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.

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

This is the 6th and last of a series of six weekly posts to mark International Facilitation Week 2017, starting 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 week? Please share online with the #FacWeek hashtag, or in a comment below…


Example 6 – IABC UK, London

In May I facilitated a 2-hour evening strategy workshop with the UK Board of the International Association of Business Communicators. For more on my work with IABC, and my session at the recent IABC Europe MENA conference, see Facilitating transformation: reviewing the past to prepare for the future at #EuroComm17.

New IABC UK President Mike Pounsford is a keen ToP facilitator himself, and an IAF Certified Professional Facilitator. He had approached me to apply the Consensus Workshop method with the new Board of nine so that he could participate fully.  For an example of his own application of the method see Facilitation and Communication to lead ‘The Big Conversation’: Digital Transformation.

We quickly agreed that a ‘textbook’ Consensus Workshop process could help to meet the group’s needs well. These were articulated in terms of Rational & Experiential Aims as ‘to outline our strategic focus for IABC UK for the next 24 months, and what roles we will each play to help to deliver it‘ and ‘to build shared clarity, commitment and enthusiasm for the way forward together‘. The workshop Focus Question was to be ‘What practical projects & initiatives could help to deliver IABC’s mission & strategy in the UK in 2017-18?’.

The workshop was preceded by an opening conversation and a short presentation from Mike on the vision, purpose and philosophy of IABC as a whole, as parameters for IABC UK’s own strategy.

According to the textbook approach, Board members brainstormed their responses to the Focus Question individually, with the parameters in mind. They wrote ideas on half-sheets in pairs, which they shared on the sticky wall and clarified as necessary before pairing and clustering. The ‘adaptation in the moment’ came in finalising the Clustering stage of the workshop prior to Naming the clusters. It made no sense to the group to discern and name clusters unique to IABC UK’s 2017-18 strategy – what made sense was to map the brainstorm ideas to the three components of IABC’s global Purpose: ‘to advance the profession, to create connection and to develop strategic communicators’ .

So that is what we did. That allowed time then for members to self-select into three teams to to articulate the UK’s new strategic focus for each of the three areas, and to propose collective commitments.

I reflected to Mike, ‘I suppose we could have presented as a parameter that these [advance, connect and develop] would be the UK’s strategic focus, and we could have asked instead about collective commitments aligned with them. That might have saved a moment of doubt & confusion, but as you say perhaps at the expense of a sense of openness, possibility & engagement. A bit of challenge can be a valuable opportunity for a group to find its own way!’

Mike PounsfordMike replied: “I thought it was great, thank you for your help and for your agility in responding to the group’s needs. Most importantly we achieved consensus on a focus for our work for the next two years, which is to enhance the strategic communication capabilities of our members”.


Finally, in case you’re still wondering…

  • no group is too small for the ToP Consensus Workshop method – page 52 of the ICA:UK Group Facilitation Methods course workbook includes procedures for using the method on your own as an individual.
  • the method can work online as well as face-to-face, although like all online facilitation it will be different than when done face-to-face – see for example the Spilter ToP Consensus platform, specially developed to provide full digital support for the method, and see below a youtube video of an online ToP Consensus Workshop of ICA Ukraine using LinoIt with Google Hangout.
  • if you have nowhere to put a sticky wall, take advice from US ToP trainer Barbara MacKay of Northstar Facilitators, also in a youtube video below.

Start again from example 1…


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.

Responding to changing situations and needs with ToP Consensus Workshop – #FacWeek -1

This is the 5th of a series of six weekly posts to mark International Facilitation Week 2017, starting just 1 week 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…


Example 5 – Eurochild, Brussels

A good example of both customised design and adaptation in the moment was the General Assembly in Brussels in April of Eurochild, ‘a network of organisations and individuals working in and across Europe to promote the rights and well-being of children and young people‘. This involved around 100 individual members and member representatives plus Board members and Secretariat staff over two days.

One morning of the GA was designed as an opportunity to engage members in a year-long process to develop a new strategy for the network as a whole for 2019-21. The event had been preceded by an online survey of members, and was followed by a Participatory Strategic Planning retreat with Board, staff and a few key member representatives to develop the basis of the new strategy – for more in-depth consultation this autumn, with a view to final adoption at the next GA in April 2018. The Focus Question for the planning process as a whole was ‘How could Eurochild best mobilise and add value to the work of its members from 2019-21, to promote the rights & well-being of children & young people in Europe?

The design of the half-day member consultation began with an opening conversation and brief contextual presentations, followed by a 90 minute Consensus Workshop and then a series of ‘World Café’ style table conversations – to brainstorm and capture ideas for the Practical Vision, Current Reality and Strategic Directions stages of the Participatory Strategic Planning process respectively.

Participants sat at 13 pre-assigned tables of 8, each hosted by a Board or staff member. The workshop process was ‘super-sized’ as with ICUU, with whole-A4 sheets for writing ideas and all table hosts coming to the sticky wall at once to share ideas in turn and cluster quickly in columns under symbols as they did so. Cluster titles were drafted at tables and accepted without lengthy discussion or revision.

Also as with ICUU, it had been clear in the design process that a deep level of consensus would not be possible with such a large group in such a short time. It was also clear that such a consensus would not be necessary for this workshop, just one consultative element in a much longer and more elaborate process of consensus building over the course of a year.

The adaptation in the moment came in the Naming stage of the workshop. The Focus Question was ‘What would make us happy that the strategic planning process has been a success? (in terms of the new strategy & membership model themselves, in terms of member engagement in the process, and otherwise)’. The intent had been that the resulting ‘indicators of success’ would serve as guidelines and a means of accountability for the process of strategy development and member engagement over the year, and that substantive content for the new strategy would be contributed during the following World Cafe session.

What happened was that many of the ideas contributed in the workshop were in fact answers to the Practical Vision question ‘What do we want to see in place by 2021 as a result of delivering our new strategy? (how will Eurochild be different, and what difference will Eurochild have made?)‘. It made no sense to address the Vision question again separately, and it seemed to make more sense to accept that the group was ready to work on its Vision right away rather than to spend time first trying to name indicators of success. So what we did was to cluster the mix of ideas into 11 columns representing 11 vision elements, with just the original symbol to identify each. Then participants self-selected into 11 table groups to name the vision element on a flip chart, and also articulate relative to that element any indicators of success, current reality and practical projects and initiatives.

Jana Hainsworth, Secretary General at Eurochild, wrote in September:

“Great that we had structure, but also great that we could think on our feet to adjust the planning according to what we were hearing from members. All in all we got a huge amount of raw material for development of the strategic plan. The methodology clearly helped.”

Read on for example 6…


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.

Responding to changing situations and needs with ToP Consensus Workshop – #FacWeek -2

This is the 4th of a series of six weekly posts to mark International Facilitation Week 2017, starting just 2 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…


Example 4 – Oxfam, Gaza & Jerusalem

In February of this year I worked with Oxfam in OPTI to support its staff team of around 100, based in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza, to operationalise the new ‘One Country Strategy’ and ‘Country Operating Model’ that had been developed last year. An explicit experiential aim was ‘to help staff & teams to align with each other and with the new strategy & structures, and to renew staff solidarity, motivation and team spirit as One Oxfam OPTI’. However, travel restrictions meant that there would be no opportunity for all the staff from the three locations to meet together at once.

As in the earlier cases of Manchester Primary Care Trust and the Oxfam in Lebanon One Country Strategy process, we used separate Consensus Workshops with the same Focus Question to consult with different groups in series. In this case two ‘consultation workshops’ were held, one in Gaza and one in Jerusalem, each for all staff who could attend. A third ‘consensus-building workshop’ involved a cross-section of around 40 staff, who had been members of either or both of the consultation groups, to build consensus from the results of them both.

The Focus Question was ‘what can we learn from our survey responses and from our experience of recent years, internal & external to OPTI & the OCS process, to inform our plans for OCS operationalisation?‘. The result informed a further two days of review, learning and planning with the cross-section of around 40 staff.

Fabrizio Biondi Morra, Program Manager at Oxfam in OPTI , wrote in August:

“Following the workshop delivered by Martin with Oxfam in OPTI, the country team had a roadmap that laid out all the next steps sectorial working groups had to carry out. Also, through the consensus building process staff from across sectors and offices could come together and strengthen their relationships. These to elements together enabled us as team to renew our professional and personal bonds and work effectively.”

Read on for example 5…


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.

Responding to changing situations and needs with ToP Consensus Workshop – #FacWeek -3

This is the 3rd of a series of six weekly posts to mark International Facilitation Week 2017, starting just 3 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…


Example 3 – Girls Not Brides, London

Last year in August I worked with Girls Not Brides in London, a ‘global partnership of 700+ civil society organisations committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfill their potential‘.  The overall aim of the two day event was ‘to engage around 25 secretariat staff and the Board Chair in refreshing and renewing the Girls Not Brides’ partnership strategy, drawing on responses to the 2016 strategy consultation process and emerging themes, and on their own knowledge and experience’.

After a thorough review of responses to the membership strategy consultation in the first morning, we used the Consensus Workshop method that afternoon to draw together and make sense of all the merging themes. The intent was to identify a few key strategic goals that could then be elaborated in terms of SMART objectives, the respective roles of different actors including the Secretariat, members and others, and issues for the Secretariat to consider in order to play its own role effectively. The Focus Question for the Consensus Workshop was ‘What needs to be delivered by 2020, towards ending child marriage, that we can best deliver by working together in partnership?‘.

In this case, the key adaptations to the ‘textbook’ method were in the brainstorming and in the naming stages of the workshop.  Rather than brainstorm simply from their own knowledge and experience, participants drew their brainstorm ideas also from the current strategy and from the wealth of responses to the membership consultation that they had reviewed in the morning. Because of the complexity of the issues and the very large volume of data that needed to be distilled into a small, manageable number of strategic goals, we did not attempt to name the strategic goals in plenary within workshop. Instead the group gave quick, intuitive ‘tag names’ to the 11 clusters that initially emerged from the 50 or so half-sheets, and then we used the quick flip-chart version of the Consensus Workshop method (page 53 of the Group Facilitation Methods course workbook) to cluster the clusters to identify just six strategic goals. Participants then self-selected into six table groups to articulate the six goals more fully. The next day they developed SMART objectives and delivery roles for each goal.

The final 2017-20 strategy and a report on the strategy development process may be found at Girls Not Brides.

heather-hamiltonHeather Hamilton, Deputy Director, Girls Not Brides, wrote last October:

“Martin recently facilitated a strategy retreat for our team. It was a 20-person retreat that was part of a much longer, complicated strategy process. Martin was a partner in helping us think through how to successfully design the retreat to really get what the team needed, which isn’t an easy task when dropping into the middle of an existing process. And the team was impressed – after the retreat I emailed him to say ‘Thanks so much for your incredibly skillful facilitation – we have worked with a lot of different facilitators and many of our staff commented that you were the best ever!'”

Read on for example 4…


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.

Responding to changing situations and needs with ToP Consensus Workshop – #FacWeek -4

This is the 2nd of a series of six weekly posts to mark International Facilitation Week 2017, starting just 4 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…


Example 2 – ICUU, Mennorode

In July of last year I facilitated the ‘”Essex 2.0″ Large Group Process’ on the first day of the 5-day International Council Meeting & Conference of the International Council of Unitarians & Universalists (ICUU) in Mennorode, the Netherlands. This was the culmination of a 9-month strategic planning process, involving also a series of online sessions and a Participatory Strategic Planning retreat in Boston in the spring with a focus group of around 25. The Focus Question for planning process as a whole was: ‘21 years since its founding [at Essex Massachusetts], how does ICUU need to change or stay the same to respond effectively to the global Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist community of the century ahead?‘.

The original design had envisaged that we would use a large group process at the summer Council Meeting to involve the 140 or so delegates, of around 40 national member churches and networks, to consult on a draft strategy developed by the spring focus group. In fact the focus group concluded that there was likely not sufficient clarity and consensus on ICUU’s role in the wider movement to gain broad consensus on a new strategy so soon. Instead it was agreed to use the summer council meeting to build consensus on the mission and purpose of the global body, in order to consult further on strategy after that.

In the morning of the first day we used a series of ‘World Café’ style table conversations in changing small groups to discern learnings and implications from the strategy development process, following a few short presentations from those involved and drawing on documentation. In the afternoon we used a ‘super-sized’ Consensus Workshop process to answer the Focus Question ‘“What are key elements of the mission and purpose of ‘ICUU 2.0’, for the next 20 years?”

Participants sat at 16 tables of 8 by country and continent, in order to amplify the voices of regions less represented or otherwise less heard relative to others. Whole A4 sheets were used for sharing ideas on the sticky wall instead of half-sheets, for improved readability for the large group, and ideas were clustered in columns to make best use of sticky wall space with the large sheets. In order to keep the process fast-paced and engaging, all 16 table hosts were invited to come to the front at once and take it in turns to read their table’s ideas, and post them directly in the relevant cluster as they did so. Having a queue of table hosts waiting to share ideas helped to ensure that each was brief and focused. Participants then self-selected into 13 table groups to name the 13 clusters that emerged.

It was clear that meaningful consensus would not be possible with such a large group in just an afternoon, so the workshop was framed as consultative and the cluster titles were accepted as drafted unless any minor revisions could be agreed quickly in the plenary. At the end of the day volunteers were invited to join a working group to discern and articulate the emerging consensus concisely in a revised mission statement for approval by vote of the formal Council Meeting at the end of the week.  A team of half a dozen or so met that evening to do that, mostly members of the ICUU Executive Committee. Some of the 13 named elements they found to represent values and principles that were already agreed and articulated elsewhere, or elements of vision, strategy or implementation that could better contribute to those later stages of the planning process. Remaining elements were distilled into a succinct new mission statement to be submitted to the vote of the Council.

The final statement was strengthened further by some minor revisions suggested during the formal Council Meeting. Once approved, the new mission statement was verbally translated as it was read aloud in all of the 25 or so languages spoken by those present, to symbolise global consensus and commitment: “The Mission of the ICUU is to empower existing and emerging member groups to sustain and grow our global faith community”.

Read on for example 3…


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.

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.