ToP facilitation and Lessons from the Village

This article was written for ICAI Winds and Waves, April 2015 issue.

Welcome to this new issue of Winds & Waves, the online magazine of ICA International, entitled ‘Lessons from the Village’.

ICA is perhaps most widely known today for its group facilitation methodology the Technology of Participation (ToP). This proven approach is applied by many hundreds if not thousands of professional facilitators around the world, to help groups to connect, learn and collaborate together in a wide variety of contexts. The International Association of Facilitators was founded in 1994 by some seventy such ToP facilitators, and many ICAs around the world today provide professional facilitation, training and consulting services to clients on a social enterprise basis, specialising in the ToP approach.  ICAI members ICA USA and ICA Associates and the ToP Network are proud to sponsor this year’s upcoming IAF North America conference in Banff, Canada, from May 14-16.  But what has all this got to do with Lessons from the Village?

Jawale village viewThe methods and tools of the Technology of Participation have been developed and refined by ICA in over 50 years of experience working in grassroots rural community development, in villages around the world. Most if not all ICAs continue to apply this approach to empower poor and marginalised people to participate meaningfully in bringing about positive change for themselves, for their communities and for the world, even as these ICAs work with other approaches and in other contexts as well.  There is more to the Technology of Participation than the methods and tools, and there is more to ICA than ToP, but it might be fair to say that ToP is among the most enduring of the Lessons from the Village that ICA has learned in its first half century.

Jawale ICA centreThis issue begins with a series of stories (pages 4, 8 & 10) of ICA colleagues revisiting today the Indian villages in which they were involved in ICA’s pioneering of the ToP approach in the rural Human Development Projects of the 1970s and 1980s. I began my own journey with ICA (and as a facilitator) as a fresh-faced international volunteer in one of these very villages in 1986, so I share a few of my own archive photos of Jawale here as well. Emerging lessons from these stories include the impact of urbanisation, the importance of connecting communities with local authorities, and the importance of values and methods to inspire, mobilise and empower volunteers.

Jawale ICA staff teamAlso in this issue you will find stories of peer-to-peer collaboration between ICAs today, including a youth media project involving students in Nepal and the USA (page 16); an online event on cross-border peace-building of ICA Ukraine with ICA Taiwan (page 23); and lessons learned by Global Facilitators Serving Communities on the role that ToP facilitation can play in supporting the recovery process and resilience of communities affected by disaster (page 20).

Jawale 9 programmes chartAs our colleagues of ICA Nepal now respond to the impact of April’s devastating earthquake, in Kathmandu and in rural areas, we encouarge you to show your support by responding to the appeal that they have launched – for details see page 28 and ICA Nepal on Facebook, and donate online now.  Many more of ICA’s Lessons from the Village can be found in the 2012 book of ICA Nepal ‘Changing Lives Changing Societies‘, published in conjunction with the 8th ICA Global Conference on Human Development hosted by ICA Nepal in Kathmandu.

This 11th issue of Winds and Waves is the last to be co-edited and laid out by John Miesen of ICA Australia, after some 30 years involvement in ICA publications in Australia and internationally. On behalf of the Board and ICAI as a whole, I thank John wholeheartedly for his years of service, and in particular for his central role in establishing Winds and Waves as ICAI’s flagship publication and a key tool of our peer-to-peer approach to facilitaing mutual support, learning and collaboration among ICAs.

The ICAI Board will meet face-to-face in Tanzania in May, prior to a regional gathering of East & Southern African ICAs. We plan to meet virtually during that time with the ICAI global communications team, to plan for the continuity and development of this magazine and our communications more generally, in the light of the new ICAI website and blog that is now in development in WordPress.

Please do contribute your own stories of advancing human development around the world to the next issue of Winds and Waves in August.

Please also get in touch if you may be interested in joining the team to support with commissioning, reporting, editing, layout and design, social media, or in any other way.

Enjoy this issue!

Reviewing the past to prepare for the future: #FacHistory in Copenhagen

Facilitating #FacHistory workshop - photo @jppoupardThank you to everyone who joined my session Reviewing the past to prepare for the future on Friday, at the IAF Europe conference in Copenhagen Facilitation Reloaded.  Here I am sharing links to the resources and case studies that I mentioned during the session – both on our topic, which was the history of facilitation, and on the process we used, which was the ICA ‘ToP’ Historical Scan method.

FacHistory Historical ScanFor more on the history of facilitation, and the events and links shared online and at various IAF conferences this year, cick to enlarge the photos here of our own session and of the IAF travelling timeline, andIAF travelling timeline see also:

On ICA’s ToP Historical Scan method, see:

For case studies of real-life applications of the method in different contexts, see:

To join me and other faciliators worldwide in reflecting together on the past and future development of facilitation and our profession, please join our #FacWeekChat twitter chats, October 22 & 23 during International Facilitation Week 2014., or do also share any comments on the post, here below. Thank you!

ICA International Board update, February 2014

Global BuzzThis post was first published in ICAI’s monthly bulletin the Global Buzz.

In January the ICAI Board began to develop its Business Plan for 2014, based on the strategic framework and budget included in the 2013 plan that were re-affirmed by the General Assembly in December. We aim to finalise this and circulate it to members for information in February.

We are grateful to 40 respondents so far who have offered their feedback by our online survey on the December online regional gatherings and GA, and particularly the 21 who had not participated in those meetings. This was designed to help the ICAI Board to make this year’s gatherings and GA more inclusive and more effective. Our conclusion at the January Board meeting is to keep doing the Adobe Connect meetings this year, because those who attend appreciate them and are increasingly familiar with the technology. We will try to make them more inclusive by looking into free-phone audio options and by supporting people to improve their internet access or to attend the meeting from somewhere where access is better. However we will do this format of adobe meetings only twice in June and twice in December, instead of three times in each of March, July & December, to allow extra time to support the regions to experiment with other approaches such as google hangout, Skype or simple tele-conferencing.  For the GA we will use adobe for the meeting but do the voting by surveymonkey over 10 days to allow everyone to vote.

The Board has announced a special General Assembly meeting to be held 1-2pm UK time on Wednesday 26 February.  This special meeting will be to discuss and vote on a resolution to revise the ICAI Bylaws, as discussed at the GA in December.  Some minor revisions are needed in order to comply with new requirements under Canadian law  for all Canadian-registered non-profits such as ICAI to obtain a ‘Continuance” in order to continue. The one hour meeting will be held online using Adobe Connect, to allow for questions and discussion as needed, and representatives of statutory ICAs in particular are encouraged to attend.  For the voting we will use surveymonkey, and allow 10 days for responses from the time of the meeting, so that all statutory ICAs are able to vote even if they cannot attend the meeting. Please ask for details if you are interested and have not received them.

I was in New York last week attending a conference, and was able to take the opportunity to collect a UN grounds pass and attend a briefing session on behalf of ICAI for NGOs with consultative status. Also I was glad to meet with Larry Philbrook and Seva Gandhi on Monday, as they were there also to deliver a course.

We have been shocked and saddened by the sudden and unexpected death last week of Wayne Nelson of ICA Associates in Canada. Our thoughts are with Jo and his family, and also his close ICA colleagues in Canada.  Wayne has been greatly involved and supportive of ICAI over his long years with ICA globally and in Canada, and will be sorely missed.

Three dimensions of the facilitator role – a focused conversation

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I used this great little 4 minute video in a Group Facilitation Methods course in Brussels yesterday (to be repeated as a public course in Brussels in November), to launch a conversation on the role of the facilitator and to demonstrate the ToP Focused Conversation method in the process. The group of 18 were mostly staff members of a variety of European-level social NGO networks, supporting their member NGOs to learn, collaborate and campaign together. It produced a rich conversation and a great demonstration of the method, and many insights that we were able to refer back to again and again during the remainder of the course.

I shall certainly use the video and my conversation questions again, so I thought I would share them here for others to try as well. If you use them, please do let me know how it goes for you!  I allowed 20 minutes for the conversation, which worked well for us. We pretty much followed the sequence of questions as shown below, although by the interpretive level the conversation has taken off such that I used the questions to steer the conversation rather than to stimulate it.

The video is by the International Institute of Facilitation and Change (IIFAC) and is now available also in Spanish, German, Russian, Chinese, Italian and Japanese.  For more on the ToP Focused Conversation method, see the ICA:UK ToP method overview (pdf) and Brian Stanfield’s ‘Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace‘. When I first shared the video in an earlier post, I quoted John Miller of ICA Associates on his experience of using the video for a Focused Conversation with a high school class in Canada.

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Objective level questions

1. What words and phrases do you recall from the clip?

2. What images do you remember?

3. What people or characters?

4. What else about the clip did you notice, such as sound, colour, design?

Reflective level questions

5. What particularly surprised or intrigued you in the clip?

6. Which ideas were most familiar to you?

7. What reminded you of your own experience of meetings that you have designed and facilitated, or participated in?

8. What other metaphors for facilitation come to mind for you?

Interpretive level questions

9. How well do these three metaphors capture the role of the facilitator in your experience? What would you add?

10. Which of these three dimensions is best understood and appreciated in your own situations?

11. What aspects of the facilitator role would you most like to learn and practice more? How?

Decisional level questions

12. What is one insight from this clip or conversation that will you take away and apply in your own work?

13. Who would you like to share this clip with?

See also Facilitation, and how it can add value.


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.

Move beyond ‘seat of the pants’ facilitation


“Move beyond ‘seat of the pants’ facilitation and reliance on instinct, and use the most powerful facilitation methods and processes available in the world today.”

Well done and thank you to Bill Staples and ICA Associates in Canada for another great little video in their series introducing ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP) facilitation approach – see also Introducing the Technology of Participation on Vimeo and How I work.

This new 3 minute video (above) previews ICA’s flagship 2-day ToP Group Facilitation Methods training course. This course introduces the foundational ToP Focused Conversation and ToP Consensus Workshop methods, through demonstration, theory, practice and application.

This course, and others building on these two foundational methods, are available from ICAs in all continents worldwide – including ICA Associates and of course ICA:UK.  For links and further details, please see ICA International or contact me.

Online ToP Group Facilitation Methods training – I am convinced!

ICA AssociatesI was pleased to have the opportunity to join one of the new online ToP Group Facilitation Methods courses of ICA Associates of Canada the other week. I had been sceptical of the value of online training for face-to-face facilitation, but I was impressed and came away convinced!

The Technology of Participation, pioneered and refined by ICA in over 40 years of experience worldwide, is a proven system of facilitation methods and tools that can be adapted and applied to help all sorts of groups accomplish a wide variety of tasks together. It has been central for many years to how I work myself. Today’s Group Facilitation Methods course was first piloted in the early 1990s, and is now delivered by national ICAs and their local partners all over the world to many thousands every year. In my own 20 years of experience of the course I have become familiar with many variations in how it is and has been delivered, not least which of the core ToP methods are included in the standard two days of training – only Focused Conversation and Consensus Workshop, or also Action Planning. Tailored, in-house courses vary even more widely in their formats than scheduled, public courses.  Additional courses cover additonal tools and methods, and support learners to gain the skills and competencies they need to apply them effectively in their own situations.

The basic structure of the course, however, has proven remarkably powerful and resilient across time and context. First, demonstrate each method. Second, talk through the theory of how and why it works and how to use it. Third, give every participant and opportunity to practice the method in safe and supported small groups with expert and peer feedback. Fourth, support participants to plan how they will use the method for real in their own situation in the near future.  End-of-course participant satisfaction ratings on ICA:UK Group Facilitation Methods courses commonly average over 8/10, and 10/10 is not unusual. How could such a tried and tested approach possibly be translated effectively into a virtual environment, I wondered?

One of the keys to the effectiveness of the online course, I have concluded, is the choice of Blackboard Collaborate for the virtual training room.  While many ToP practitioners have adopted Adobe Connect as their platform of choice for virtual ToP facilitation, the whiteboard facility in Collaborate does seem to work better for virtually replicating the real-world sticky wall, such a valuable tool for the ToP Consensus Workshop method.

Perhaps more important is the advance preparation that is expected of participants before the course, including advance scheduling of homework and practice time inbetween the virtual sessions. While the face-to-face course is commonly delivered in full in two consecutive eight-hour days, the virtual course is delivered in six two-hour sessions spread over two weeks or more, with considerable homework expected as well. Participants receive the same GFM course workbook, but by email in advance, and also e-books of the Art of Focused Conversation and the Workshop Book.  They are expected to review the workbook and at least the introductory chapters of the two books in advance of the course, meaning that they arrive with a good overview aleady and some considered questions to ask. This makes a considerable difference to the depth of discussion achieved online.

The first week of the online course covers the Focused Conversation Method and the second week covers the Consensus Workshop method, while face-to-face courses most often cover one method per day. Session one of each week demonstrates the method and introduces the theory, and is followed by homework to embed the theory and raise further questions to address in session two.  Session two completes the theory and supports participants to plan their own real-life practice of the method. Before the course begins they have real-life group sessions scheduled to enable them to practice for real, rather than with each other as on the face-to-face course. Session three debriefs the practice sessions, and looks at further applications for the method in particpants’ own situations.

The course I joined, with sessions timed for North America and Europe (at 6-8pm London time), was attended by six ­­participants from various locations across the US and Canada, plus me and Bill Staples of ICA Associates as guests. Another parallel course was running the same days with sessions timed for North America and Asia, and was being attended largely by a group in Korea.  Both courses were being led by veteran ToP trainers Jo Nelson and Wayne Nelson, with focusing on technical support.

The group were a mix of independent professional facilitators and managers and internal consultants within large organisations – not so different to groups I am familiar with from face-to-face public courses.  I was very impressed with how much value they were clearly getting from the course, and how much they were appreciating it. It was clear to me that the virtual demonstrations of the methods did not provide an equivalent experience to face-to-face demonstrations.  For participants with sufficient experience of group work, however, and with their advance reading on the methods, they clearly provided a perfectly adequate basis for the theory and practice to follow. Moreover, that theory and practice seemed to me to be no less rich and insightful than in face-to-face courses of my experience.  What was lost by not spending intensive face to face time together seemed to be more than compensated for by having considerably longer study and reflection time over the whole two week period of the sessions. What was lost by not practicing together with each other, and sharing peer feedback based on direct experience of each others’ practice, seemed to be more than compensated by practicing in participants’ own real-life contexts and working with real groups to address real issues. While I was fascinated by the many comparisons I was able to make between the online course and the many face to face courses I have led, the group were clearly not burdened by how the course might have been in a face-to-face version but were engaging with it and appreciating it just as it was.

I have no doubt that many learners will continue to prefer face-to-face training, and that many will gain more from that than from its online equivalent – not least those who might for any reason fail to give due time and attention to the homework that is such an essential element of the online course. Equally, however, I am now convinced that there may be many learners for whom the online course might be a perfectly acceptable alternative when face-to-face not possible for travel, cost, timing or other reasons – and that there may be some for whom a virtual environment may suit their learning style better, even when learning methods and skills of face-to-face group facilitation.

I think the key for learners will be to select the type of course that best suits their learning needs and style, and their context and preferences as well. This innovative new online course of ICA Associates is doing a great service to learners by making the ToP Group Facilitation Methods course available online for those that might benefit from it more than face-to-face, and for those that otherwise might not be able to benefit at all.

Future courses are scheduled for August and November/December 2013 – for details visit ICA Associates. Online training in virtual ToP facilitation is available from ICA USA.

What do facilitators do, really?

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This great little 4 minute video was published by the International Institute of Facilitation and Change (IIFAC) a few weeks ago.  Beatrice Briggs of IIFAC is IAF Director for Latin America & the Carribbean, based in Mexico.  It is now available also in Spanish, German, Russian and Chinese.

John Miller of ICA Associates in Canada has commented:

Muchos Gracias Beatrice! I USED your video in a high school classroom to good effect in less than 25 minutes!! (I was “show and tell” …a guest speaker).

1) Context that models facilitation (topic, importance, purpose, process/agenda, roles…)
2) Show the 4 min video
3) Led a Focused Conversation about the video. Each question was pre-written on cards and posted one after the other on the wall, when asked.
4) Q&A. Briefly answer questions that arose (actually this is still part of the ORID started in #3)
5) Present a method. Briefly show the 4 levels of thinking (ORID) beside the list of questions stuck on the wall. (Used printed pages from a simple overview created years ago with bullet points and edited MS Screen Beans.)
6) Wrap-up. Distribute 1-page summary (created with the student who invited and introduced me) that resembles the 4 PPT pages stuck to the wall. And Thanks.

Wish I had 5 more minutes to reflect on what I did to model what’s in the video. The Focused Conversation got everyone involved, even the ones at the “back of the class.” Almost “fun” for them. Certainly grounded it in their experience. Very cool to see. THANKS for the resource.

What do you think of how the role of the facilitator is presented here, and how might you use the video?

Nb: see also Three dimensions of the facilitator role – a focused conversation posted 18 December 2013.