Responding to changing situations and needs with ToP Consensus Workshop – #FacWeek -5

This is the first of a series of six weekly posts to mark International Facilitation Week 2017, starting just 5 weeks from today. Drafted as I enjoyed a welcome opportunity to pause and reflect this summer, the posts share a series of examples of how I have applied, customised and adapted the ToP Consensus Workshop method in my practice over the past year. 

How will you celebrate and promote the power of facilitation this year? Please share online with the #FacWeek hashtag, or in a comment below…


So you have a great facilitation tool or method, and you’re keen to apply it. But what if your group is too large or too small, or you have too little time or nowhere to put a sticky wall, or you’re just not sure that it is going to be what your group needs?

Tried and tested “off-the-shelf” facilitation methods can be enormously powerful, and there is no point in reinventing the wheel if you have one that will serve the purpose. There are hundreds of tools and methods available in the IAF Methods Database and in online resource libraries such as Participatory Methods and Participation Compass, and in popular books such as Liberating Structures and the Handbook of Large Group Methods.

However, if the only tool you have is a hammer then there is a risk that every situation you approach will look like a nail – or at least that you’ll be spending more time and energy searching for problems in need of your solution than in crafting creative responses to real groups and their real and changing situations and needs.

The IAF Core Facilitator Competencies framework makes clear that good facilitation requires more than just using a great tool or method and using it well. To be successful facilitating in a wide variety of environments, facilitators must be able to “select clear methods and processes that… meet the client needs” (competency B2) but also, among other things, be able to “design and customize applications” (A2) and “adapt processes to changing situations and needs of the group” (D3).

So what of ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP) facilitation methods, my own speciality as a facilitator? Developed and refined over 50 years, by countless practitioners working with communities and organisations worldwide, ToP methods can appear at first to be somewhat rigid and inflexible because of the great detail and rigour in which they are demonstrated in training and described in writing. As a ToP trainer myself I advise less experienced facilitators to find appropriate opportunities to practice the methods first as they are detailed in the course workbook, before adapting or customising them, in order first to best understand the underlying principles that are key to successful adaptation. For skilled and experienced facilitators, however, the greatest potential of ToP and other facilitation methods is in their creative application in service of a particular group and its particular needs and context.

For an overview of the ToP Consensus Workshop method and its key elements, click on the image for an excerpt from the ICA:UK Group Facilitation Methods course workbook. See also Brian Stanfield’s ‘The Workshop Book and my own earlier and more in-depth case studies of applying the method – with Manchester Primary Care Trust, Connect In The NorthWigan Borough Council and, more recently in the context of strategic planning, with Oxfam Lebanon.


Example 1 – Initiatives of Change, Caux

A good example an application involving minimal adaptation was the annual meeting of the Caux Reference Group that I facilitated in Switzerland in June of last year. The group of about 35 included key staff and Board members of the CAUX-Initiatives of Change (IofC) Foundation plus diverse representatives of Initiatives of Change International, the global movement ‘working to inspire, equip and connect people to address world needs, starting with themselves‘.

The ‘rational aim’ for the afternoon session was to ‘share ideas and develop practical approaches for what it might mean for the Foundation and IofC internationally to address the root causes of violent extremism, at Caux‘.  The ‘experiential aim’ for the day as a whole was ‘to build shared trust, agreement and ownership, and gain inspiration, support and feedback from [our] diverse perspectives‘. Two and a half hours with a break allowed ample time for a Consensus Workshop with the Focus Question ‘What can we do to address the root causes of extremism of all kinds, and what role can Caux play?

In a minor departure from the textbook approach, the workshop was preceded by a short presentation from IofC International leaders on prior work and conversations that had led to this particular topic for this particular meeting. The opening Focused Conversation in the Context stage was used to reflect on that in relation to participants’ own contexts and experience, and implications for the group and the workshop. Participants then brainstormed individually at first, then shared their ideas at seven cabaret-style tables of 5 and and wrote some of their best together on half-sheets of A4 paper. In plenary I posted their half-sheets a few at a time on the sticky wall, and invited clarifications before taking suggestions to cluster similar ideas.

Nine clusters finally emerged, and were named by the group to represent their best collective wisdom in response to the Focus Question. The clusters were titled: Campaign for change; Offer/ become a space to explore root causes; Review & influence policy; Education & training; Engage ‘the other’; Faith in action; ‘Start with me’ – IofC approach; Create resources; Promote economic justice.

Barbara Hintermann, Secretary General at CAUX-Initiatives of Change Foundation, wrote this September:

“Martin facilitated our Caux Reference Group meeting in June 2016 held in Caux/Switzerland. The Caux Reference Group is an international advisory group to the CAUX-Initiatives of Change (IofC) Foundation, composed of about 50 persons from the International IofC network. Martin facilitated the meeting with the necessary calm and used various facilitation tools to engage the group actively. While there were some rather emotional moments, Martin managed that the participants delivered the key elements for a variety of changes that needed to be reviewed by the foundation. Martin was appreciated by the audience but also by the Foundation management.”

Read on for example 2…


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.

ICAI General Assembly welcomes new Associate member in India

HCDI CFCDP
This post was written for ICAI’s monthly bulletin the Global Buzz, July 2016.

The Institute of Cultural Affairs is a global community of non-profit organisations advancing human development worldwide. The ICAI network comprises member organisations and related groups in over 40 countries.  The role of ICA International is to facilitate peer-to-peer interchange, learning and mutual support across the network, for greater and deeper impact. ICA International maintains consultative status with UN ECOSOC, UNESCO, UNICEF, WHO & FAO.


Twenty-two representatives of 14 member ICAs of our global network participated in two online General Assembly meetings on June 23, and 17 of 22 current statutory member ICAs voted in the online GA poll over the following 10 days to 3 July.  Thank you to all who participated!

As a result of the GA, we are pleased to welcome another new Associate member to ICAI, nominated by ICA Japan with the support of ICA IndiaICA Bangladesh and the Asia Pacific region and approved unanimously by the GA – Holistic Child Development India (HCDI) is a long-term partner of ICA Japan in Bihar.

During the GA meetings we heard updates from ICAI and from the regions, and from those members present. We deliberated on recommendations of the ICAI Global ToP (Technology of Participation) policy working group – to establish internationally recognized ToP trainer competencies and criteria, to build ToP trainer training capacity globally, to develop global ToP resource repositories and to set up a global ToP co-ordination structure. We also deliberated on options for a next ICAI Global Conference, and we heard of strengthening relations between ICA and Initiatives of Change as a potential conference partner, particularly in Asia and in Europe.

The Board consulted with members on options for the 2017  ICAI budget, and on plans for ICAI Board elections at the next GA in October. Nominations to join the Board elections & nominations committee are now invited from members.

ICA International Board update, August 2015

ICAI Global Buzz, June 2015
This post was written for ICAI’s monthly bulletin the Global Buzz, August 2015.

The Institute of Cultural Affairs is a global community of non-profit organisations advancing human development worldwide. The ICAI network comprises member organisations and related groups in over 40 countries.  The role of ICA International is to facilitate peer-to-peer interchange, learning and mutual support across the network, for greater and deeper impact. ICA International maintains consultative status with UN ECOSOC, UNESCO, UNICEF, WHO & FAO.


The main event for the ICAI Board last month was the July General Assembly. Final preparations were concluded at the online Board meeting of July 8. An online GA meeting in Adobe Connect was repeated twice for two time zones on July 21, and attended by 20 representatives of 13 member ICAs. Finally, an asynchronous online poll was held by surveymonkey over 10 days to July 31, to confirm and symbolise the consensus of the General Assembly.  Nineteen representatives of 25 statutory members cast their ICAs’ votes in the poll.

GA screenshotFour resolutions were passed by the General Assembly:

  • the 2015-16 ICAI Strategic Directions developed by the May Board meeting in Tanzania were approved
  • three new nominations for non-voting Associate membership were approved – welcome to ICAI to ORP of Korea, EPDI of Nigeria and SNCF of Uganda!
  • a recommendation of the ICAI Global Conference working group was accepted, to seek to work in partnership with Initiaitives of Change to convene a global conference next year at IofC’s centre at Caux, Switzerland
  • a new global policy on ICA’s Technology of Participation was adopted, following 18 months of collaborative development and consultation among ICAs worldwide, led by the global ToP policy working group.

The online meetings provided a final opportunity to discuss these resolutions before the online poll. They also provided an opportunity for the Board and our volunteer web developer Robert Liverpool to share the new draft ICAI website that is under development in WordPress.  We are now testing and populating the website with content with a view to launching it publicly later in the year.

wordpress screenshot

Exploring the human factor in global change, and prospects for partnership, at Caux

This post was written for ICAI Winds and Waves, September 2015 issue.


Caux PalaceThe week before last I was in Switzerland to support the design and facilitation of Addressing Europe’s Unfinished Business, a conference of Initiatives of Change (IofC) at Caux Palace – a fairy-tale castle of an international conference centre, high above Montreux and enjoying stupendous views down along Lake Geneva.  As luck would have it, Jonathan Dudding of ICA:UK was there the same week supporting the parallel International Peacebuilders Forum conference, and world leaders of IofC International were beginning to gather for their IofC Global Assembly the following week. As a result, Jonathan and I were able to meet together with leaders of IofC Caux and IofC International to discuss prospects for a global partnership conference of ICA and IofC at Caux next year.

I came away (‘down from the mountain’, as they say with good reason at Caux) encouraged and enthused for the prospects of such a partnership – by my experience of the conference and the conference centre, and by what I learned of IofC and the commonalities and potential for synergies between it and ICA.  I am excited therefore that, since then, ICA International has decided in its online General Assembly in the last week to seek to develop such a partnership with IofC. So, how did such a proposal come about, and what can I say from my own experience at Caux about how I see the prospects for such a partnership?

ICA:UK and ICA Spain have partnered with IofC Caux over several years now to support the design and facilitation of their annual summer season of international conferences, and in providing ‘Technology of Participation’ (ToP) facilitation training for IofC members and others – next scheduled for 25-26 November in Geneva. Other connections and collaborations between individual members of ICA and IofC around the world date back over 30 years in some cases, in countries including Australia, Canada, India, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan and Ukraine. Ideas for building on these foundations to explore the potential for broader collaboration have been brewing for a year or two among those involved on both sides.

A partnership approach to a global conference in Caux in 2016 was proposed to ICAI last December by ICA:UK, with the support of ICA Spain and other European ICAs, to follow ICAI’s 8th quadrennial Global Conference on Human Development in Kathmandu in 2012.  This proposal was recommended to the ICAI General Assembly by its Global Conference working group, and approved in principle this last week. Parallel conversations have been underway within IofC, including at its recent Global Assembly in Caux, and we hope to be able establish a joint committee in the autumn to develop a partnership and our approach to the conference together.

I have found numerous encouraging parallels in our respective histories and approaches. Initiatives of Change describes itself as ‘a world-wide movement of people of diverse cultures and backgrounds, who are committed to the transformation of society through changes in human motives and behaviour, starting with their own’. It was founded in the late 1930s as the Moral Rearmament Movement by Frank Buchman, a charismatic American minister whose ideas and practices had been developed largely working with students in what had been known as the Oxford Group. The once-grand but then derelict Caux Palace Hotel was purchased and refurbished by Swiss supporters, in time to open in 1946 as an international conference centre where those who had suffered in the war could come together and build new relationships. Further centres were established in the USA and around the world, supporting reconciliation and peace-building through dialogue and, particularly at the Westminster Theatre in London, also through drama.  Today IofC international comprises member organisations in around 40 countries worldwide. IofC Caux hosts a series of international conferences over three months every summer, under the banner “Exploring the human factor in global change” and with the aim “to inspire, equip and connect people to address world needs, starting with themselves”.

ICA (the Institute of Cultural Affairs) was founded somewhat later, but also from a faith-based movement, as the secular successor organisation to the earlier Ecumenical Institute and University-based Faith and Life Community founded by the American former Methodist minister Joseph Wesley Mathews in the 1950s & 60s. ICA describes itself as a global community of non-profit organisations ‘advancing human development worldwide’ – sharing a ‘concern with the human factor in world development’ and seeking to mobilise and support individuals to transform themselves in order to transform their communities, organisations and societies (‘Changing Lives, Changing Societies‘). ICA pioneered its approach, including ‘imaginal education’ and what became known as the ‘Technology of Participation’ facilitation methods, in the west side of Chicago in the 1960s. ICA USA’s GreenRise building in Chicago was rescued from dereliction by volunteer labour and in-kind contributions in the early 1970s, to serve for many years as ICAs global headquarters and venue for its annual summer Global Research Assemblies, forerunners to the quadrennial ICA Global Conference on Human Development since 1984.  The ‘Band of 24’ pilot Human Development Projects in each of the 24 time zones worldwide, launched in 1976 (40 years ago next year), became the basis of today’s network of member organisations and groups in around 40 countries – about half of them countries in common with IofC.

My experience of the AEUB conference at Caux suggests that we have more in common than aspects of our histories, the language we use to describe our approaches, and our shared vision of a just and sustainable world for all.  Participants familiar with ICA’s centres in Chicago, Brussels and elsewhere, and with our tradition of living and working together in community, will welcome the expectation at Caux that everyone contributes to the care of the community and broadens and deepens their relationships by taking part in kitchen duties together. They will also welcome the time for collective reflection and for other spirit practice that is scheduled daily at Caux, as a reflection of ICA’s tradition and practice as well. They may be pleased to find that most bedrooms in the former Caux Palace Hotel have their own bathrooms (unlike many ICA facilities of the same era), and they will likely find the simple and even antique furnishings and fixtures as charming as I did. Certainly few visitors will fail to be impressed by the views from their windows and balconies, and from the garden and terrace below – the mountain location, accessed by funicular from the lakeside, was well chosen indeed for a retreat centre.

I hope that we may find plenty to learn from our differences, as well as our similarities. Whereas ICA’s focus is primarily on community and more recently organisational development, and through demonstration projects engaging the disempowered, I understand that IofC’s focus is primarily on reconciliation and peace-building, and through dialogue engaging citizens with those in power. I expect that IofC’s activities and emphases have diversified over time and geography as ICA’s have, however, and that our own people and our partners worldwide would find much to share with and learn from each other on their diverse experiences of leadership and change in their own contexts.

AEUB opening plenaryFrom a practical point of view, I think ICA could benefit greatly from Caux’s well established year-round capacity to manage the logistics of conference organisation, from handling international registrations and finances to mobilising and managing teams of summer interns and volunteer interpreters. I expect IofC could also benefit more from ICA’s participatory process design and facilitation expertise, as it has begun to do in recent years for its own conferences. The venue itself I found to be well equipped with a wide variety of spaces and facilities, from small break-out rooms and gallery spaces, terraces and gardens, to a tiered auditorium, a large and fully-equipped theatre and of course the Grand Hall. I understand that the capacity of around 400 in total allows comfortably for around 270 conference delegates at a time, in addition to the many resident volunteers, staff and other visitors.

This year’s AEUB conference seemed to me to be very well received by its impressively international, multi-lingual and multi-generational participants.  I look forward to being able to share in making the ‘magic of Caux’ again in future conferences – starting, I hope, with a 2016 partnership conference ‘exploring the human factor’ in global change and development.

For more on Initiatives of Change at Caux, find them on twitter, flickr and youtube.