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.

A welcome opportunity to pause and reflect this summer

This June completed my fourth year in business as Martin Gilbraith Associates Ltd, and in October it will be 5 years since I went freelance from ICA:UK. Following what has been a bumper year for client work, for the first time in probably 15 months I am looking forward to several consecutive weeks of desk time, free of delivering client contracts – and a holiday in August after that!

In the last 12 months, it turns out, I have delivered 26 contracts for 18 clients in 9 countries, involving 32 face-to-face and 3 virtual events and 24 facilitated processes and 11 facilitation training courses. That has involved 73 nights away from home, 18 in the UK and 55 abroad. No wonder it felt like a bumper year – that represents an increase of around 70% in client work compared to my first four years of freelance practice, and the contracts on average were larger too.

I have been fortunate and grateful to enjoy a diverse and stimulating, often inspiring, range of groups and contexts to work with this past year. Recent client contracts for facilitation have included large and multi-event, multi-stakeholder strategic planning processes with international NGO networks such as ICUU, Girls Not Brides and Eurochild (above), and smaller, relatively simpler strategy and planning retreats such as with CENTR, Wells For India, Lorensbergs and the Peel Institute. Also large and relatively complex and challenging international team meetings such as with Amnesty International and Oxfam OPTI, and a small but complex and challenging closed Ministerial Forum with the International Union on Tuberculosis and Lung Disease. Also a conference of activists on refugee and migration issues with Amnesty UK, and facilitated leadership development labs, face-to-face & virtual, for managers of Astra Zeneca. Facilitation training has included courses with civil servants of Ofgem and the Care Quality Commission, for agile finance software project managers of Santander and bereavement counselors of the Dove Service, and for diverse groups on public courses in London, Brussels, Geneva and Moscow. I lost some bids for work, and had to turn down some opportunities as well, but I wouldn’t have wished for any other workload.

It is no wonder then that I have spent less time on other things. My volunteer time has reduced since I completed my four year term as ICAI President in December, although since then I have somewhat increased my time growing IAF England & Wales‘ activity and leadership team and partnership with IABC.

Readers may have noticed that I have managed fewer blog posts (only 20 this past year from an average of 32 the past four), and only one of my “bi-monthly” free facilitation webinars – plus in May What does it take for people to align behind change? with Michael Ambjorn, published today by MILE Madinah on YouTube.

So, what do I hope to make of this opportunity to pause and reflect?

Mostly, I hope to take the opportunity to reflect and learn from this recent experience, and share some insights here on my blog – so watch this space!

I hope to review my recent years’ ToP facilitation training end-of-course participant evaluations, and launch an online survey to invite past participants to share something of what they have applied of their learning and how, and what difference their training has made to them and the groups they work with. I hope to draft and begin to post some more facilitation case studies from my facilitation work of this last year, and request further client feedback.

I hope to schedule one or two more free facilitation webinars for the autumn, and share a recording of one already scheduled for this month with IAF India – with Martin Farrell of IAF England & Wales, on the topic of co-facilitation (below).

I hope to catch upon some reading – next up after Penny Pullan CPF’s Virtual Leadership, Responsible Facilitation by Jim Campbell formerly of ICA Belgium.

Also, I have some advance preparation to do for delivery work in the autumn, including for my new IAF-endorsed Meetings That Work courses in London & Brussels in September, with Bill Staples of ICA Associates (book here). And I hope that my calendar for the autumn will continue to fill itself – so do feel free to contact me if you’d like to help with that!

In the meantime, I am hoping also to enjoy some more summery good weather, and all that goes with it – at home in London, at the WOMAD music festival later this month and in Sitges in August.

Wishing you an opportunity to pause and reflect as well when you can…


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.

What does it take for people to align behind change? Six top tips & tools from #FacWeekchat

#FacWeekChat 2015This is the question that brought together 69 facilitation, communications and change management professionals over two one-hour twitter chats on October 23, during International Facilitation Week. In this post I’ll share six top tips and some of the tools that were shared in response.

The twitter chats were co-hosted by Michael Ambjorn of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), Faith Forster of the Change Management Institute (CMI) and myself for the International Association of Facilitators (IAF). Our aims were to bring people together to connect with and learn from each other on a topic of mutual interest, and also to make connections and foster broader collaboration between our associations and between our professions.

Participants were located as far afield as Canada, USA, Serbia, UK and India. Our experience of change included local and international work with large and small organisations in a variety of sectors and industries including health, education, IT, faith and international aid & development.

So what did we learn? What does it take for people to align behind change?

1. The context must be conducive. People align behind change “when external pressures have made the need for change evident”.  “The facilitator as midwife can only help a client that is already pregnant”!

2. High level vision and goals, and ideally values as well, must be clear and shared. Alignment happens when there is “a clear purpose… before a decision on what to do, a focus on energy & momentum for change”.

3. There must be inclusive and authentic participation. “Holistic participation in co-creating vision is the key to create buy in”.  “Co-design, co-creation, collaboration”. “Convene all with a stake in change”. “Everyone wants change, but no-one wants to be changed”.  Alignment does not happen “when when people forget that changes requires the involvement of others” or “when change is imposed from above without proper consultation or facilitation”.

4. Humility, patience and deep listening is required. “Be honest and transparent about the challenges that will be faced, otherwise when failure happens you lose people’s trust”. “Take time, constant process checks, take time, listen, take time, acknowledge resistance (did I mention take time?)”. “Come to terms with the antibodies in the system and talk candidly about them”. “The disruptive power of good listening skills”. “Pay as much attention to the intangibles amongst people as to what is explicitly being said”.

5. Be open to what needs to emerge, while remaining focused on the vision. “Start with possibilities rather than a project plan” and “be aware of groups emerging needs… [allow] the group synergy to flow”.  Alignment did not happen “when people didn’t respond to emerging needs, and when personal issues took precidence over common vison”.

6. Nevertheless, leadership must also be be clear, decisive and inspiring.  “Be a leader that makes tough decisions. The notion of change is disruptive, but strong leadership can mitigate people risk”. Make a “powerful invitation, expressed openly with integrity”. “Discussions about change are so often are negative, ie. about failure – we need to inspire people, enable them”.

What tools and techniques can help?

Favoured approaches to addressing the challenges of aligment and change included the Art of Hosting/Art of Participatory Leadership, Organisational Development, Quality Management, Coaching and Mediation, Graphic Facilitation (especially in multilingual contexts), the work of Perry Timms on ‘hacking adaptable organisations’ and of course ICA’s Technology of Participation (ToP).

Some of the particular tools referenced were Story Boarding and Lead with a Story, My Goals My Action Steps, Power/Interest Matrix, RASCI, Ladder of inference, CSITO’s Constellation Collaboration model and the ToP Focused Conversation method.

What can we learn from each other?

What can communications and change management professionals learn from facilitation? “If you want to bring people with you you have to involve others, and facilitation is a great way to do that”. Facilitation “can help transform communications ‘from cascade to conversation'” – “communicators can learn from facilitators about how to structure conversations once people are engaged”. “Change management can get caught up in project management processes – facilitation keeps the focus on what is important”. “At a simple level, facilitation can help managers learn to run more productive and enjoyable meetings”.

What can facilitators learn from communications and change management? How “to get people ‘in the room’ for facilitation, to engage all those who will never be ‘in the room’… and to communicate the results”.  Also “good use of data gathering tools”, “ways to measure/evaluate the outcomes of their facilitation work” and how to “draw out stories as they relate to the task at hand, and use these stories for sense making”.

We could all benefit from each other’s professional standards and competency models – IAF’s Facilitation Core Competencies, IABC’s communications Global Standard andCMI’s Change Management Foundation & Master Competencies.

For more of what we shared, including links to many of the examples and tools referred to, see the edited highlights on Storify or find all 707 tweets at #FacWeekchat on Twitter.

Please add your own thoughts in a comment below, or of course on Twitter with the hashtag #FacWeekchat!


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.

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.

Raising our ambition – a face-to-face meeting of the virtual ICAI Board

#ICAIBoard, May 2015 on Storify

Last week provided a rare and invaluable opportunity for the largely virtual Board of ICA International to meet face-to-face, in conjunction with the East & Southern Africa ICA regional gathering held near Arusha in Tanzania.  Click on the image above for the story of our meeting on Storify, featuring the real-time updates, photos and tweets that we shared during the week.

We travelled for up to 39 hours to be hosted in Tanzania, from Tokyo, Guatemala, Toronto, Chicago, London, Kiev and Lome. I am grateful to Charles Luoga of ICA Tanzania for hosting us and to Seva Gandhi of ICA USA for her logistical support, and to all involved for giving so generously of their time and energy, in spite of the long journeys.

We had last met face-to-face as a Board when three of us were about to begin our terms, in conjunction with the 8th ICAI Global Conference on Human Development in Kathmandu in late 2012. With the other five having just joined the Board from this year, and with some of us having never yet met each other in person, we felt it essential to make the effort to meet – notwithstanding the significant cost of time and money that would be required for what is a largely volunteer-driven network. I think that that investment will prove to be richly rewarded, and I hope our members will agree – I trust that they will be delighted that the meeting kept well within our tight budget as well!

Manyara National Park, TanzaniaWe met for four days, at a safari lodge near the Manyara National Park. On the fifth day we visited the park, and on the sixth we joined the first day of the regional gathering. That gathering continues to the end of this week, with four of us still present there.  We also were able to see something of the town of Mto Wa Mbu, and the nearby children’s home initiated and supported by ICA Tanzania.

Our aims for the meeting were to get to know each other, and to build team spirit and commitment; to broaden and deepen our shared understanding of ICA and ICAI; to agree strategy and plans for how we will work together as the ICAI Board for 2015-16; and to meet and learn about ICA Tanzania and the ICAs of the region. We also aimed to engage with the global ICA network remotely as we worked during the week, including by meeting virtually with our global communications teams and volunteer web developer to plan for implementation of the new ICAI website that we are developing.

Lisseth Lorenzo of ICA Guatemala in ContradictionsWe applied ICA’s ToP Participatory Strategic Planning process and the four levels of ORID to structure the week, and we shared the facilitation of the sessions. Day 1 was all about sharing Objective level data. We used the Historical Scan method to plot a shared history of ICA and ICAI, and then we reviewed the ‘State of the World’ of our membership by continent, our global governance and finances, and then the global ICA mission & values and the ICAI vision and ‘peer-to-peer’ approach articulated by the ICAI General Assembly in 2010.

Seva Gandhi of ICA USA leads Strategic DirectionsThe following three days were focused on articulating the Contradictions to that Vision (Reflective level) and developing Strategic Directions (Interpretive level) and Implementation plans (Decisional level) by which to address them. We confirmed our Board roles and reviewed our Board role descriptions as a prelude to implementation planning.

A highlight for me was the storytelling icebreaker that we invented at the start of the meeting, and returned to again and again – one of us would pose any question about ourselves or our involvement with ICA, and we would each answer it in turn. That turned out to be a simple but rich and insightful way to get to know each other.

It helped our process enormously that we used our own ICA methods, with which we were all quite familiar. Notwithstanding all that we found that we have in common, I was struck again and again by how differently we all think – that ‘human factor’ of culture at play!  That brought home to me just how valuable is face-to-face time together, especially for a largely virtual team.  I find it hard to imagine that we might otherwise ever have understood each other sufficiently to become effective as a Board or as a team in our 2 years together, let alone to raise our ambition for our service to the membership as we did.

ICAI global communications virtual meetingAs a largely virtual Board, and the leadership of a largely virtual global community, it was instructive also for us to experience the frustrations of slow internet access with which our African colleages have to contend so often when they join us in an online meeting.  We did eventually manage to connect virtually with our web developer and global communications team, and were very excited to see our draft new website taking form. We also managed to share some social media updates with the wider network during the week – but we quickly learned that if we all went online at once, when we returned to within wifi range at mealtimes, then we would all end up frustrated.

We were grateful for the virtual support and encouragement that we recieved from remote friends and colleagues, and appreciated every ‘like’ and comment.  I also enjoyed connecting on twitter with colleagues meeting at the same time at the IAF North America 2015 conference in Canada, sponsored by ICA USA, the ToP Network and ICA Asssociates. (I like to think that our photos of elephants and giraffes trumped theirs of elk and grizzly bears)

The subsequent regional gathering was attended by 17 Directors and staff of ICAs and partner organisations from across the region.  It began with a World Cafe conversation to get to know each other and our interests and asprations for the gathering, and then brief presentations from each of the organisations represented. The rest of the week was to be largely Open Space, ‘Sharing Approaches that Work’, followed by one day of strategic planning for the region.  I very much appreciated the opportunity to get to know some that I did not and to renew my acquaintance with others.  It seemed to me that the interchange within the region, and between it and the other regions represented by ICAI Board members, was very valuable.

ICA IAF collaboration with John CornwellI was also delighted that IAF Africa Director John Cornwell (also an ICA:UK Associate and for many years an ICA colleague in Africa) was there to lead a conversation on the potential for greater collaboration between IAF and ICA, at the local and the global levels, and to learn that the IAF Board is very supportive of that as I am myself.

I returned home energised and enthused myself, and excited by the prospects of a newly energised and enthused ICAI Board. Since January the Board is also enlarged from 7 to 8 members, with the very large Europe & Africa region now reallocated among three Vice Presidents (Europe MENA, East & Southern Africa and West & Central Africa respectively), and I think that too will be enormously helpful. I am encouraged by the increasing numbers of ICA partners and related organisations expressing an interest in joining ICAI as Associate members – including last week in East Africa, and also in Russia where I will be delivering ToP facilitation training next week.  I am looking forward to a growing and  strengthening global network, sharing ICA’s values, and supporting each other through peer-to-peer collaboration in our shared mission of ‘advancing human development worldwide’.

Full documentation of the meeting will be included in a new business plan to be finalised at our online Board meeting June, for approval at our online General Assembly on July 21.  In the meantime, join me in celebrating our new Strategic Directions!  In 2015-16 we will be…

ICAI Board 2015-16 strategic directions

To connect and to get involved, please like ICAI on facebook or follow ICAI on twitter!

Power to the People – why I am excited to be attending #EuroComm 2015

This was first published as a guest post on the IABC UK blog of the International Association of Business Communicators.

Eurocomm15Maybe I was just hooked by the title, “Power to the people”. What’s not exciting about that for a professional facilitator – especially one “passionate about participation and leadership”?  But why would I attend a conference of the communications profession – isn’t that all just about clever marketing copy?

Well, according to the copy, this year’s IABC Europe MENA conference is about about “the two most challenging aspects of communication today – people’s opportunity to be heard (encouraging ideas, innovation, etc.), and best practice to create practical action”. Which does sound quite a lot like facilitation to me. Besides, as a freelancer, I do have a use for marketing copy – and for extending my networks.

If that were not enough for me, this year’s regional IABC conference will be held just a couple of miles from where I live in London. Also, as a result of a new reciprocal partnership, members of the International Association of Facilitators like me are entitled to the discounted IABC member rate. Having perhaps played some small role in brokering that partnership, I felt it would be churlish not to take advantage…

I began to learn of IABC, and the value of facilitation to communications professionals, through meeting and working with Michael Ambjorn, now IABC Vice Chair. He and I worked together, on behalf of the RSA and ICA:UK respectively, to apply ICA’s Technology of Participation facilitation approach to help the RSA to engage with and mobilise its 27,000 Fellows worldwide. We developed what we called the RSA Small Groups methodolgy, to enable the RSA to increase it’s social impact and achieve its ambition of being ‘the best place to have an idea’. We worked together again, this time also with IABC members Jo Anstey and Bent Sorensen, on #ETF20 – a facilitated process designed to creatively engage a diverse, international staff team of around 120, both face-to-face and online, to reflect, learn and bond together in celebrating 20 years of collective achievement.

So I am keen to learn at EuroComm about how others in the communications profession are, or could be, applying facilitation to their address their challenges.  I am particularly attracted by session titles such as “The Power of Participation”, “Engaging in conversations that matter” and “Listening can change a whole organization”; and session leaders from organisations such as Oxfam and the European Commission, in the sectors that I typically work in myself, as well as those from Royal Dutch Shell, Mars and other corporates that are somewhat familiar to me through the work of facilitation colleagues.

I have also been reflecting on the value of communications to facilitation professionals, and am looking forward to exploring that further at EuroComm. When I am contracted as a facilitator to design and lead learning, consultation, engagement or change processes, especially in large organisations or systems and whether face-to-face or online, the effectiveness and impact of my own role is often dependant to some degree on my the broader communications of my client or partner.  Will participants arrive with clear and helpful expectations of the process, and will non-participants receive clear and helpful messages on the aims, outcomes and next steps?

A good example of where my own facilitation role was dependent to a large degree on wider communications processes in which I was largely not involved is Building a future together – broadening ownership in corporate planning, a 12 month programme engaging over 1,000 stakeholders in developing a new 5-year corporate plan for Bron Afon Community Housing in South Wales. In a 60-day contract spread over a year, the facilitation and training role played by my two colleagues and I could only ever represent a very small (if hopefully significant) fraction of a much wider change process in which broader communications were key.

Of course the EuroComm sessions on social media will be of particular interest to me as well, not least because of how much I rely on and enjoy using digitial channels for my own professional networking and for marketing communications.

I think it was a year or two year ago, soon after I had completed my term as IAF Chair and Michael had begun his Board role with IABC, that we first spoke of the potential of some sort of partnership between IAF and IABC, to support mutual learning and collaboration between facilitation and communications professionals. Now that such a partnership is in place, I am excited to take advantage and urge others to do likewise.

IAF members, join me if you can at EuroComm in London this month, and otherwise consider the IABC World Conference in San Francisco in June or check the IABC global calendar for an event near you or online.

IABC members, join me at the IAF Europe MENA conference in Stockholm in October or, before that, check the IAF world calendar for the North America conference in Banff in May or the Asia conference in Mumbai in August.

IABC Londoners, join our monthly IAF London facilitation meet-up, every second Thursday from 6-8pm near Trafalgar Square.

Members or not, wherever you are, do at least follow and engage with me and others at #EuroComm on twitter – see you there!

Getting started as a facilitator, a social entrepeneur and a freelancer

This interview was conducted by iGenius as part of their Getting Started interview series, and it is republished today to mark National Freelancers Day 2014. See also My first 416 days as a freelance facilitator, published this day last year.


 

As a facilitator, trainer and consultant, Martin Gilbraith help groups, teams and partnerships work more effectively together to bring about lasting change. What drives Martin is his passion and commitment to make a positive difference in the world, and to support and enable others to do so as well. Through his freelance work, Martin Gilbraith believes that facilitation and facilitative leadership will be key to achieving a just and sustainable world for all. The great reward of his work today is to see people awaken to their own power to make a difference, and to their capacity to join and align with others to achieve common goals for the greater good – to awaken to the power of their participation and their leadership. We spoke with i-genius member Martin Gilbraith to find out more.

i-genius: Why did you decide to go freelance?
Martin Gilbraith: I had been working with clients for years in my previous employed role, so when I stepped down from that I thought I’d carry on with whatever client work came to me while I considered my next move.  I pretty soon decided that I had found my next move, so I registered my own company and never looked back.  After years in management roles, it is a treat to be responsible for and accountable only to myself.

i-genius: What a good ingredient for a freelance consultant?
Martin: A friend and fellow freelancer once suggested to me that anyone who could be comfortable without a regular pay cheque every month could do no better than be their own boss and work freelance, and I think she has a point.

i-genius: Who’s/what’s been your continued source of inspiration?
Martin: For my whole career I have been involved in various ways with the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), a global community of non-profit organisations and groups ‘advancing human development worldwide’. Many of the people I have met and worked with through ICA have been a source of inspiration for me, but most of all the practical methods ICA has pioneered by which ordinary people can and do change the world

i-genius: In what way is the work you do related to social enterprise?
Martin: Just as when I was employed as a charity Chief Executive, my income from client work enables me to volunteer and offer reduced rates and pro bono services to those causes that can’t pay higher rates. My most substantial volunteer commitment is as President of ICA International, supporting member ICAs in around 40 countries to support each other in their work. Many ICAs operate primarily through social enterprise, and most are actively seeking to to expand their social enterprise work.

i-genius: What difficulties did you experience setting up your freelance work?

Martin: I think I had it relatively easy because I had worked freelance before, and because I came back to freelance work after 15+ years working with clients and building my networks through that and various volunteer roles.  So I had my first freelance contract within weeks, and I was able to hit the ground running. The hardest part was stepping down from my previous role after so many years!

i-genius: What are the most crucial things you have done to grow your client list?
Martin: I have relied primarily on social media, especially LinkedIn to stay in touch with people I know and meet and twitter to reach out to new people. WordPress has been great for a simple but effective website and blog.

i-genius: Whilst freelancing do you find it hard to balance free time?
Martin: Yes, but it helps that my partner has a regular job so when he gets home I know it is time to stop work! Scheduling and booking holidays can be tricky, especially if clients are proving slow to commit to dates

i-genius: How does facilitating play an important role in today’s society?
Martin: People increasingly expect and demand to have a say and an influence in matters that affect them, and increasingly organisations are expected to engage with people to enable that – and increasingly they recognise the value of doing so for themselves and their own goals.  Fortunately, facilitation skills and tools are available and can be learned, and the facilitation community is growing to help people to participate effectively and to enable others do so as well.  I can’t think of any more important work to be involved in, than to support and enable others to bring about positive change

i-genius: What is your favourite motto in life?
Martin: “The past is approved, the future is open and the present is a gift”


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.