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 2013, and my 2017 free facilitation webinar:

Transformational Strategy: Facilitation of ToP Participatory Planning

Transformational Strategy - coverNow available worldwide from Amazon, as well as directly from ICA Associates in Canada.

Author Bill Staples gave us a sneak preview of this new book from ICA Associates at the ICAI Global Conference on Human Development in Kathmandu last October.

The Art of Focused Conversation and the Workshop Book, authored by Brian Stanfield of ICA Associates, covered the two foundational methods of ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP) facilitation methodology.  This new book covers the ToP Participatory Strategic Planning method in similar depth – from the history and development of the method through to the theory and practice, including numerous case studies.

Much anticipated by ToP facilitators everywhere, this book will be of immense value to all those who are looking for ways to mobilise the transformational power of shared commitment to create their desired future.

And if reading the book is not enough for you, it is not (quite!) too late to register for the ICA:UK Participatory Strategic Planning course that I shall be leading myself next week in London.  See you there!

Introducing the Technology of Participation on Vimeo

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Well done and thank you to Bill Staples of ICA Associates in Canada and the team at Youth Empowerment Studios in the USA for this updated video introduction to ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP) facilitation methods.

Readers with long memories may remember the original VHS video produced in the 1990s. This covers the same ground, but has been updated for the digital age last year.  Bill gave us a preview at the ICA International gathering in Nepal last October, and I am pleased to see that it is now publicly available online at vimeo.

The video provides a 25 minute introduction to the ToP Focused Conversation and Consensus Workshop methods, the foundations of the ToP approach.  If you have taken ICA’s Group Facilitation Methods course you should find the content familar and may find the video a helpful refresher.  If you have not taken the course, then watch the video and maybe consider it – the video is a useful resource, but really no substitute for being there!

Alternatively, ICA Associates are now offering Group Facilitation Methods online, in case being there in person is really not an option for you….