Evidencing facilitation competencies – four years on

CPF pinThis is the essay I wrote and submitted for my IAF Certified Professional Facilitator (CPF) re-certification in October, which has just now been approved. The requirement of the essay was to “link lessons learned since your original certification date 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”.

In my 2012 recertification essay Evidencing facilitation competencies – reflecting on lessons learned I wrote “I have learned that I need to become more methodical in maintaining a record of my professional development in order to more easily and effectively renew my CPF in four years from now!”  Soon after that I established a spreadsheet to track contracts and events delivered and bid for, and clients and other relationships maintained, and I began a blog to publish and archive recommendations, case studies and other writing. As a result, I can now write with some confidence that, in four years since recertifying and going freelance in October 2012, I have delivered 62 contracts to 41 clients in 16 countries, involving 77 face-to-face and 13 virtual events and 52 facilitated processes and 38 facilitation training courses.

I shall use the IAF competencies again as a framework by which to reflect on and illustrate some of my professional experience, learnings and development in these past four years.

A. Create Collaborative Client Relationships

Beirut seafront 525x296I have continued to design and deliver longer and more complex processes with increasingly diverse and international clients groups. Increasingly these have involved virtual as well as face-to-face facilitation. Examples include a 9-month programme of member engagement and strategic planning with the International Council of Unitarians & Universalists (see UUA blog); a ‘One Country Strategy process’ with Oxfam in Lebanon (see case study) engaging around 150 stakeholders and multiple Oxfam affiliates; and an online conference “Economics of Climate Change Mitigation Options in the Forest Sector” with FAO for over 1,600 international experts (see case study).

Increasingly I find I am contracting remotely with overseas clients for multi-event processes that enable a launch event to include an element of co-design for later phases, for example in strategic planning with the Nansen Centre for Peace & Dialogue in Norway and with SSCL in Lebanon. Increasingly also I find that I am undertaking more complex contracting processes with more complex configurations of stakeholders. For example, collaborative design of a team retreat with the 60 staff of the Amnesty International Europe & Central Asia Regional Office this year engaged a fluid and semi-virtual working group of from 6-12 self-selecting group members over several meetings over several weeks. John Dalhuisen, my client for that retreat, wrote in a recommendation “Martin… will help you structure a meeting and think carefully about what you want from it.  Then he will get it for you.”

case study: Celebrating 20 years with the European Training Foundation in Turin – #ETF20I continue to work solo with my clients very often, but also as appropriate with a co-facilitator, as with Our ETF, a Journey Together in Turin, or with a larger team. I was one of 6 international and 14 Ukrainian facilitators to co-design and facilitate the Ukraine PEACE Summit with ICA Ukraine in 2014, for 250 delegates from local government, business and civil society from the 27 regions of Ukraine to “dialogue on ways to solve issues locally, restore goodwill among all peoples of Ukraine and establish greater regional and city control while strengthening the country of Ukraine”. With Initiatives of Change I provided design and facilitation support to the international conference team of around 8 for the Addressing Europe’s Unfinished Business conference at Caux, Switzerland (see recommendations).

B. Plan Appropriate Group Processes

I think the size as well as the diversity of my clients and groups has grown in the last four years. One of my aspirations for going freelance was to work more internationally, and now in fact most of my work is international. My clients have begun to include larger international NGOs, UN & EU agencies and global corporations as well small charities, social enterprises and consulting firms. I have worked much less with the UK public sector than before, perhaps in part as a result of public spending cuts in recent years.

My clients tell me that they appreciate my capacity work effectively with diverse groups. Eve Geddie wrote in a recommendation  “As a diverse, transnational, multilingual membership network, successful meetings are key to our internal and external successes. Many of our staff mentioned Martin’s [facilitation] training as a highlight in their end of year reviews – several said it was the most useful training they had ever attended”.

This week for the first time I facilitated with an international group of nine Health Ministers and ministerial representatives plus key advisors, in a one-day, closed and off-the-record Ministerial Forum as part of the 47th Union World Conference on Lung Health. In preparing the processes, time and space to be appropriate to this group and its needs I found myself departing significantly from my more typical facilitation practice. The meeting was not documented, and involved no writing or visuals except one wall poster and copies of the aims, agenda & delegate list.  The room layout and process allowed half of those present to attend as observers and advisers to individual participants, rather than as participants themselves, and protocol was carefully observed in the seating arrangement and speaking order.  The process involved several series of brief presentations followed by questions and discussion and interspersed with short breaks and opportunities for country delegations to confer among themselves. Participants remarked afterwards on the high level of interaction, hard work and accomplishment they had achieved together.

C. Create and Sustain a Participatory Environment

Case study: How engaging can a large facilitated online session be?In a blog post titled How engaging can a large facilitated online session be? I reflected on that question relative to my experience of an online conference designed and facilitated with FAO, involving over 1,000 participants in six 2-hour sessions over a  four week period. This turned out to be a steep learning curve for all of us in many respects, but the conclusion was largely very positive. My FAO clients joined me in sharing something of our experience in one of my free facilitation webinars.

I have found myself working more and more confidently with conflict in the past four years. This had been an explicit goal for myself in the previous four since my initial CPF assessment in 2008. The Ukraine PEACE Summit is an obvious and extreme example where conflict was front and centre in context and design, but many strategic planning and other processes I have facilitated in recent years have involved a more or less explicit element of conflict to be addressed. Several others have also involved conflict very directly in the context and content of the facilitation, for example working on strategic planning with Oxfam and SSCL in Lebanon in the context of the Syria crisis, with the Nansen Centre for Peace & Dialogue in Norway and with the Initiatives of Change Addressing Europe’s Unfinished Business conference at Caux, Switzerland.

Working with interpretation in multi-lingual groups in recent years has stretched my communication & listening skills and my capacity for developing rapport with groups. I have found working with consecutive interpretation in Russia and Ukraine to be less of an obstacle to understanding and rapport than working with simultaneous translation between multiple languages, such as at IofC’s Caux conferences in Switzerland.

D. Guide Group to Appropriate and Useful Outcomes

ORIDICA’s Technology of Participation methodology continues to serve me well as the foundation of my facilitation approach, to the extent that I have blogged and presented on the ORID model of ToP in Is there a Single, Universal Principle of Facilitation?  The presentation, shared at several IAF conferences & meetups, includes examples of how I have applied ORID in session design to produce a naturally flowing, focused and productive process, often in conjunction with other methods & tools of ToP and other approaches including World Café, Open Space and twitter chats.

E. Build and Maintain Professional Knowledge

Since 2012 I have attended 14 international conferences & regional gatherings of IAF, ICA & other Associations. In 2014 I led a six-month collaborative process, online and face-to-face at IAF conferences, to develop a collective story of facilitation as IAF celebrated its 20th anniversary –  Celebrating the development of facilitation – world-wide and history long. I have tweeted for International Facilitation Week @FacWeek since its inception in 2013.

What does it take for people to align behind change?I have organised IAF England & Wales free facilitation meetups since 2015, and I have attended, hosted and facilitated at dozens of IAF E&W free facilitation meetups in London and elsewhere since 2013.  I have pursued and promoted interdisciplinary learning and collaboration among facilitation, communications and change management professionals, and between members of their Associations IAF, IABC & CMI – see What does it take for people to align behind change? and Power to the People, and the power of facilitation and communications in partnership.

Cast Study: IAF Facilitation Impact AwardI was awarded ICA Certified ToP Facilitator status in 2016 after an extensive process of reflection, documentation and assessment to evidence my ToP methods competencies in addition to core facilitation competencies. I won an IAF Facilitation Impact Award in 2015 for Our ETF, a Journey Together. I was inducted into the IAF Hall of Fame in 2014.

F. Model Positive Professional Attitude

I have practiced self-assessment and self-awareness through my blogging and through my CTF certification, as for example in Facilitation ethics and values – where do you draw a line?  In that blog post I gave examples of when I have declined opportunities to facilitate where I felt my integrity required it.

On my website and routinely in proposals I declare that “As a Certified Professional Facilitator, my clients are assured that I uphold the IAF Code of Ethics and that I demonstrate the full range of core Facilitator Competencies.”

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.

Become a Certified Professional Facilitator in the UK this year!

ToP facilitation with a group of people with learning difficulties

Are you interested in taking the Certified Professional Facilitator assessment of the International Association of Facilitators in the UK this year, likely in London or Birmingham in December?

I and other CPFs have found the process a tremendous learning experience, and the designation itself a valuable professional distinction. Now is a great time to take the plunge yourself, as a group of around a dozen prospective candidates already is beginning to form to support each other through the process and get assessed together locally – and because the fee, which has remained unchanged for many years, is about to rise significantly in the new year.

The IAF CertifiedTM Professional Facilitator (CPF) is the professional designation for IAF members who demonstrate having Core Facilitator Competencies.  The Core Competencies represent a fundamental set of skills, knowledge, and behaviours that support effective facilitation in a wide variety of contexts.

The CPF designation benefits both facilitators and their clients. Facilitators achieve a formal certification and undertake valuable self-reflection and learning. For clients, working with a CPF provides an assurance that the facilitator has met the internationally recognised standard for effective facilitation of group processes.

To learn more about the CPF and its principle advantages, please visit Benefits of the CPF. To learn more about the CPF assessment process, please visit Becoming a CPF. For scheduled CPF assessment events worldwide, see CPF events.

There is no need to make any immediate decision or commitment, however you can help to make it possible to be assessed in the UK this year by expressing an interest now.

If you are interested, please:

  • email the IAF office <certification@iaf-world.org> to express an interest in registering for a CPF assessment event in the UK this year – this is what it takes to ensure that an event is scheduled and available for registrations
  • RVSP for our IAF E&W Certified Professional Facilitator assessment meetup (dates & locations to be confirmed) in order to connect with other prospective candidates and to join the online conversation on how to support each other through the process
  • respond to the doodle poll to indicate which dates would suit you best for a one-day assessment event in the UK – so far mid-December dates are most popular

For an indication of the type of documentary evidence that is required prior to the assessment day, and for re-certification each 4 years, see my own Evidencing facilitation competencies: planning with people with learning difficulties and Evidencing facilitation competencies – reflecting on lessons learned – and watch this space as I am due to re-certify again later this year…

For more on why you might want to get professionally certified as a facilitator, and on which certification process to follow, see also this short clip from IAF CPF and ICA CTF assessor Barbara MacKay of North Star Facilitators in the US:

If you are interested in facilitation, regardless of whether you are ready to consider certification or whether you are an IAF member, do join IAF England & Wales’ free facilitation meetups to meet, network and learn with others near you:

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 IAF England & Wales’ free facilitation meetups in London and elsewhere, and by joining my free facilitation webinars.

Evidencing facilitation competencies – reflecting on lessons learned

Building a future together: Broadening ownership in corporate planningThis ‘from the archive’ post is the essay I wrote for my IAF Certified Professional Facilitator (CPF) re-certification in 2012. I was reminded of it as I am now preparing a portfolio for my ICA Certified ToP Facilitator (CTF) assessment. This requires up-to-date evidence of all the IAF core competencies (broadly speaking), as well as of mastery in applying the core facilitation methods of ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP). The requirement of the essay was to “link lessons learned since your original certification date 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”.

I shall use the IAF competencies as a framework by which to reflect on and illustrate some of my professional experience and development since my CPF assessment in 2008.

A. Create Collaborative Client Relationships
Since my 2008 CPF assessment I have had the opportunity to lead the contracting and design of my largest client project to date, a 12 month process of facilitation capacity building and facilitated strategic planning delivered by myself and two colleagues [Jonathan Dudding and Ann Lukens] over 60 person days.  The project involved 90 manager trainees and around 400 staff and 1,000 members and other stakeholders of a community-based housing association in South Wales. It was later written up in an article Building a future together: Broadening ownership in corporate planning for the joint AMED & IAF Europe issue of the AMED Journal last year, and presented at the joint AMED & IAF Europe workshop in London in March 2012.

The contracting & design process itself comprised multiple meetings and project drafts over several months, but the investment in developing clarity and trust in advance proved invaluable to later success.  This whole process served to stretch and develop greatly my capacity for creating collaborative relationships with clients, and also with co-facilitators and partners. One key insight was the importance of frequent, regular face-to-face meetings between ICA:UK’s local Associate and the client’s internal project team as well as between myself and the client’s leadership.  Another related insight was to recognize that our intervention was but a small component of a much larger transformation process for the client, to which we could and did make a significant contribution but which we could not and need not fully understand or influence.

B. Plan Appropriate Group Processes
Since 2008 I have facilitated a second ‘Big Meeting’ for a user-led organisation of people with learning difficulties, the first of which served as the focus of my essay for my CPF assessment then (Evidencing facilitation competencies: planning with people with learning difficulties). This second event was conceived by the client as a ‘planning party’, in order to better engage participants than would a straightforward facilitated planning session, so atmosphere and drama were key to success.  This was achieved with the aid of plenty of games, balloons, cakes and craft materials, through a process designed collaboratively with the client.

In working with 60 academic researchers more recently in May of this year, the key was to allow plenty of time and space for participants to engage in lengthy, free-ranging and in-depth discussion in small groups. I was able to achieve this by giving them free reign of the beautiful and sunny botanical gardens adjacent to the venue for their small group sessions.  In spite of some resistance to what some perceived as over-simplification and dumbing down of complex issues, I was also able finally to bring the group to a collective conclusion in order to meet the needs of the client.

C. Create and Sustain a Participatory Environment
I made a point of developing experience and skills in virtual facilitation since my CPF in 2008, by selecting relevant sessions at each IAF conference attended and also by attending an 8-week virtual training course in ToP facilitation (Virtual Facilitation Online).  I have also had plenty of opportunity to practice virtual collaboration through my roles with the global IAF Board, and through participating in increasingly regular and sophisticated online global gatherings of members of ICA International (eg: ICAI online regional gatherings facilitate peer to peer support and collaboration). As a result I am increasingly proficient in the use of a variety of virtual tools myself, and my raised awareness of what is now possible encouraged me to lead the Board in scheduling IAF’s first online Annual Members Meeting later this year and procuring technical support through an open and competitive tendering process.

I have also made a point since 2008 of further exploring approaches to conflict, including by selecting conference sessions accordingly, by reading on conflict resolution and by some involvement in ICA:UK’s partnership work developing the Kumi method for social transformation in conflict situations on which I presented at the IAF Istanbul conference.  I am not aware that my facilitation practice has changed significantly as a result, but I certainly feel more confident in relation to conflict.

D. Guide Group to Appropriate and Useful Outcomes
I have experimented with a number of new tools and techniques since 2008.  In addition to virtual approaches mentioned above, these have included the suite tools of ICA’s Organisational Transformation course, which was new to me when I supported Bill Staples of ICA Associates to deliver it as a pre-conference course at the IAF Oxford conference in 2009. I have subsequently been able to apply some of these with success within ICA:UK and with ICA:UK clients as well.

I have adapted and applied multiple approaches in combination, including for example ToP, Open Space and Solutions Focus with the South Wales Housing Association mentioned above; and ToP and world café with a number or clients. I adapted a well-known ice-breaker to create on the hoof “Just one lie” for use at the IAF Board meeting in London in 2011, and subsequently wrote it up and contributed it to the IAF Methods Database and Global Flipchart Method of the Month [see Creativity in facilitation, and Just One Lie].

E. Build and Maintain Professional Knowledge
Since applying to join the IAF Board and take my CPF assessment in 2008 I have read through all the back issues of the IAF Journal and the IAF Handbooks and a number of other facilitation titles as well.  I have attended two IAF conferences each year.

My IAF Board roles have helped me to expand my professional network and relationships greatly, which has been enormously valuable for my learning and professional development.  This has also been aided by my increased use of social media in the last few years, particularly LinkedIn and twitter, which I find invaluable sources of new material of interest as well as new personal and professional connections.

In drafting this essay I have learned that I need to become more methodical in maintaining a record of my professional development in order to more easily and effectively renew my CPF in four years from now!  I have plans to start blogging regularly so I hope that will help greatly [Welcome to my new website and blog!].

In my forthcoming freelance career I am looking forward to focusing my professional practice more on the international development and humanitarian sector, and to the opportunities for learning and development that that will afford me.

F. Model Positive Professional Attitude
Since I have begun inviting professional recommendations via LinkedIn, I am proud that values professionalism and integrity have been referred to repeatedly.

I am excited as well as somewhat apprehensive to have given notice to step down from my role as Chief Executive from the end of September, after 16 years with ICA:UK [A new transition for ICA:UK – and for me], with a view to working freelance as a professional facilitator and facilitation trainer for at least some time.  With my IAF Chair role ending soon as well, in December [Reflections on a term as IAF Chair], I am relishing the prospect that my reduced responsibilities might allow more time for reflection and learning, and exploration of new opportunities and new avenues for professional development and service.

A view from the Board – from the new Chair of a renewed IAF Board

the International Association of FacilitatorsThis article ‘from the archive’ was first published IAF’s monthly newsletter the Global Flipchart, January 2011. See also Reflections on a term as IAF Chair, first published in the Global Flipchart, January 2013.

Happy New Year, and welcome to this New Year issue of the Global Flipchart, from the new Chair of a renewed IAF Board. I feel proud and privileged to have the opportunity to serve our Association and our profession as Chair of the IAF Board for 2011 & 2012, and I would like to take this opportunity to introduce the new Board and myself, and to share something of how I am viewing my role as Chair.

First, let me thank my predecessor as Chair, Gary Rush, and those other members who have just retired from the Board as of the end of December – Mark Edmead, Tony Nash, David Spann & Michael Spivey. They have all contributed greatly to IAF and its development during their terms on the Board. Their volunteer commitment to take this responsibility and devote their time and energy over recent years is much appreciated.

I would also like to thank, and welcome to the Board, those members who have been prepared to make such a new commitment, and who have been newly elected to the Board as of the beginning of January – Daphne Cant, Jerry Mings, Cynthia Pace, Ephraim Osunde, Bill Reid, Sheryl Smail and Linda Starodub. Thanks are also due to those Board members who are continuing to serves their terms (Sharon Almerigi, Kimberly Bain, Jackie Chang & Carol Sherriff) and those who stood and were re-elected to second terms (Pamela Lupton-Bowers, Rhonda Tranks & Simon Wilson).

I thank also Chair Julie Larsen and the other members of the Board Nominations & Elections committee, who led us through the recent election process that has enabled us to start the New Year with every one of the 15 Board positions now filled, and with renewed clarity and commitment of Board members to their roles. Thank you also to you, the members, for turning out to vote – and to the many members who volunteer their time and expertise for IAF in so many ways, year round. For details of the IAF Board, its members and their roles, please visit the ‘About IAF’ pages at www.iaf-world.org.

I have been a member of IAF since 2007, but have attended I think 10 IAF conferences (in Europe and North America to date) since my first in London in 1997. In 2008 I earned the IAF Certified Professional Facilitator designation, and also in 2008 I was appointed to the IAF Board. I served first as Regional Representative for Europe, and then was appointed as Vice Chair for 2010.

My background in facilitation is in the international community & organisational development work of the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) – a global network of autonomous non-profit organisations in 30 countries, out of which IAF itself originated in the early 1990s.   I was first trained in ICA’s ToP facilitation methods (the Technology of Participation) as part of my international volunteer induction training with ICA in 1986. Following a year volunteering with ICA India, and then six years working with ICA in Egypt, I have worked with ICA:UK since 1997 – supporting the grassroots community development work of our sister and partner organisations in Africa and elsewhere, training & orientating international volunteers, and applying ICA’s participatory approach to the youth work sector and to local public service delivery in the UK – see www.ica-uk.org.uk. As Chief Executive, the focus of my day job is the management and governance of ICA:UK as a charity and a social enterprise. A good deal of my time is also spent delivering services, however, which in this case means providing facilitation, training and consulting to develop capacity for participation and partnership working, largely with public and voluntary sector clients nationally in the UK.

I think of my professional interests and goals in terms of facilitative leadership, where facilitation, management and governance intersect – so I have sought volunteer roles as well that have allowed me to explore and develop in that area. These have included serving as Board member and Treasurer of ICA International from 1998-2006, more recently as Trustee of UK youth development charity FOCUS and committee member of the UK Quaker Congo Partnership, and now most recently as a member of the Board of IAF.

I am viewing my role as Chair primarily as providing facilitative leadership to the Board – in order that we may best, collectively, provide facilitative leadership to the Association as a whole, and in order that IAF may best provide facilitative leadership to our profession and indeed to the world at large. With reference to IAF’s six Core Facilitation Competencies, I would describe this facilitative leadership role in terms of:

Developing and promoting collaborative relationships through clarity, transparency and accountability – within the Board, within the IAF as a whole, and between IAF and its external partners and stakeholders

  1. Adopting, communicating and applying appropriate group processes, notably IAF policies and procedures, and also structures
  2. Sustaining and enhancing a participatory environment that is inclusive of diversity, encourages creativity and innovation, and manages conflict
  3. Ensuring appropriate and useful outcomes through development and implementation of effective strategy
  4. Building and maintaining professional knowledge, around association management and governance as well as facilitation
  5. Modelling a professional, facilitative leadership approach at all levels

I am excited to be starting my term as Chair with a strong and committed new team of Board members to work with, and to see them energetically acquainting themselves with their new roles, with the active support of their predecessors and of continuing Board members. I am keen to enable the new Board to form, and indeed to perform, as quickly as possible; so I am delighted that we will be meeting face-to-face this year in January, in London to minimise costs, rather than in conjunction with a conference later in the year as has been recent practice. I do however look forward to attending IAF conferences as well, as we all will, in my case starting with the North America conference in Denver in April.

At our January Board meeting we will articulate our work plan and budget for the year ahead, and during the year we will use the Global Flipchart and other means to communicate and engage with you, the members of IAF, on progress, challenges and opportunities for involvement. I expect key challenges and priorities for the Board to include (in no particular order, and very much inter-related): membership retention and growth, chapter development, successful delivery of annual conferences in the regions, strengthened financial management and financial security, the upcoming new website and our online presence, and the development and growth of the certification programme. I think that one key to success, in all of these, will be articulating, communicating and delivering the demonstrable value that IAF can add to its members, to the profession and to the wider world. I think that another key to success will be applying our own expertise as facilitators to do all of this collaboratively, together.

Please get in touch with me, or any of your Board members, to share your questions, feedback or suggestions; now and throughout the year. You can email me at iafchair@iaf-world.org, skype me at martingilbraith, and connect with me at http://uk.linkedin.com/in/martingilbraith. You can find contact details for all IAF Board members at www.iaf-world.org.

Evidencing facilitation competencies: planning with people with learning difficulties

I had thought that I might share this ‘from the archive’ piece during International Facilitation Week recently, as a way of promoting and celebrating IAF’s Certified Professional Facilitator accreditation programme in conjunction with that. As it turned out, Facilitation Week prompted such an avalanche of activity around the world and online that I had a hard time keeping up as official @FacWeek tweeter, so here it is now.  The piece was prepared as part of my own initial assessment for Certified Professional Facilitator accreditation in 2008, in the format required to summarize a workshop I had designed and facilitated in order “to illustrate your application of the Facilitator Core Competencies in your work”. It drew on an extended case study that I had prepared previously for ICA:UK, ToP facilitation with a group of people with learning difficulties.

ToP facilitation with a group of people with learning difficulties

Connect in the North: Big Meeting, August 2007 in Leeds

1. What workshop are you summarizing? Nb:Core facilitator competencies illustrated are indicated in square brackets [A-F]

Connect in the North: Big Meeting (August 2007). For the organisation to listen to people with learning difficulties and update its business plan – to improve services and opportunities for people with learning difficulties.

2. Is there anything specific about the background leading up to the workshop that we need to understand? If necessary, provide a brief paragraph describing the background leading to the event.

[E3, F2] ICA:UK is concerned with the human factor in world development – creating a humane and sustainable future for all, through partnership and participation. We work nationally and internationally to enable individuals, organisations and communities to work together to bring about positive change.

Connect in the North (CITN) brings together people with learning difficulties and not-for-profit organisations to improve services and opportunities for people with learning difficulties.  CITN Director Cathy Wintersgill had attended a number of ICA:UK’s public Technology of Participation (ToP) facilitation training courses since 2003, and had used elements of the approach in her work within CITN and with client organisations as well.

After attending our ToP Participatory Strategic Planning (PSP) course in May 2007, Cathy expressed an interest in contracting me to apply elements of this method to CITN’s “Big Meeting”, an annual event for the organisation to listen to the views of people with learning difficulties and update its business plan.

She had not before attempted to facilitate a full ToP Consensus Workshop with a group of people with learning difficulties, however, and was concerned that some of those attending the Big Meeting might find the clustering of ideas and naming of clusters difficult and boring, and so disengage.  Although I did not have prior experience of facilitating groups of people with learning difficulties, my experience generally has been that the methodology is sufficiently robust but flexible to be applied successfully with virtually any group.  So, to help to assess what sort of approach would be appropriate, I offered to do some research to explore the experience of other facilitators who have facilitated such groups, using both ToP methods and other approaches.

3. What were the workshop objectives?  Please provide a concise paragraph describing the workshop purpose (objectives, or deliverables.).

[A1, A2] In my proposal to Cathy I articulated the aims of the day as follows:

  • to develop a shared big-picture understanding of the longer-term direction of the organisation, grounded in CITN’s values, and it’s practical implications
  • to generate some clear ideas for future projects or activities that might attract external funding or otherwise generate additional income
  • to involve key stakeholders, and particularly people with learning difficulties themselves, in such a way that they feel a sense of ownership of the organisation and empowerment to shape it’s future

For the purposes of the meeting itself I expressed these as:

Why are we here? – aims of today

  • To build a big picture together of our future direction
  • To have new ideas for future activities and income
  • For everyone to get involved and feel that they own it

4. What was the Agenda for the workshop?  Please provide, in list format, the workshop Agenda.

[A3, B2] The process was designed on the basis of four sessions of around 45-60 minutes, each allowing about a half as long again for activities as I might typically plan for.  The outline of the day I presented like this:

What we will do – today’s schedule

  • Opening and introductions
  • Context: what will affect our future – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities & Threats
  • Break
  • Workshop: projects and activities for the future
  • Lunch
  • continued…
  • Break
  • Reflect and close

5. How many participants did the workshop include?

[F2] 20 people attended the CITN Big Meeting in August, prior to their AGM which was to follow some weeks later. This included all 5 staff, most of the 9 Board members and some other members as well – both individual members and representatives of organisational members.  The majority were people with learning difficulties, including some of the staff and most of the members and Board members.

6. What were your responsibilities as Facilitator of the event?  (from B)

[E3] Contractor to the client and sole facilitator.The process design was informed by prior research with facilitators experienced in working with people with learning difficulties, by means of GRP-FACL and three other email forums

7. How long was the workshop?  (In hours or days, from B above)

A single short-full day facilitated event (10am-3pm)

8. Description of the Workshop   Please describe the workshop, highlighting the following:

  • Your preparation for the event
  • Session design considerations/approach
  • Facilitation techniques used
  • Tools, equipment, visual aids, etc. used
  • Results achieved
  • Difficulties encountered and their solutions/lessons learned
  • How the Foundational Facilitator Competencies were exhibited throughout the event

[C4, E1, E3] Soon after Cathy’s initial enquiry in May 2007, I emailed a brief query to four online facilitation discussion groups, and within 10 days had received 22 responses totalling 17 pages and a wealth of experience and insight.  The four groups were ICA:UK’s own ToP Associates network, the global ICA ToP trainers network, the IAF Group Facilitation discussion group and the UK Community Participation Network.  My request was for respondents to share any experience of facilitating groups with people with learning difficulties that might point to any potential issues, and to share any hints & tips for success.

[A2, B1, C2] I used the ToP Consensus Workshop method to discern six key insights from the responses received.  I shall describe how I designed and facilitated the event relative to these six insights.

i. collaborate with members of the group (and others with experience of working with them) to design & facilitate a process that will work for them

[A1, A2, C4, D2, F3] Cathy & I agreed early on that I would meet with a small group before the event to hear their perspectives directly on what we should aim to achieve on the day and what sort of approach might be most effective, and also to help to build the group’s commitment and sense of ownership of the approach to be taken.  I met with five of the Board members (4 of whom had learning difficulties) and the 3 full-time staff.  I listened to their answers to my questions and answered some questions of theirs as well. This enabled me to confirm my understanding of their aims for the day, and we agreed broadly how it should be structured and the approach to be used to achieve their desired outcomes, and our respective  roles and responsibilities.

[A2, A3] Based on what I had learned from this design meeting of the organisational context and the client groups’ needs, I was able to revise my original process proposal to comprehensively document our consensus on the way forward as the basis of the contract between us.

ii. adapt/slow the pace

[B2] Well before the design meeting it was a clear parameter that the Big Meeting would be a ‘short full day’, ie: around 10am-3pm, including morning & afternoon breaks and lunch.  Therefore  it was clear from the outset that nothing close to a full 4-workshop PSP process would be possible.

[A3, B2, C1, C4, D1, D2, D3, E2] Instead, I proposed that we focus the day around a single ToP Consensus Workshop to help to meet all three aims, with the fairly general and straight-forward focus question “What projects or activities would you like to see over the next five years?”  To ground this workshop in CITN’s values and in the practical implications of the charity’s current circumstances, Cathy agreed to give a 5-minute power-point presentation on the organisation’s mission, values and recent & current activities; and we followed this with a ‘carousel’-style participatory SWOT analysis – strengths (“what are we good at?”), weaknesses (“what are we not so good at?”), opportunities (“what might help us?”) and threats (“what might be a problem for us?”).  To break the ice and warm people up to participating fully, we began with introductions, sharing hopes & fears for the day, and an energiser – working as a team to ‘play’ happy birthday to one of the group, as a ‘human orchestra’ (humming, clapping etc. or making any noise without singing or using words).  We closed the day with a reflection using a set of “transport cards”, with participants choosing to stand under one of 8 images representing modes of transport and describing how the day for them had been like a journey by coach, bicycle, skateboard, spaceship etc.

[C1, D1] Keeping sessions short and using a variety of activities and ways of ways of working within them seemed to be enough to keep everyone engaged throughout the day.  I invited people to feel free to get up and move around, or leave and come back, if they wanted to, and to a limited extent they did.  To try to ensure that everyone was understanding and being understood adequately I regularly reflected back what I was hearing and asked others to do so as well, and when a question of content or clarity was raised I generally sought one or two responses from the group to satisfy it rather than try to answer it myself.  The warm up exercise was well received, and generated much laughter, if not much of a tune!

iii. adapt & vary the size & composition of small groups (eg: use “learning partners”)

[B2, C2] About three quarters of the time overall was spent working in small groups and individually, rather than in plenary – probably more than I would typically plan for a group of such a size.  There was a great diversity of communication styles in the group, so I think this was important to allow everyone the time and space they needed to contribute safely and comfortably.

[B2] The group were seated at four tables of about five each throughout the day, facing a 5m ‘sticky wall’ for the visual presentations and workshop.  This made for quite intimate and supportive small group working.  Initially I invited participants to choose their own tables, in order that they seat themselves with others that they would be comfortable working with, although with the proviso that at each table there should be at least one person who would record the group’s ideas on paper.  This turned out to be no problem at all as most were keen to participate in recording.  At the beginning of the workshop session I invited 3 at each table to each move to different tables, to vary the groups, but again I left it up to them to choose who would move and where to. This seemed to work well, and I was glad that I had not tried to be more prescriptive about who should work with whom.

iv. use (& allow use of) words, symbols, images, colours etc. with care & creativity to hold meaning

[C1, C4] In asking people to record I made it clear that they were welcome to do so using words, images, symbols, colours or in any other way that they found helpful.   I made a particular effort myself to use images and symbols alongside words on everything that I presented during the event, and I included plenty of photographs of both the group and their work alongside the textual documentation in the report of the event.  I experimented for the first time with providing the tables with multi-coloured half-sheets for recording their ideas on during the workshop, and reserved white half-sheets for the cluster titles (I am in the habit of using white half-sheets for the brainstorm ideas and a single colour to differentiate titles).  I provided the tables with markers of a variety of colours as well, with the additional fun of a different fruit scent to each colour!

In the event the group recorded its work largely in words, and only a few images and symbols were used – in fact participants seemed to relish the challenge of demonstrating their writing skills. How far my own modest graphic facilitation skills were appreciated was not clear, but the multi-coloured half-sheets were a great success in making it easy for people to refer to ideas on the sticky wall without having read or describe them each time (“the blue card, bottom-left, goes with the top-centre cluster with the red & green cards”).

v. allow & encourage people to relate ideas, and form & name clusters, in whatever ways are meaningful to them

[C1, C3, C4, D2, F2, F3] I made explicit during the workshop that there was no right or wrong way to cluster ideas or name the clusters, but that we were looking for clusters and names that would be meaningful to the group and which would help them to make the best of the ideas they had come up with and put them into practice after the meeting.  In fact many of the group took to the clustering with such enthusiasm that the plenary became quite noisy and chaotic at times – such that on several occasions I reminded people to speak one at a time, asked specifically to hear from someone who had not spoken for a while, and called for silence to allow everyone to think for a moment.

[C3, D3, E2] The naming of the clusters was accomplished quite easily, and much more quickly than I had anticipated – every activity up until that point had taken at least as long as I had planned for, such that I was becoming quite concerned as to whether we would be able to complete the workshop and close the day before people started leaving in their pre-booked taxis.  In fact the names were proposed and agreed much more quickly that most groups I have worked with, and it became clear to me that this group really was perfectly satisfied with quick, simple and intuitive names – in contrast to many groups which can want to get the names just right, and so find it very difficult and time-consuming to agree (Sam Kaner’s ‘Groan Zone’ of participatory decision making).  Conflict was not an issue.  Far from running over time, in the end we were able to enjoy a relaxed closing reflection and finish early with 10 minutes to spare.

[C4, E2, F3] As usual, the original ideas, the clusters and the cluster names all clearly meant more to the participants than they did to me – which I take as a good sign in any workshop!  However, I felt in no way that I would have wanted to cluster or name any differently myself, had I been involved as a participant rather than as impartial facilitator.

vi. show respect for people & their diversity of abilities & styles

[B1, C2, C3] It was indeed a diverse group, in terms of age, gender and culture as well as in terms of physical and learning abilities.  I hope that I did show respect for this group and its diversities, as I would any group.  However my experience was that I did nothing particularly different with this group in order to do so, and that nothing particularly different was required.  In fact the various styles and behaviours of this group may have been sometimes more overt and less subtle than those of most groups that I work with, but they were not really so very different.  The group itself was certainly no less respectful than most, on the contrary perhaps more so.  One participant with physical impairments needed several minutes to communicate any verbal contributions with the help of a support worker yet, even when the group was quite boisterous, all voices fell silent and everybody waited patiently whenever he had something to contribute.


[A3, B1, F2] It is for the group themselves to judge the success or otherwise of their meeting, and of course the real test will be the extent to which it has made a difference to them and CITN in the future.  Certainly the group expressed their satisfaction with the process as it unfolded – at the design meeting, during the day and in the closing reflection. In fact, the event ended with quite a sense of excitement and anticipation.  Cathy wrote shortly afterwards, from her point of view:

“Thank you so much for the brilliant job you did on Friday. The day was better even than I had hoped. The level and quality of participation was very high, everyone enjoyed it and we now have a clear sense of a shared direction.  The report looks absolutely excellent – thanks for putting it together so quickly.”

[E1, E3, F1] For myself, both the initial research and the facilitation experience have been a refreshing opportunity to test my assumptions, reflect on my practice, and stretch my skills in a context that has been new to me.  I found it both reassuring and gratifying that the process was received as well as it was, not least because of how little I felt I needed to tailor the ToP methodology and my own facilitation style on account of participants’ learning difficulties.

I was pleased to take the opportunity to write up my experience of both the workshop and the research, including extracts of the email responses I had received in respondents own words.  I published this as a case study on the ICA:UK website, and made it available via the four email groups that I had consulted, including all those who had responded.

[A1] I am also delighted that the process has helped me to develop my relationship with Cathy and Connect in the North, such that two further staff have since enrolled on ICA:UK’s ToP facilitation courses, and Cathy has joined a project team with ICA:UK and others to conduct a participatory evaluation for another client of a programme involving young people with learning difficulties in politics in Wales.