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.

The Power of Facilitation and Communication in partnership – your insights!

Free facilitation webinar - the Power of Facilitation and Communication in partnership #FacPower #ETF20Thank you again to everyone who participated in this week’s free facilitation webinar The Power of Facilitation and Communication in partnership – here below you will find the session recording, presentation slides and other resources shared.

If you did not attend, and even if you did, please do share something of your own experience and insights in a comment below:

  • Where & how have you used facilitation & communication skills and tools in partnership with each other?
  • What stories, examples or references can you share to illustrate how facilitation and communications competencies (and facilitators and communicators themselves) can support and add value to each each other?

All those who registered for the session will receive the final draft of our book chapter by email next month with an invitation to share any further feedback or input before publication – please contact me to let me know if you would like to be added to that list, or removed from it.  Of course, we will be please to credit you for any contribution that we use in the chapter – thank you!


In this session we explored the intersect between communication and facilitation, and the power of applying the professional skills and tools of facilitation and communication in partnership with each other.

I was joined for this session by Michael Ambjorn of AlignYourOrg; and again by Sunny Walker of the Virtual Facilitation Collaborative.

Michael and I are currently working on this theme to draft a chapter for a forthcoming book that aims to showcase the power of facilitation in various fields and contexts. The shorthand for the book project is #FacPower, and chapters are being authored and illustrated by a global team of expert facilitators and visual practitioners from all around the world.

We have been exploring this intersect between facilitation and communication, and working to build bridges and promote learning & collaboration between the two professions and their professional associations, since around 2013 – when I had just completed a term as Chair of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) and Michael was just embarking on a term as Chair of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). We were joined by members of both associations and both professions, and others.

We shared insights and stories from our own experience and others, from both professions, on how facilitation and communications competencies (and facilitators and communicators themselves) can support and add value to each each other. Just one such example that we drew on (which won awards from both IABC and IAF) is #ETF20.

We invited you to share your own reflections, insights and stories as well – for you to learn from each other during the session, and perhaps also (with permission and attribution) to contribute to the chapter and help to bring it to life.

We also sought to demonstrate what we are talking about, through co-creating with you a highly engaging and interactive online session – the power of facilitation and communication in partnership!

The session, like the chapter, drew on IABC’s Global Standard of the Communications Profession and IAF’s Core Facilitation Competencies.

Session materials & additional resources shared include:


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.

Free facilitation webinar – What do facilitators do, really?

Are you interested to learn more about facilitation, and ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP) methodology in particular – in a free, one-hour, interactive online session that offers an experience of virtual facilitation as well? Please join me for the next in my occasional series of free facilitation webinars!

Register now on Eventbrite for the next session on September 21 and register your interest on Surveymonkey for future topics to be scheduled. To review past session recordings and other outputs, and suggested topics, see free facilitation webinars.


What do facilitators do, really?

Thursday 21 September, 15.00 UK time 

In this session we shall explore the various dimensions of the role of the facilitator.

As our starting point we will refer to the 4-minute video “What do facilitators do, really?“, which describes three dimensions of the role in terms of the metaphors of architect, pilot and guide.  We will refer also to the Core Facilitator Competencies of the International Association of Facilitators, the foundation of the IAF Certified Professional Facilitator (CPF) accreditation, and to the IAF Statement of Values & Code of Ethics.  See also my own blog post What is facilitation, and how it can add value?

I shall be joined for this session by Beatrice Briggs CPF of the International Institute of Facilitation and Change (IIFAC) in Mexico, creator of the video; and again by Sunny Walker CPF of the Virtual Facilitation Collaborative in the USA.

We will invite you to share some of your own experience and insights on the facilitator role, and to respond with us to questions that are raised. We will apply the 4-level ‘ORID’ model of ICA’s ToP Focused Conversation method to structure the session, and we will share resources on that.


Each session in this occasional series of free facilitation webinars is hosted in Adobe Connect for a highly interactive learning experience.

Each topic is addressed by a short case study or presentation, supplemented by links to further online material for later reference. Sessions apply tools and techniques of virtual facilitation to help participants to engage with the material and the presenter, and with their own and each other’s experience on the topic. A short technical orientation directly before the session will introduce the features of the virtual meeting room and the tools to be used. A brief closing reflection at the end of the session will invite reflection and learning on the facilitation process and virtual tools as well as on the content of the session.

For full voice participation in the session for a more conversational experience, microphone rights are available to up to 15 participants who are first to login and set up their audio. Others are able to listen and interact via their keyboard alone.


Register now on Eventbrite, and register your interests on Surveymonkey.

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.

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.

Facilitation ethics and values – where do you draw a line?

no go zoneMembers of the International Association of Facilitators commit to upholding the IAF Code of Ethics. The code was the result of a 4 year collaborative development process of the IAF Ethics & Values Think Tank, and was adopted in 2004.

I find the code a helpful tool to support me in reflecting on my own practice and values as a facilitator, and I have been referring to it again as I have been preparing my portfolio for ICA’s Certified ToP Facilitator (CTF) assessment – see also Evidencing facilitation competencies: reflecting on lessons learned. However, it does not provide an easy blueprint for what you should and should not do as a facilitator. It is not as simple as that – there are sometimes ethical dilemmas to negotitate.

Where do you draw a line, based on your own ethics and values, beyond which you are not prepared to go as a facilitator?  Perhaps more problematically, how do you negotiate the drawing of such a line with your client and group, especially when a contract or a facilitated process is already underway?  There are no right  or easy answers, but as IAF Chair Kimberly Bain writes in her new Reflective Ethical Facilitator’s Guide:

“As facilitators we are architects of trust. We owe it to our clients to act with an informed appreciation of the ethical issues and competencies needed to help groups build consensus and produce meaningful outcomes”.

One precaution I take is to try to communicate my professional boundaries clearly well in advance, just as many facilitators aim to establish ground rules at the start of a session. I have found an easy and helpful way to do that is to include in my proposals a simple and positive statement (with hyperlinks included) to the effect that: “As a Certified Professional Facilitator, my clients are assured that I uphold the IAF Code of Ethics in my work, and that I demonstrate the full range of core Facilitator Competencies. Nevertheless I can recall occasions in which I have had to draw a line.

In one case, it took a series of contracting meetings with increasingly senior officers in a local authority before I was able to understand what was the unspoken aim driving the event that I was being invited to design and facilitate. Ostensibly the event was for a variety of stakeholders to share and learn from experiences of what was working in tackling a particularly intractable social issue in the borough, and to plan next steps for collaborative action. The covert aim, however, as it was eventually disclosed to me in hushed tones, was to convince and reassure senior officers and elected members that the Council’s approach was working just fine and was not in need of review. The 80 delegates had been invited to participate in order to be guided to this pre-determined conclusion.

I responded, in hushed tones myself and as tactifully as I could, that that was not something that I would be able to help with as a facilitator. As the code makes clear, “As group facilitators, we practice stewardship of process and impartiality toward content”. I explained what I could offer instead, and drafted and submitted a proposal on that basis. My cover note stressed: “How I can help is to design and facilitate an event that enables poeple to share their views and perspectives in such a way that they feel heard and understood, and that they have contributed meaningfully to something that will make a difference; but I will not be seeking to ensure that they reach any particular conclusion”.  My proposal was not accepted, but privately I was thanked for having helped to surface an issue that had been concerning officers involved.

In another case, my proposal had won a competitive bidding process and I had had been awarded a contract for a team to design and facilitate an extensive community consultation process over several months. At our first team meeting with the client to plan for delivery of the contract, the client insisted on a more extensive process than we had proposed, and in a shorter timeframe. When I suggested that it might not be possible for us to deliver an appropriate quality of service under such constraints, I was advised that we were committed under the terms of the bidding process to deliver and that these would be the constraints.

Following a long and late discussion among the team that evening after the meeting, I wrote to the client the next morning to advise that with regret we were withdrawing our proposal. As the code makes clear, “It is our responsibility to ensure that we are competent to handle the intervention”. The client was unhappy, to say the least, and felt that we had reneged on a contract and left them in the lurch at the last minute. We learned later that they had said as much to another of our clients.  On balance, however, we felt that we had done the best thing that we could have done in the circumstances.

Where do you draw a line, and how do you negotiate such a dilemma?


See also about mehow I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together.

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