToP Participatory Strategic Planning retreat in Boston in the spring with a focus group of around 25. At the Council Meeting of 140 we used a series of ‘World Café’ style table conversations in changing small groups to discern learnings and implications from the strategy development process, following a few short presentations from those involved and drawing on documentation. In the afternoon we used a ‘super-sized’ Consensus Workshop process to answer the Focus Question ‘“What are key elements of the mission and purpose of ‘ICUU 2.0’, for the next 20 years?”.

At the end of the day volunteers were invited to join a working group to discern and articulate the emerging consensus concisely in a revised mission statement for approval by vote of the formal Council Meeting at the end of the week. The final statement was strengthened further by some minor revisions suggested during the formal Council Meeting. Once approved, the new mission statement was verbally translated as it was read aloud in all of the 25 or so languages spoken by those present, to symbolise global consensus and commitment: “The Mission of the ICUU is to empower existing and emerging member groups to sustain and grow our global faith community”.

Osama Saeed Bhutta, Director of Communications at Amnesty International wrote in February 2018: “I attended a meeting facilitated by Martin and was so impressed that I had him do the same for my directorate’s annual retreat. He has a singular ability to get people talking and dreaming freely, but to then to pull it together for a focused action-oriented conclusion. The meeting he held for us yielded a bonded team and a new comms strategy, a legacy that will live on for a long time to come.”

Jana Hainsworth, Secretary General at Eurochild wrote in September 2017: “Great that we had structure, but also great that we could think on our feet to adjust the planning according to what we were hearing from members. All in all we got a huge amount of raw material for development of the strategic plan. The methodology clearly helped.”

E. Build and Maintain Professional Knowledge

ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP) methodology continues to serve me well as the basis of my practice – I wrote in 2014 that I regard the ORID framework of ToP as something of a universal principle of facilitation. However, I continue to explore and apply other methodologies and approaches as well. In addition to the Interview Matrix and Mentimeter mentioned above in (B), other examples include Liberating Structures and Agile.

I discovered Liberating Structures by buying the book and downloading the app, and explored the toolkit further by hosting demo sessions at IAF England & Wales meetups and by attending the London LS Users Group. I applied and adapted 1-2-4-All structure (with ORID questions) as co-facilitator for one of 4 table groups in a workshop of 60 senior leadership of an international tech company in 2019.

After meeting many agilists through IAF E&W meetups and attending the IAF EME conference on Agile & facilitation in Milan, my interest was piqued further when I facilitated a 2-day team retreat for a partnership of eight agile coaches. Subsequently I took Certified Scrum Master training. While I learned that I have no interest in working as a scrum master, I gained valuable insight into how & where facilitation is so widely used in such approaches; and how the CSM certification process works and how very much it differs from the IAF process.

With ICA Associates Inc of Canada in 2017, I attended and trained as a trainer in each of the new IAF-endorsed ToP Facilitation Essentials courses, Facilitating Client Collaboration and Meetings That Work. Since 2018 I have been offering this series of courses in Europe, including also ToP Group Facilitation Methods – see Join me for ToP facilitation training in London, Brussels & elsewhere in 2020!

I have continued to tweet, blog and host free facilitation webinars, and to host and attend IAF and other meetups and conferences – particularly as chapter lead and now Board Chair of IAF England & Wales. In that capacity I have been excited to support the launch of a new IAF E&W podcast in 2019, Facilitation Stories.

E. Model Positive Professional Attitude

#iafpodcast

For the January 2020 episode of that new IAF E&W podcast I was interviewed on The Importance of Values in Facilitation. Helene Jewell wrote in the show notes:

Martin talks about the importance of values – both personal and IAF values, which talk about the collective wisdom of the group. He says that what you believe has an enormous impact on the group. Martin talks about defining values and how the IAF values resonate with him and his involvement with developing the ICA UK values. Values are what is important to people and what drives them, and are important to be able to define what is meaningful and important to them.

He told us about taking decisions not to do work that conflicted with his values, mostly around contracting with the client.

Martin started working with ICA as a volunteer and his first workshop involved creating a personal timeline as a personal reflection tool. He talked about a book by John and Maureen Jenkins (founder members of IAF) – 9 disciplines of a facilitator – leading groups by transforming yourself. All about understanding your own values. A phrase from Maureen that resonated with Martin “however good a facilitator you are […] your most powerful tool as a facilitator is your own interior condition”.


See also about me, how I work, who I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together. Please do not delay before contacting me – the earlier I hear from you, the more chance that I will be able to help and the more helpful I may be able to be.

Register now on Eventbrite for my free facilitation webinars and regularly scheduled ToP facilitation training courses in London and Brussels.

What can I do about climate change, personally and as a facilitator?

I Declare A Climate Emergency

On the weekend that David Attenborough addresses members of the public who are taking part in the UK’s first climate assembly, starting in Birmingham, I am heartened to know that more and more of us are seriously raising and addressing concerns about climate change, and challenging and supporting others to do so as well. I am heartened too by the increasing recognition of the role that engagement, deliberation and facilitation have to play.

This is a question that I have been pondering more and more myself, especially as I take something of a sabbatical this winter in Sitges, in Spain, to give me some extra time to “reflect, write and learn, and to look ahead to my next seven years of freelance facilitation“. That seems to be working, even though I have found little time for writing and most of the time I have devoted to learning has been spent studying Spanish. My last couple of blog posts have helped, and I didn’t even have to write them. I reflected on my career and my facilitation practice with James Smart in an interview with Session Lab, and on the importance of values in facilitation with Helene Jewell for the IAF Facilitation Stories podcast. And I have done a little reading and research, including estimating my own personal and professional carbon footprint.

What I have learned, and what (more) can I do?

Carbonfootprint tells me that the average annual carbon footprint for people in the UK is 6.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e), for the EU about 6.4 tonnes and worldwide about 5 tonnes – and that the worldwide target to combat climate change is 2 tonnes. It’s free carbon footprint calculator tells me that my own carbon footprint for 2019 amounts to about 10.3 tonnes – 6.2 from flying and 4.1 from everything else.

It comes as no great surprise then that the single most effective way for me to reduce my own carbon footprint is to fly less. I flew 31 single flights in 2019, all within Europe, 8 personal and 23 for work. That compares to 24 and 25 in 2017 and 2018, however those two years included two trips to the Middle East, two to North America, one to Africa and one to Asia & Australia (and a few business class upgrades), resulting in emissions of around 12-13 tonnes per year from flights alone. So, while I have already somewhat reduced the carbon impact of my flying, I think it is clear that I am still among the minority of problem flyers in the UK that needs to stop taking so many flights.

WHAT CAN I DO, TO CALM THE CLIMATE?

Reducing the rest of my carbon footprint will be harder. Travel and household energy are typically the areas of highest personal carbon impact, and it seems that mine are otherwise already low. I live in central London, I don’t own a car and rarely hire one, and I travel otherwise largely by bus and train or on foot locally. So the carbon footprint of my non-flight travel amounted to around 0.2 tonnes in 2019. I live in a small, modern and well insulated flat, and I understand from Ecotricity that their supply of 100% renewable household gas & electricity already contributes precisely zero to my carbon footprint. An equivalent supply of non-renewable energy would otherwise contribute around 0.9 tonnes.

The remainder of my emissions are from ‘secondary’ sources, largely consumption – of food, drink, clothing and other products & supplies, use of appliances, and recreational and professional activities. For me these amounted to around 3.8 tonnes in 2019 – 1.5 on hotels, restaurants and the like (much of that for business), and 2.3 on the rest. Already I have substantially reduced my meat and dairy intake in recent years, albeit primarily for health reasons. I have never had much interest in shopping or expensive hobbies and I don’t keep pets. Traveling less could certainly reduce the contribution of my hotel & restaurant consumption.

What does that leave?

As well as reducing our own carbon footprints, we can all use what influence we have to challenge and support others to reduce theirs as well. This can include how we vote, and how we spend and invest. Also how we donate and volunteer, and how we exercise influence and leadership in our in our own workplaces, communities and societies. I have long taken environmental and sustainability considerations into how I vote, and in my choice to invest in an ethical pension. I could donate and volunteer more, and I could pay more attention to how I spend and invest. I suspect that I could make much more of an impact in how I exercise influence and leadership, and particularly in my professional role as a facilitator.

sustainable facilitation easy hacks

As facilitators we can, of course, take care to use recycled flip chart paper and refillable marker pens, and venues that provide these and that recycle and use renewable energy. There are some more ‘easy hacks’ here. Such measures can be worthwhile for the indirect impact they can have by influencing others, as much as for the direct impact of reducing emissions themselves.

However, the greatest contribution to the carbon footprint of a facilitation contract is likely to be associated with any travel, board & lodging involved in meeting face-to-face. That would include our own as facilitators, of course, but especially that of the group – and even more so for a larger group and where air travel may be involved.

So, we can seek to work with clients in the contracting and design process to limit and reduce the carbon impact of the facilitation process as a whole – for example by choice of venue and design of face-to-face events, but also by the use of more online facilitation and blended or hybrid approaches (those that involve face-to-face and virtual elements in sequence or at once).

We can also choose not to seek or to accept work that would likely involve a high carbon impact, perhaps by referring a distant client to a trusted colleague or IAF Certified Professional Facilitator located closer to the group or the venue. We can of course also choose to seek work particularly from groups and organisations that are working to respond constructively to the climate crisis and not from those that are not.

We may find ourselves faced with new ethical dilemmas. If I decline a facilitation contract, could that result in a higher carbon impact than accepting it and working with the client to reduce its carbon impact? Or could it result in a less effective and socially beneficial meeting or process without affecting the carbon footprint? If I decline to travel to provide facilitation training to a distant group that requests it, could that result in more flights and a greater impact due to participants’ travel to my scheduled public courses in London and Brussels?

We can also share and collaborate with each other as facilitators, to explore what else we can each do and what we can all do together and as a profession. This post is inspired in part by just such conversations at recent IAF England & Wales facilitation meetups and our 2019 annual conference, including for example on Greening our practice with Penny Walker and on Climate Conversations with Susannah Raffe.

I am looking forward to considering how IAF E&W can support more of such collaboration at our annual face-to-face Leadership Team meeting in Birmingham this coming week. I hope that the global Board of IAF may be having a similar conversation at its annual face-to-face Board meeting, that is taking place in Kuala Lumpur as I write.

I understand that it is planned already to hold fewer, larger CPF assessment events in order to reduce assessor travel. Will that reduce or increase travel and carbon impact overall? Will this year’s single IAF Global Facilitation Summit in Sweden, the home flygskam (flight shame), have a higher or lower carbon impact than the usual 3 or 4 regional conferences each year? What can be done to limit the carbon impact and maximise the beneficial social impact of this year’s summit in particular, and IAF as a whole?

We can also choose to ‘offset’ emissions by supporting projects that aim to tackle climate change and help to improve the lives of some of those most affected. In 2019 I ‘offset’ 72 tonnes of CO2e by donating £540 to Climatecare, roughly equivalent to my total personal & professional carbon footprint since I went freelance in 2012 – on that basis, improbably good value!

What (more) shall I do?

I am declaring a climate emergency.

I shall seek to limit and reduce my own personal & professional carbon footprint – my aim is to contribute no more than the current UK average within 5 years, ie. a reduction of around 37% from my 10.3 tonnes in 2019 to 6.5 in 2024.

I shall seek to use what influence I can to challenge and support others to respond constructively themselves as well, both personally and professionally – starting by including a short statement to that effect at How I work and in future proposals to clients.

In particular, I shall seek to:

  • fly less, and travel normally by rail (and perhaps sea) to destinations that can be reached within a single day or overnight journey
  • travel less overall, and mostly to places accessible to London without flying – that includes Sitges, in case you were wondering
  • consider carbon impact as well as price and convenience in deciding whether and how to travel (and never air miles)
  • make the most of travel by taking time to take advantage of and enjoy both the journey and the destination
  • work more with groups and organisations that are working to respond constructively to the climate crisis, and less with those that are not
  • work with clients to limit and reduce the carbon impact of our work, including by choice of venue and process design and by the use of more online, blended and hybrid approaches
  • consider the likely carbon impact as well as likely value (to the client, to me and to the wider social good) of prospective work in deciding whether to accept it or perhaps refer it
  • collaborate with other facilitators to explore what else we can each do, and what we can all do together and as a profession, and with IAF on what we can do as an association
  • support projects, campaigns and politics that aim to to respond constructively to the climate crisis
  • periodically reflect on my progress relative to these goals, and share what I else learn and plan as a result.

In addition to the links shared above, my thinking on this has been informed also by other posts of Penny Walker including What can I do to calm the climate and Managing the change to sustainability, and by Business declares a climate emergency, The Man in Seat 61 and Trains vs. planes: What’s the real cost of travel? Top of my reading list is now Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide.

What questions are you asking yourself, what have you learned and what will you do? What can you contribute to my own thinking and plans? Please do add a comment below, or contact me.


See also about me, how I work, who I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together. Please do not delay before contacting me – the earlier I hear from you, the more chance that I will be able to help and the more helpful I may be able to be.

Register now on Eventbrite for my free facilitation webinars, and for my regularly scheduled ToP facilitation training courses in London and Brussels.

We Facilitate: Plans are useless, but planning is invaluable – an interview with SessionLab

ICAUK ToP Participatory Strategic Planning training, 2013 at NCVO in London - photo Adam Swann, facilitation Martin Gilbraith #ToPfacilitation 1

I am grateful to James Smart of SessionLab for this interview with him, first posted by them on December 18, 2019. See also his December 13 post 20 facilitation tips to help you be a better facilitator, that came out of our conversation.

SessionLab is the dynamic way to design your workshop and collaborate with your co-facilitators, and host of an online Library of facilitation techniques that includes the IAF Methods library

James writes…


Facilitation can sometimes be a lonely profession. Whether you are a freelancer or part of an in-house team, you will often be one of only a few people practicing facilitation and who truly appreciates the value of facilitation techniques.

As Martin Gilbraith, a facilitator with over 30 years of experience noted in our interview: “the vast majority of facilitators work alone or in very small teams and very small practices. Even those that work in big companies are generally the only in-house facilitator or one of a very small team. Mostly, what we do is pretty lonesome.”

Learning from other facilitators and experts in the field can not only help us grow professionally but personally. In the first interview of our We Facilitate series, we spoke to Martin about the world of facilitation and asked some of the burning questions that affect us as facilitators.

We had a great conversation and covered topics such as: the difference between process and content; the value of when facilitating; how to prepare for unusual or difficult circumstances; how to make money as a facilitator and have a lasting career in facilitation; and the importance of community and spending time with other facilitators.

IABC EMENA Eurocomm2017 conference in London - photo IABC EMENA, facilitation Martin Gilbraith #ToPfacilitation 1#EuroComm17 10

Martin Gilbraith is a IAF Certified Professional Facilitator (CPF),  an ICA Certified ToP Facilitator (CTF) and experienced lead trainer and licensed provider of ‘ICA’s ‘ToP’ facilitation training and a Certified Scrum Master (CSM). He is chapter lead for IAF England and Wales and regularly leads sessions in the UK and internationally!

We hope you enjoy the interview, let’s dive in!

As someone who’s been in facilitation for so long, what’s your working definition of what a facilitator is and what they do?

Martin Gilbraith: My working definition of facilitation is group process leadership, which is a very broad definition, but my experience of facilitation is that it is a very broad school of practice. It’s not particularly helpful to define it too narrowly. It’s about working in groups rather than individually, it’s about process rather than content, and it’s primarily a leadership role.

It’s about process rather than content, that idea is very interesting, could you talk a little more about that?

The way I see it is that the role of the facilitator is to help a group generate and/or work with their own content. To come out with content that they own themselves, that’s theirs. In order to make that happen, the facilitator needs to stay well clear of content and not get involved in content and instead, design and lead a group through a process to help them generate and manage their own content.

Is it ever a challenge to not get involved in the content creation process as a facilitator? Is that ever difficult to manage?

Not for me, not at all in terms of working with external clients. When it has been more complicated is when I’ve been working internally with colleagues in ICA and with IAF. When we use facilitation among ourselves to do processing and develop content together, the boundaries are necessarily blurred a bit. As long as you all pay attention to what’s going on and are transparent and accountable for what you’re doing, it doesn’t need to be a problem.

I imagine that for any client if one of the outcomes is that they’ve created all of this content for themselves, the sense of ownership is greater and allows that content to be stickier. The work you’ve done in the room can continue afterward because they’ve made something for themselves.

Yes, our role as facilitators is to act in the service of the group. So whatever it is that the group needs to achieve, we’re there to help them achieve that.

That makes perfect sense! Now, I’d like to take a quick step back and hear about how you started and how you got into facilitation.

So I first experienced facilitation soon after I finished my undergraduate degree in 1986. I started with business studies and decided that I didn’t want to go into business so I took a year out to see the world and do something else instead. I volunteered overseas in a community project with this outfit called ICA, the Institute of Cultural Affairs. To cut a long story short, I discovered that, by the end of it, it actually wasn’t a year out: that was the first year of the rest.

The ICA developed facilitation methodology in over 50 years of working with communities and organizations around the world. When I first met ICA as a prospective volunteer, they facilitated me and other prospective volunteers to discover for ourselves what it was that we wanted to do with our lives, what our next step should be, and how we might want to get involved with the ICA. They also trained us in facilitation skills and methods so that we could take a valuable skill with us to the teams that we’d be working with.

At the time they didn’t call any of it facilitation much. The word facilitation certainly wasn’t foremost in those discussions: it was about development and leadership. The methods we were taught were called ICA methods and they were described as, you know, this is how we do things in ICA: this is how we organize ourselves, and it’s how we train and support people in communities to organize themselves.

What were some of the communities you worked with? You worked all around the world, right?

I volunteered in a village project in India near Mumbai. I spent six months with ICA and six months traveling. I came back, worked for a couple of years with a small charity in London that was supporting projects in Africa, including ICA projects in Africa, which was part of the reason I got the job. Then I volunteered a second time with ICA in Egypt and wound up staying six years with ICA in Egypt.

For all of that period, I regarded myself primarily as an international development worker specializing in participatory processes, And it wasn’t until quite a lot later that I began to think of myself as primarily a facilitator. It was when I got back from Egypt and got involved with ICA:UK and we began to provide training and ICA methods and sell it as facilitation training. As a result of selling facilitation training, we began to get invitations to provide facilitation as well. So I got into professional facilitation backward by doing the training first.

I suppose that’s the best approach: you’ve been on the ground and have used these techniques in the field. I’ve spoken to a lot of people whose experience is like yours, coming from a different world before becoming a professional facilitator. Is this quite common?

Probably nobody starts their career thinking I want to be a professional facilitator. Most people starting their careers don’t have any idea that there is such a thing or that it’s a career option: and it really isn’t a career option for most people. You really do need to have some experience with the participatory processes somehow, from somewhere, to be an effective facilitator. The vast majority of professional facilitators come at it as a second career after doing something else that moves them into participatory process.

Tell me about one of your most memorable standout experiences of being a facilitator or facilitating?

The best one that comes to mind, which isn’t necessarily the best, but it’s probably the most unusual for me, was facilitating a group of health ministers from developing countries at an international conference.

They have a conference every year, which generally used to be just medical practitioners, and then increasingly, civil society campaigners. In the last couple of years, they had begun to invite policymakers from governments. For the first time they invited health ministers from around the world and they were rather surprised at the last minute to find how many were interested in coming. They got health ministers from Zimbabwe, Mexico, Thailand, all over the world. They wondered what to do with these ministers and went out looking for a facilitator who could come up with some process to make the best of this opportunity.

Most of the work I do is with larger groups – usually much less formal and much more structured. For this group, it was very important to honour the protocol. So there were no post-its, no sticky walls, no toys, none of this kind of stuff. It was basically just conversation for the best part of a day. It was the only group I’ve ever facilitated where the participants each had their own non-participants with them who they were consulting with. So they had their aides with them to support them and provide information. The aides all sat in chairs around the outside, while a participant sat in the centre, which was nothing I ever would have considered doing before.

It was really interesting, and they loved it. One of the takeaways from the day was that some of the participants, the health ministers, agreed to make a joint statement on the platform of the main conference of three or four thousand people the next day. That was a really interesting and unusual experience for me.

Every group needs a different process, and I’ve often been in a room and realized some things just aren’t going to work with this particular group. Was that a challenge in this case?

I think that with every group, you need to assume that you don’t know the group. You need to find out as much as you can, or as much as you think you need to know, in order to make any judgment. To first of all best understand them, their goals, and their interests for the session and then to design and lead a session that will help them achieve those goals. Because this group was so different to any other group that I’ve worked with, it was possibly the group that I felt I knew least and had the least chance of anticipating just how it would go and what would work.

Did you have to change your agenda on the fly all or were you able to stick to the plan?

There wasn’t much to change. It was basically a series of questions structured, according to the ICA ToP focus conversation method. What I did do is consult with my client who was the conference director responsible for the global conference. Together, we discussed what she felt comfortable with and what she thought I should do with them and not.

Did you work closely with her throughout the design process, on the day and afterward presumably?

Actually, the design process happened very quickly. The conference director called me less than a week before the event. We had one or two calls, and most of the conversation design process happened in the 24-hours beforehand when I met went face to face before the conference. So it was very, very short notice, which was the other thing that was unusual.

Do you like working like that?

I wouldn’t choose to, no! I encourage my clients to get in touch as early as they possibly can so that none of us have any surprises and we all have the best opportunity to do the best job that we can.

Do you have a typical lead time for these big corporate events, away days and retreats that might take a long time to prepare?

Most often, I get contacted one or two months in advance for an event of a day or two. Typically longer for a larger or more complex or longer event. But even then, generally not more than 3-5 months. A couple of weeks ago I got contacted for an event next November – around 12 months away! This is a two-day conference with 100 people and part of the reason I was contacted for it is because I did something similar with the same organization a few years ago.

On that occasion, I was contacted two months in advance and I thought we did a great job. I don’t know, three or four months would be great but two months is fine. One month will be doable. 12 months is kind of unusual! I’m not complaining though! The more notice the better really!

Through the lead-in and design process, do you often liaise with just one person at the organization? Or do you try to talk to the larger team beforehand?

Well, it depends on the scale and complexity of the job. But no, typically I try to make sure I’m not just talking with one person. Typically, I try to speak with key stakeholders, particularly the leadership, but also other members of the group. Sometimes it’s also important to talk to people who have a stake that are not going to be part of this particular group.

I do quite a lot of meetings and events which are for a particular team or department where it’s really quite clear who the group is, and the whole group is going to be there. In that case, it’s usually just about talking to the leadership or the whole group, or a few random representatives of the group to get a sense of what the group needs and how they’re likely to respond.

On other occasions, I do quite a lot of work with networks or consortia or alliances where multiple different teams, departments, organizations or sectors are all coming together. And they can have very different understandings and expectations and interests. In those kinds of occasions, it’s very important to talk to a much broader range of stakeholders so that I can show up with a credible process and as a credible facilitator and not appear to be taking one side or being too close to one side in particular.

How do you manage that? Is it a case of just staying in communication over the phone? Or do you have to use any tools or processes you use?

The main way I would manage it is to try to negotiate with the client and discover as far as I can in advance if that kind of approach is going to be necessary and factor it into the contract at the outset. It isn’t always possible and the client isn’t always ready to invest the time and money to do that. Then I have to ask myself whether to take the job or not.

Typically it’s a series of calls. It may also be an online survey using Survey Monkey or something that may also be a shared space where I ask people to upload stuff to look at offer feedback on them. Those are the most common approaches. There are also online meetings – so Zoom calls or Adobe Connect, which is my favourite online meeting tool. Sometimes I’ve done one or a series of online gatherings in the run-up to a face to face event or sort of punctuated in between a series of face to face events.

Amnesty International Refugee Community Sponsorship workshop, 2017 in London - photo & facilitation Martin Gilbraith #ToPfacilitation

Is it ever hard to convince clients that this is time worth spending?

Increasingly less difficult actually! Increasingly, I’m finding more and more clients take it for granted, especially international clients. I do work a lot with international groups a lot of them take it for granted that every meeting they ever go to has somebody online, even if it’s not an entirely online meeting. I realized I have to ask clients explicitly upfront: Are you anticipating this to be a hybrid meeting?

Even if we’re talking about a face to face event I make sure I ask, Are you planning on having anybody Skype in for those? Because chances are they are and if I don’t ask, they won’t bother to tell me – they’ll take it for granted. It makes an enormous difference, especially to what the remote participant’s experience is going to be as well.

How do you plan for those remote participants?

I would say it’s largely about managing expectations. It depends a lot on the scale and complexity and the purpose of the meeting. It’s much easier to manage if the purpose of the meeting is information sharing and or people learning for themselves, making their own plans or conclusions.

Trying to bring people to consensus decisions and to build commitment and team spirit is harder to do remotely. And it’s even harder to do in a hybrid basis because the people who are together face to face are having quite a different experience with each other than they’ll have between them and the remote participants.

Is there a secret sauce to making that work?

Lots of advance notice and planning I would say, and also getting the technology right, but recognizing that the technology is just a tool and actually what matters is the process, technology needs to serve the process.

There was an interesting piece of work a few months ago, which was a first for me and quite unlike anything else I’ve done. I’ve done a lot quite a lot of online facilitation and a fair amount of hybrid, holding simultaneously online and face-to-face sessions. But this was the first time that I had been an online co-facilitator for a face-to-face facilitator in a hybrid event.

This was a year-long, hybrid process involving a global non-profit association with people all over the world who on the whole don’t get a chance to meet face to face very much. We’re embarking on this year-long strategic planning process trying to engage all sorts of stakeholders in developing a new strategic plan. And that developed a dozen or so different working groups who are each having monthly online meetings and three or four times a year getting together face to face, each working on a different piece of the strategy.

For one of the face to face meetings of this particular Working Group, there were three or four of the 15 people who couldn’t get to Europe because they couldn’t get their visas. So the face to face meeting went ahead without them in Europe for three days, and these remote participants in Asia were intending to participate remotely for the entire three days, eight hours a day!

Normally, I wouldn’t recommend anybody trying to do anything online for eight hours at a time! In order to try and make this possible, the face to face facilitator brought me in as a remote co-facilitator so that I could be her partner. I looked after and engaged with the remote participants, and made sure that they were able to engage with what was going on in the room.

It was really interesting because I spent eight hours at my desk and had to be very alert paying attention for eight hours a day to what was going on in somebody else’s meeting and some other place, which is pretty hard to do. On the remote participants, there were only two of them, in fact, and a lot of the time they weren’t there. They joined when they could and I needed to be ready to sort of let them know what they’d missed, to bring them up to speed and to help them to engage. So I had to be very on the ball and ready to engage with participants when I was needed. Though there was lots of time when I wasn’t needed and I didn’t have much to do except to pay attention.

I wonder if this kind of thing is going to be increasingly prevalent in the future and how we might provide those people tuning in remotely with more value. Do you think it was successful for those people who did join remotely?

I think so. I think they felt they had participated as well as they could and that it was a lot better than nothing. I mean, on the whole, I wouldn’t normally design it that way. I would generally aim to get everybody in the room if you want to do that kind of meeting, or otherwise, have nobody in the room and do an entirely different kind of meeting. Perhaps a series of online synchronous meetings with a lot of asynchronous stuff in between.

I guess in those situations where you do get a curveball you have to ask yourself, ‘What’s the best we can do in this situation?’

One of the things I enjoy most about facilitation is that it’s – especially the design but also a certain amount of improvisation on the day – a very creative process. You’re always dealing with constraints and the constraints are all almost always unclear, emerging, and often changing. And it’s always a question of, you know, how can we best understand the constraints, manage them, change them if necessary or desirable, and work within them and do the best we can within those constraints?

Addressing Europe's Unfinished Business, 2015 at Caux - photo Caux Foundation, facilitation Martin Gilbraith #Caux2015

You mentioned improvisation – how do you cultivate that? Can you teach that? Is it an innate skill set or is it something you need to learn?

Oh, yes there are people that teach it.

Paul Z Jackson is a very well known teacher of applied improvisation who has written books on the subject. In fact, he did a session at one of the IAF’s recent annual conferences. There’s an applied improvisation meetup with several IAF members involved, with a global network and the UK one. I attended a one-day pre-conference session at the IAF Ottawa conference on improvisation for facilitators which was great. And I hosted a webinar not long ago with one of the leaders of that conference – Rebecca Sutherns – who wrote a book called Nimble: A Coaching Guide for Responsive Facilitation. Which is basically all about how do you keep a group on track when you have to go off script because things haven’t turned out as you expected.

I agree it’s a really important skill because group situations are often so liquid, and there’s always a question of whether you should follow a new thread that emerges at the expense of covering something else. I guess it’s making sure you always have the outcome that you want in mind and only following those left turns that are in service of that outcome.

One of the arguments in the book, which I think is really quite right and important, is that the vast majority of facilitation training and support available is related to facilitation tools and methods. And, I mean, they’re very valuable and important, but they’ll only take you so far.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find training and support and how to design a process, applying and adapting one or various facilitation methods to help a group achieve an aim. But there’s much less out there in terms of training or literature or support in what to do when it doesn’t turn out as planned and how to prepare for that. And it can be learned. Applied improv is a key skill and it can be learned.

Yeah, that’s so fascinating to me, because it’s something that I’ve struggled with as a facilitator. But then you never know with absolute certainty what’s going to happen in the room, right?

I think it’s Eisenhower who is often quoted, and I’ve no idea if this is true, that the plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. I would agree with that completely. The planning or the process of doing the plan itself makes you more prepared for diverging from the plan when that turns out to be necessary. The process of developing a plan and a detailed script for a session helps you be really clear and transparent and accountable for what the goals of the session are, and how you propose to help meet them. And then if it turns out the process isn’t working, or the goals have changed, it enables you and the group to be more easily aware of that and better able to respond to it.

Could you tell me a little bit about the IAF and how you became involved?

So the IAF was founded in 1994 by a network of 70 ICA facilitators. I first got involved soon after I got back from Egypt and went to my first conference in ‘97. A few years later, I decided to get more involved and stood for election to the board at the same time as I went for my CPF (Certified™ Professional Facilitator designation) which was 2008. So I was Europe director in 2009, vice chair in 2010, and chair in 2011 and 2012. Sometime later I took over the organizing of the England and Wales meetups and helped to grow and expand the program of meetups and the leadership team. I’m currently the chair of the IAF England Wales chapter.

How important do you think the meetups are for facilitators and for the IAF?

Increasingly important. It’s where we’ve chosen to put our attention and in England and Wales, my assumption when I started doing the meetups was that – in an England and Wales context – facilitators and facilitation practitioners really don’t need IAF to provide training.

What I thought was that the facilitation profession in England and Wales was sufficiently well established. So where we could best add value was connecting facilitators with each other so that they could decide for themselves what needs to be done to promote the power of facilitation in England and Wales rather than me or some small group deciding for ourselves and doing it.

In some countries, in some chapters, for example, there are only one or two IAF members and there are hardly any facilitators, and hardly anybody has heard of facilitation. In that kind of context, what they’re doing is raising awareness and providing training. There’s a huge amount available in England, Wales for anybody who is interested and knows how to find it.

What I felt was lacking was kind of an infrastructure of community whereby people interested in involved could connect with each other and do more together collectively for themselves and for the profession.

Do you think this demonstrates a need for a facilitation community?

Well, the vast majority of facilitators work alone or in very small teams and very small practices. Even those that work in big companies are generally the only in-house facilitator or one of a very small team.

Mostly, what we do is pretty lonesome. My experience is probably quite unusual among facilitators in that, having discovered facilitation and developed my practice as a facilitator in the ICA, I’ve always been surrounded by a large and international community of facilitators. Part of what I’ve been trying to do in IAF is to help share that more broadly beyond just ToP facilitators and ICA facilitators, but with the facilitation community more broadly.

I agree! And as you say, it has so much value, as you said, beyond just training and methods. And I think as you say, it’s a lonesome thing. Do you have any advice on combating that sense of loneliness?

Yeah, come to a meetup and meet with other people who do it!

There are a large number of people I’ve met through IAF in recent years who said I’ve been facilitating for years – in some cases decades – and never met anybody else who does it, never knew there was an association, never knew there were professional standards or anything like this and they really appreciated being able to connect with peers and learn and reflect on their own practice in the context of their peers and their peers experience, which can be enormously rewarding.

Yeah, totally. And in all kinds of ways, both in terms of self-care and emotional well-being as well as learning to be a better facilitator.

And in many cases, how do I make a living by doing this, how do I make a career out of this? So, it’s very supportive and empowering to meet and learn from others and learn with others who are doing it.

So how do you make a career from facilitation?

Again, my experience is probably unusual in that when I went freelance as a facilitator – that was only seven years ago – I’d already been in facilitating professionally for clients with ICA for 15 years before that. All of what I do as a professional is facilitation and facilitation training, and my experience is that the vast majority of people who make a living from facilitation, they don’t rely on facilitation solely for their living. They also do other things like coaching or mediation or training.

Facilitation for most professional facilitators is a part of their offering rather than the whole offering. Even if they would like to be 100% facilitation, most people start out doing something else as well and many start out not going freelance a hundred percent but going part-time into part-time employment and part-time freelance.

I would suggest to work your way into it. Don’t expect to make a living as a professional facilitator 100%. When you’re 21 and starting a career, that’s not how it works. It takes time.

Is word of mouth still the best way of getting clients?

Yeah, for me, it’s the vast majority of my clients. Well, I think all of my clients come from word of mouth, either face to face or online. Face to face is largely people that I have worked with before and then talking with others, or it’s, or its people I’ve met in various networks come to know me that way or have spoken with others. Online networking through social media and through other online forums is also important. You get to know people that way and they talk with others as well. It’s basically all about getting known.

Do you think your online presence is a big part of that?

I would have thought everybody in any kind of business needs to have an online presence these days. Especially if you’re in a one-person business, like me, or a very small business. I do know people who facilitate who don’t have a website and don’t use social media. Not many, but there are some. I guess it depends to some extent on your business model.

For me, my clients, and my contracts are almost all pretty small by some standards. I do a lot of one or two-day gigs. I’ve very rarely had more than 10 or 15 days. My biggest contract is probably 50 days, and that was over a year or so. Some people, I believe, have one or a very small number of very large contracts where facilitation may just be an element. In that case, you may not really need much of an online presence, but you might find you’re very reliant on that one contract or that one client and if it comes to an end or falls through then, you know, where does the next one come from?

Are there any things you should never do as a facilitator?

I’m not much inclined to tell people what they can’t do. Certainly, don’t be unethical as a facilitator. We have an IAF code of ethics and a statement of values. Though I would say do be ethical – I prefer to frame it in a positive light.

But in terms of what not to do, part of what that means is don’t try and do something that you can’t do well. Don’t lead your group to a foregone conclusion, don’t manipulate.

When you say foregone conclusion, is that in terms of what the group or client expects and wants the conclusion to be, or both?

Whether it’s you that thinks the group needs to come to a particular conclusion or whether you’re taking the lead from the client to lead the group to a particular conclusion, either way, it’s not facilitation if you’re trying to lead them to a particular conclusion. Which isn’t to say that you shouldn’t do it. It’s just that you shouldn’t call it facilitation.

Yeah, that’s a very different thing. Have you ever had clients have this kind of misconception about what facilitation is?

I’ve only quite rarely experienced that. But I’ve heard other facilitators saying that they experience that more commonly. Maybe to some extent, it depends on how clearly you articulate what it is that you do and how well known you become for what you do. Then you’re more likely to attract clients that are looking for what you do not, and not for something that you don’t.

You’ve been in facilitation for a long time. More than 30 years – how has it changed in that time?

The impact of technology is an obvious one. The internet didn’t exist when I met ICA and first got trained in ICA methods. I don’t know if you’re familiar with sticky walls but ICA ToP facilitators are famous for using sticky walls that didn’t exist when I first learned. We used rolled up bits of masking tape in order to stick bits of paper to Blackboards or that kind of thing.

So technology has made a big difference to what’s possible and to what clients are looking and groups are looking for. I suppose the professionalization of the field is another big change. IAF you know, is 25 years old, and so it didn’t exist when I started out and has grown and changed a lot in that time. That’s had a big impact on the profession.

It’s interesting what you say with technology. Do you use high-tech methods and tools yourself? Or do you quite like low-tech? Do you think paper and pens and post-its will always have a place?

I absolutely think low tech will always have a place. I favour what works, on the whole. I’m very conscious that for anything to work, a group needs to be sufficiently familiar with it so that they’re not spending all their time learning the tool rather than getting on with what they’re there to do.

The tool shouldn’t be an impediment to them connecting with each other and accomplishing their task. Now, if you’re working with a remote group, then you know there’s no alternative to using technology, even if it’s a conference call.

If you’re working face to face, you know there are times when digital tools can add a lot to that and help people to do a great deal more than otherwise especially with large groups, you know, hundreds or thousands at a conference. With small groups, I tend to avoid digital tools because I tend to find it unnecessary. Anything a digital tool can do can be done just as well without the digital element, and often a lot quicker and with a lot less distraction and a lot less risk of failure or confusion or distraction or whatever.

Do you favour a particular low-tech tool? Are you a post-it note man or do you like flashcards or Lego?

More than anything else, I use sticky walls, papers and marker pens. And in terms of method, more than anything I use ORID, which is the basis of the ICA focus conversation method. Yeah, so pretty much every question I ask will be crafted in relation to an ORID process that I have in mind.

I’m a big fan of just whatever works too! And it’s a case of you can sometimes over-complicate or try a flashy new thing just for the sake of it being flashy. We have to ask, what are we trying to achieve here? Are we trying to demonstrate we have some new tools, or do we want to have a good outcome? On that note, what do you think the future of facilitation is going to look like?

Now that’s an interesting question. In a future of artificial intelligence and robotics and all the rest of it, just about every job is under threat. I would like to think that facilitation is one of the few jobs that isn’t under threat. What they say is that jobs that require empathy and caring and human interaction are the ones that are safe. And facilitation is right up there with those. Though I did see something online in the last few months about some algorithm that somebody has developed to facilitate, which is scary and is something I’m rather skeptical about, I have to say, but who knows?

The future is unknowable. But then again, at the same time, it’s ours to create and I’m in the business of helping people decide what kind of future they want and go about making it happen. So whatever way technology is going to take us, I think it’s up to us to decide how to make the best of it and how to turn it to our benefit and interests.

I completely agree! Is there any final bit of advice you want to give people involved in facilitation or to those considering getting involved in being a facilitator?

Do it!

I’m a firm believer that facilitation is a public good. I got into facilitation in order to try and change the world for the better one way or another. And given the way that the world is going, I think the world needs more and more facilitation in order for us as communities, societies, and as the human race, to survive and thrive into the future, so we need you, facilitators! And be sure to connect with each other in order to do it better and strengthen our impact collectively.

Yeah, I totally agree. That’s awesome. Martin. Thank you so much for meeting with us and sharing your wisdom with the community!

ICAUK ToP Participatory Strategic Planning training, 2013 at NCVO in London - photo Adam Swann, facilitation Martin Gilbraith #ToPfacilitation 2

Martin Gilbraith is a IAF Certified Professional Facilitator (CPF),  an ICA Certified ToP Facilitator (CTF) and experienced lead trainer and licensed provider of ‘ICA’s ‘ToP’ facilitation training and a Certified Scrum Master (CSM). He has been a facilitator and trainer since 1986 and has been providing facilitation, training and professional consultation to clients since 1997. He began his career in grassroots community development work in India, Africa, and the Middle East, after awakening to his passion and commitment as an international volunteer. Since 1997 he has worked with a wide range of clients in the UK and overseas as a facilitator, trainer, and consultant and you can reach him on his website.


See also about mehow I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together. Please do not delay before contacting me – the earlier I hear from you, the more chance that I will be able to help and the more helpful I may be able to be.

Register now on Eventbrite for my free facilitation webinars, and for my regularly scheduled ToP facilitation training courses in London and Brussels.

Reflecting on another year of freelance facilitation

ORID the kitten at Group Facilitation Methods training in Brussels

October 1 will be exactly seven years since I went freelance as a facilitator, and on June 30 Martin Gilbraith Associates Ltd completed its sixth full financial year. So, a relatively quiet week in the August holiday season offers a good opportunity again to pause and review the last year, and look ahead to the next. It is timely too, after 6-7 years, that the coming year offers an opportunity for something of a sabbatical (again)!

In the year to June 2019 I delivered 25 contracts for 14 clients in 7 countries. These involved 31 face-to-face events and one virtual, 14 facilitated processes and 14 facilitation training courses. I spent 47 nights away from home – 14 in the UK and 33 abroad. That all compares to 20 contracts for 16 clients involving 21 events in the previous year – and over the previous five complete years a total of 90 contracts to 53 clients involving 121 events. I also declined 25 prospective client projects during the past year, compared to 11 the year before, mostly because I was not available. I failed to win 11 that had I quoted for, compared to 9 the year before.

So, slightly fewer clients and nights away, but considerably more contracts and events – those declined and lost, as well as those delivered. Again, about half-and-half facilitation and training, and all but one face-to-face.

Returning clients in the past year have included Amnesty International, Oxfam, Water Harvest (formerly Wells for India), Xpedio and of course ICA:UK. New clients have included ABBYY (with CircleIndigo), BeLiminal, Greater Cambridge Partnership, EASL, Heinrich Boell Foundation Turkey, Malaria Consortium, Octopus Network, St. Luke’s Community Centre and Virtual Not Distant. I joined Nordic Consulting Group as an Associate on a new framework contract with SIDA.

So I have continued to work with international NGOs, foundations, associations, networks and alliances, and a few others, largely in Europe and the Middle East and particularly in London and Brussels. However, this year has seen the return of UK local authorities and multi-sector partnerships, after many years working with such clients on behalf of ICA:UK in the 2000s. New fields for me this year include agile coaching, software development, Results Based Management and remote team working.

I have extended my partnerships with ICA:UK and ICA Associates in the past year to offer more scheduled public facilitation training than ever before. These include courses of the IAF-endorsed ‘ToP Facilitation Essentials’ series and, in new partnerships with local IAF colleagues, public course dates in Edinburgh, Lisbon and Pisa as well as London and Brussels. Two courses in Brussels also included a kitten (pictured above), affectionately named ORID by the group!

My leadership role with IAF England & Wales again accounted for most of my volunteer time. My role was formalised this year by election to a new chapter Board, and appointment as Chair. Our programme of peer networking and learning meetups has grown to reach our growing E&W chapter membership of now 90, plus over 1,000 members of five regional meetup groups. Monthly tea and coffee networking meetups are held in 12 cities in most major population centres of England & Wales, and online, and longer networking and learning meetups are held bi-monthly in London and three times per year in other regions.

Our all E&W meetup for International Facilitation Week has been extended to a 2-day Annual Conference for 2019 – the Power and Practice of Facilitation, 18-19 October, with 55 already registered. Meetup hosts across the country have joined an expanded Leadership Team of now 24 members. We are supporting new sister meetup groups in Scotland and Ireland, and a new IAF E&W podcast team has begun to create a series of 10 episodes to support the programme, inspired by a session at a meetup.

I also joined the new IAF Global Mentorship Programme as a mentor, and began to meet regularly online with my mentee in Jordan. I attended the IAF Europe conference Agile Facilitation in Milan and participated in monthly online meetings of Europe MENA chapter leadership. I continued to participate in events of IABC UK, but not the IABC EuroComm conference this year in Bahrain. I continued to participate in the ICA:UK ToP trainers’ network and to serve as volunteer webmaster for ICA International, but I did not attend this year’s conference of the US ToP Network. Regrettably also I missed my first ICA Europe regional gathering for about 20 years, in Kiev.

After collaborating for some years with Michael Ambjorn of AlignYourOrg to explore the intersect between communication and facilitation, and the power of applying facilitation and communications in partnership, we have co-authored a chapter on that topic for a forthcoming book on the Power of facilitation. We are part of a wider team of authors involving expert facilitators from around the world. The shorthand for the project is #FacPower and each chapter of the book will have a different focus. In combination the aim is to show the power of facilitation in various fields and contexts.

I have hosted four free facilitation webinars during the year, including one on that book project and two with the authors of two new books published during the year that I have been pleased to endorse – Rebecca Sutherns on Nimble facilitation and Jim Campbell on Facilitating Authentic Participation and the facilitation cycle.

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I have not found so much time this year for blogging. I published just 15 posts during the past year, of the 180 published in the seven full years since my first welcome post – but of course I have been no less active micro-blogging on twitter.

So, what of a sabbatical? October to March in Sitges in Spain will be mostly for my husband, following his recent retirement from career-long, full-time employment. I shall continue to work and travel as necessary, not least for existing client commitments in London and elsewhere, for scheduled public ToP facilitation training most months in London or Brussels, and for events including the IAF England & Wales annual conference in Birmingham and the ICA Europe regional gathering in Vienna.

However, I shall welcome opportunities to work virtually and locally in Spain during that time, including perhaps with ICA Spain and with the forthcoming IAF Spain chapter – starting with its timely launch event in Barcelona during International Facilitation Week in October.

I do intend to take time for myself also to reflect, write and learn, to look ahead to my next seven years of freelance facilitation – and to enjoy a little less busyness and a little more sunshine! I hope that regular readers may notice the difference on this blog, and that Spanish speakers may notice the difference next time they greet me with “Hola”!

Thank you for following…


See also about me, how I work, who I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together. Please do not delay before contacting me – the earlier I hear from you, the more chance that I will be able to help and the more helpful I may be able to be.

Register now on Eventbrite for my free facilitation webinars, and for my regularly scheduled ToP facilitation training courses in London and Brussels.

Another summer, another year of freelance facilitation

IAF India Conference, 2017 in Chennai - photo IAF India, facilitation Martin Gilbraith #ToPfacilitation #IAFIndia17 1

Another summer means another opportunity to pause and reflect, as in June I completed my fifth year in business as Martin Gilbraith Associates Ltd.  The image from last year’s IAF India conference in Chennai is of my plenary session subtitled “Reviewing the past to prepare for the future“. Like every good ORID process, a reflection or review must start with Objective level data.

The data tell me that in 2017-18 I have delivered 20 contracts for 16 clients in 6 countries, involving 20 face-to-face events and one virtual event and 10 facilitated processes and 11 facilitation training courses. Also that I spent 56 nights away from home, 3 in the UK and 53 abroad. That compares to 26 contracts involving 35 events in the previous year, and over the 5 complete years a total of 90 contracts to 53 clients in 18 countries involving 121 events – 109 face-to-face and 12 virtual, 69 facilitation and 52 training.  So it has been another busy year, albeit not quite such a bumper year as the previous, and a marked increase in the proportion of training to facilitation contracts.

Returning clients in the past year have included Amnesty InternationalGirls Not BridesLorensbergsOxfamWells for India and of course ICA:UK, and new clients have included the AlternativeArticle19CCLEdringtonEFFAEPIMGCFJMIC and NNC. So I have continued to work largely with international NGOs, foundations, associations, networks and alliances, largely in Europe and the Middle East and particularly in London and Brussels. However, the NGOs continue to include more campaigning as well as international development and humanitarian, the Associations continue to include industries as well as NGO networks, and new fields for me this year include Scotch whiskey, Danish politics and global catastrophic risks!

Somewhat fewer contracts this year has allowed somewhat more time for business and professional development.

In new partnerships with ICA:UK and ICA Associates I have extended my schedule of public facilitation training to include dates in London and Birmingham as well as Brussels and new courses of the new IAF-endorsed ‘ToP Facilitation Essentials’ programme, Meetings That Work and Facilitating Client Collaboration.

My networking and volunteering has been focused primarily on IAF England & Wales, where four regional groups totaling around 750 members are now hosting 5 or 6 meetups every month around the country, led by a virtual leadership team that meets monthly online. I finally joined IABC as a member this year, and became more active with IABC UK as well as presenting at EuroComm18 in Copenhagen, after collaborating for some years to build an informal partnership between IABC and IAF that resulted this year in a more formal MoU at the EMENA level.

I have also enjoyed opportunities to participate in and lead sessions at IAF conferences and events  during the year in Australia, Canada, France, India & Jordan, and at ICA regional gatherings in Nepal and Poland as well as in the UK.  I have been pleased to have been able to host five free facilitation webinars during the year, with colleagues of all of these networks that I respect very much. I am very excited to have begun collaborating with IABC past-President Michael Ambjorn and more than a dozen other IAF colleagues to co-author a book on the Power of Facilitation – for more as the project develops, follow us at @FacPower.

Since last summer’s 5-year review of participant feedback on my ToP facilitation courses, taster sessions & webinars I have been requesting post-course feedback 3-4 months after every training, so I hope to share some insights from that as well before long. Other substantial additions to this site during the year have included a series of cases studies on Responding to changing situations and needs with ToP Consensus Workshop, a new image gallery and (of course!) a Privacy policy.

With five public courses and half a dozen client contracts already in the pipeline for the autumn, another webinar and another IAF India conference and of course International Facilitation Week in Birmingham, it looks like there will continue to be plenty to blog about when I can find the time. Thank you for following!


See also about mehow I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together. Please do not delay before contacting me – the earlier I hear from you, the more chance that I will be able to help and the more helpful I may be able to be.

Register now on Eventbrite for my free facilitation webinars, and for my regularly scheduled ToP facilitation training courses in London and Brussels.

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

This is the 6th and last of a series of six weekly posts to mark International Facilitation Week 2017, starting 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 week? Please share online with the #FacWeek hashtag, or in a comment below…


Example 6 – IABC UK, London

In May I facilitated a 2-hour evening strategy workshop with the UK Board of the International Association of Business Communicators. For more on my work with IABC, and my session at the recent IABC Europe MENA conference, see Facilitating transformation: reviewing the past to prepare for the future at #EuroComm17.

New IABC UK President Mike Pounsford is a keen ToP facilitator himself, and an IAF Certified Professional Facilitator. He had approached me to apply the Consensus Workshop method with the new Board of nine so that he could participate fully.  For an example of his own application of the method see Facilitation and Communication to lead ‘The Big Conversation’: Digital Transformation.

We quickly agreed that a ‘textbook’ Consensus Workshop process could help to meet the group’s needs well. These were articulated in terms of Rational & Experiential Aims as ‘to outline our strategic focus for IABC UK for the next 24 months, and what roles we will each play to help to deliver it‘ and ‘to build shared clarity, commitment and enthusiasm for the way forward together‘. The workshop Focus Question was to be ‘What practical projects & initiatives could help to deliver IABC’s mission & strategy in the UK in 2017-18?’.

The workshop was preceded by an opening conversation and a short presentation from Mike on the vision, purpose and philosophy of IABC as a whole, as parameters for IABC UK’s own strategy.

According to the textbook approach, Board members brainstormed their responses to the Focus Question individually, with the parameters in mind. They wrote ideas on half-sheets in pairs, which they shared on the sticky wall and clarified as necessary before pairing and clustering. The ‘adaptation in the moment’ came in finalising the Clustering stage of the workshop prior to Naming the clusters. It made no sense to the group to discern and name clusters unique to IABC UK’s 2017-18 strategy – what made sense was to map the brainstorm ideas to the three components of IABC’s global Purpose: ‘to advance the profession, to create connection and to develop strategic communicators’ .

So that is what we did. That allowed time then for members to self-select into three teams to to articulate the UK’s new strategic focus for each of the three areas, and to propose collective commitments.

I reflected to Mike, ‘I suppose we could have presented as a parameter that these [advance, connect and develop] would be the UK’s strategic focus, and we could have asked instead about collective commitments aligned with them. That might have saved a moment of doubt & confusion, but as you say perhaps at the expense of a sense of openness, possibility & engagement. A bit of challenge can be a valuable opportunity for a group to find its own way!’

Mike PounsfordMike replied: “I thought it was great, thank you for your help and for your agility in responding to the group’s needs. Most importantly we achieved consensus on a focus for our work for the next two years, which is to enhance the strategic communication capabilities of our members”.


Finally, in case you’re still wondering…

  • no group is too small for the ToP Consensus Workshop method – page 52 of the ICA:UK Group Facilitation Methods course workbook includes procedures for using the method on your own as an individual.
  • the method can work online as well as face-to-face, although like all online facilitation it will be different than when done face-to-face – see for example the Spilter ToP Consensus platform, specially developed to provide full digital support for the method, and see below a youtube video of an online ToP Consensus Workshop of ICA Ukraine using LinoIt with Google Hangout.
  • if you have nowhere to put a sticky wall, take advice from US ToP trainer Barbara MacKay of Northstar Facilitators, also in a youtube video below.

Start again from example 1…


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.

Responding to changing situations and needs with ToP Consensus Workshop – #FacWeek -1

This is the 5th of a series of six weekly posts to mark International Facilitation Week 2017, starting just 1 week 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…


Example 5 – Eurochild, Brussels

A good example of both customised design and adaptation in the moment was the General Assembly in Brussels in April of Eurochild, ‘a network of organisations and individuals working in and across Europe to promote the rights and well-being of children and young people‘. This involved around 100 individual members and member representatives plus Board members and Secretariat staff over two days.

One morning of the GA was designed as an opportunity to engage members in a year-long process to develop a new strategy for the network as a whole for 2019-21. The event had been preceded by an online survey of members, and was followed by a Participatory Strategic Planning retreat with Board, staff and a few key member representatives to develop the basis of the new strategy – for more in-depth consultation this autumn, with a view to final adoption at the next GA in April 2018. The Focus Question for the planning process as a whole was ‘How could Eurochild best mobilise and add value to the work of its members from 2019-21, to promote the rights & well-being of children & young people in Europe?

The design of the half-day member consultation began with an opening conversation and brief contextual presentations, followed by a 90 minute Consensus Workshop and then a series of ‘World Café’ style table conversations – to brainstorm and capture ideas for the Practical Vision, Current Reality and Strategic Directions stages of the Participatory Strategic Planning process respectively.

Participants sat at 13 pre-assigned tables of 8, each hosted by a Board or staff member. The workshop process was ‘super-sized’ as with ICUU, with whole-A4 sheets for writing ideas and all table hosts coming to the sticky wall at once to share ideas in turn and cluster quickly in columns under symbols as they did so. Cluster titles were drafted at tables and accepted without lengthy discussion or revision.

Also as with ICUU, it had been clear in the design process that a deep level of consensus would not be possible with such a large group in such a short time. It was also clear that such a consensus would not be necessary for this workshop, just one consultative element in a much longer and more elaborate process of consensus building over the course of a year.

The adaptation in the moment came in the Naming stage of the workshop. The Focus Question was ‘What would make us happy that the strategic planning process has been a success? (in terms of the new strategy & membership model themselves, in terms of member engagement in the process, and otherwise)’. The intent had been that the resulting ‘indicators of success’ would serve as guidelines and a means of accountability for the process of strategy development and member engagement over the year, and that substantive content for the new strategy would be contributed during the following World Cafe session.

What happened was that many of the ideas contributed in the workshop were in fact answers to the Practical Vision question ‘What do we want to see in place by 2021 as a result of delivering our new strategy? (how will Eurochild be different, and what difference will Eurochild have made?)‘. It made no sense to address the Vision question again separately, and it seemed to make more sense to accept that the group was ready to work on its Vision right away rather than to spend time first trying to name indicators of success. So what we did was to cluster the mix of ideas into 11 columns representing 11 vision elements, with just the original symbol to identify each. Then participants self-selected into 11 table groups to name the vision element on a flip chart, and also articulate relative to that element any indicators of success, current reality and practical projects and initiatives.

Jana Hainsworth, Secretary General at Eurochild, wrote in September:

“Great that we had structure, but also great that we could think on our feet to adjust the planning according to what we were hearing from members. All in all we got a huge amount of raw material for development of the strategic plan. The methodology clearly helped.”

Read on for example 6…


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.