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.

Facilitation case study: Getting Ready for Wigan LINK with Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council

This ToP facilitation case study from the archive was first written for and published in 2009 by ICA:UK.

Getting Ready for Wigan LinkMembership of a LINK – from “Getting Ready for LINKs”, Department of Health, August 2007


Every Local Authority in the country was tasked by the Department of Health with contracting an organisation to “host”, or administer and support, a new Local Involvement Network or “LINK” from April 1st 2008.  These are to provide a new mechanism for public and patient involvement in health and social care services within the boundaries of the local authority, and to replace the pre-existing Public & Patient Involvement Forums which each dealt only with the health services of a particular NHS trust.

Wigan Council was keen to consult with the various relevant stakeholders to establish how they would like the Wigan LINK to be tailored to local needs and aspirations, and what that would mean for the terms of reference for the contract with the host organisation; and in the process to build capacity for effective consultation and involvement in health and social care in the borough, and build commitment and enthusiasm to make the new structure work for Wigan.

ICA:UK was contracted in September 2007 to design and deliver a process to meet these aims, having just delivered a separate series of multi-stakeholder facilitated review and planning events for the Council over the summer and autumn.


In fact the aims and scope of the project weren’t altogether clear at the outset, but with the client we were able to clarify these as we developed a series of events to meet the client’s needs.

A pair of half-day launch workshops were held in October, in different parts of the Borough – to launch the process, reflect on and learn from participants’ experience of involvement in health & social care in the past, and clarify the aims and scope of the project for those willing and able to get involved.  Participants were invited on the basis of their potential capacity to consult between them with the full range of relevant stakeholder groups across the borough.

A training day was then held in November to equip participants with the principles, methods and confidence to go out and consult with their groups in a rigorous and consistent way.  A half-day closing event in early December was designed to enable participants to reflect on and learn from their application of what they had learned, to weave together the results of their consultations into a single consensus vision for the new Wigan LINK, and to identify the implications of this vision for the terms of reference of the host organisation, in terms of the skills, knowledge, attitudes & approach required to deliver it.

The tailored training and consultation process we developed combined the strengths of both ICA’s ToP (Technology of Participation) methodology, and elements of the PA (Participatory Appraisal) approach as well.  The training drew on ICA:UK’s ToP Group Facilitation Methods course, and also the PA4Change course developed by ICA:UK Associates Marilyn & Chris Doyle and Michelle Virgo (Zebra Collective).

Participants were trained to use the ToP Focused Conversation and Consensus Workshop methods to consult with their stakeholders on “their vision for Wigan LINK – how they would like it to be”, within the framework of the PA4Change principles and approach to participatory research.  Each participant was provided with an ICA:UK sticky wall, so that they were fully equipped and ready to use the methods they had learned.

Outputs & feedback

The ToP Consensus Workshop method was used again in the closing event to weave together the product of each of the stakeholder workshops.  A total of 227 stakeholders had been consulted through 10 parallel consultations, and a total of 63 vision titles were woven together into a clear and simple nine key vision elements.

The skills, knowledge, attitudes and approaches identified by the group to enable this vision to be delivered were used by the Council, with the involvement of stakeholders, to tailor the terms of reference for the host organisation and to assess the tenders received.

After starting the process in October feeling that Wigan had been slow to start preparing for the new LINK and might have trouble catching up, by the end participants were saying that they felt Wigan was very well placed to get the kind of LINK it needed, and in good time to appoint the host by April.

Each of the events was well received.  Participants highlights included:

  • “Having gained the knowledge and the confidence to get the message out there and gain feedback”
  • “Having the opportunity to be involved in something new and to learn through participation”
  • “The day has more that met my expectations”

Adrian Hardy, Assistant Chief Executive of Wigan Council and the client for the contract, wrote:

“ICA:UK took a concept that was ill-defined by the client, and translated it into a series of questions and exercises which enabled a group of community volunteers and public sector employees to enter into a constructive dialogue about the preferred characteristics for the future LINK organisation. Of equal value was their training in the use of the Consensus Workshop and Focused Conversation methods, which, albeit brief, gave confidence and enthusiasm to the participants for them to roll it out with their own organisations as they themselves sought a cross-section of views on how the LINK should operate.

I am happy to recommend ICA:UK – not only for this piece of work, but also for other consultation exercises they have done with the Council, which have been equally productive”.