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What Do Clients Really Want, Anyway?

February 11th, 2016

One of the earliest challenges that confronts a facilitator is to discern what a potential client and group really need. Very few clients, in my experience, can tell you succinctly and clearly what results they want from a facilitation event. Often a client is confused, or has a hard time articulating what they really want, or has an agenda that they want the group to agree to. Sometimes they have a hidden agenda that they themselves don’t realize they have. Sometimes they come with a process that they are committed to, (“Just do what you did with my last group” or “We need implementation planning”) but haven’t thought through the results they need. Sometimes the facilitator has a limited set of tools, so they only hear what their preferred tool will address.

So the facilitator has to listen carefully and sometimes probe to understand the results that are needed, so they can design the process that is needed to get to those results. Without a clear understanding of what result is needed, a facilitation process may or may not make people happy, but will not accomplish anything worthwhile.

I had a small organization once say to me that they needed a strategic plan, and they had and impossible 3 hours to do it in. When I probed, I discovered that there were 3 people in the organization, and they were upset with each other because their roles and tasks were not clear and they were stepping on each others’ feet. So instead of a strategic plan, what they needed was a clear articulation of their unique roles. They also needed to have a shared workplan that clearly showed what each person was doing and responsible for. That could be done in 3 hours! They were ecstatic about what they had accomplished in the session.

A few years ago, we at ICA Associates decided to draw together our thoughts on the steps a facilitator needs to take to be confident that they understand what the client and the group need from a facilitation. We drew this model in an oval shape with a centre circle, which one of our colleagues promptly named the “Design Eye”. Three of the five areas covered in this model are about asking and listening to the client to understand their needs. The fourth step is taking all that has been heard and pulling it together. These steps are somewhat iterative, but there is a familiar logic in how they normally flow.

The first stage is Assessing the Current Situation. What’s going on in the organization right now? Topic, history, stakeholders and participants, the presenting request – background information (and objective data) that set the stage.

Second is Understanding the Change Dynamics. What is the fundamental change that needs to happen? This includes the client perspective on key challenges, the group’s struggle, the images the group is operating from, and the required breakthrough.

Third is Clarifying Images of the Future. How will this work be carried forward? This is the larger picture which includes external impact, changes in the group, and follow-through.

Fourth, and the last step before creating a working design for the facilitation, is Discerning the Focus. At this point the facilitator is taking all that they have heard, and summarizing it to identify key change factors and image shifts that need to happen, rational and experiential aims for the intervention, and the central question and contradictions to be addressed in the event. This requires the facilitator to use their own critical intelligence to hear beneath the surface, while carefully avoiding spinning the event with their own bias. The facilitator normally checks this with the client to affirm whether the analysis is on target or not.

The final step is Creating a Working Design, answering what flow of process and tools will enable the group to meet its objectives and writing out detailed procedures.

In our intensive course Art and Science of Participation we not only share the deeper questions and comprehensive thinking behind this model, but participants use it in small group practice to create designs for each other’s real life situations.
To find more information on this course or to register for Art and Science, click


Prince Albert Facilitation

November 6th, 2015

Still Waiting on an Alcohol Strategy.
4 part series on homelessness in Prince Albert.

Tyler Clark, Prince Albert Daily Herald

(from Prince Albert Daily Herald)

(from Prince Albert Daily Herald)
Facilitator Lydia Franc Beaurivage brainstorms communications strategies with community representatives during a meeting concerning the development of a citywide alcohol strategy last year. We’re still waiting for a strategy.(from Prince Albert Daily Herald)


A draft of a Prince Albert and Region Alcohol Strategy was completed last year, but the community is still waiting to see it.
“Alcohol is one of our priority items right now to move that forward and get the steering committee
together andd roll it out,” Community Mobilization Prince Albert executive director Markus Wmterberger explained on Friday.
“The idea is that the draft strategy will be handed to the community” he added.
“Everyone in this community is asked to take on that topic…and think about the role that each individual can play in tackling that issue.”
In limbo for now, Winterbergerhopes hopes to roll the strategy out as soon as possible.
The creation of a Prince Albert Alcohol Strategy was sparked a few years ago by a growing recognition that the city has an alcohol problem significantly worse than that of other municipalities. Although the populations of Regina and Saskatoon dwarf that ofPrince Albert, there have been more arrests for intoxication in Prince Albert than the two larger cities – not per-capita, but per city.
The public was last updated on the Prince Albert and Region Alcohol Strategy in November, 2014, at which time the next planned action was the creation of a steering committee to create an action plan. Almost a year later, Community Mobilization Prince Albert still hasn’t created the steering committee and the city continues dealing with its alcohol problem.
Last weekend, city police officers officers responded to 32 calls related to intoxicated people. Seldom a night goes by where the city’s Brief and Social Detox Centre isn’t full, interim manager of addiction services Cory Rennie reported on Friday.
The centre’s “brief” area includes eight 24-hour beds for intoxicated individuals to sleep it off, and the centre’s “social” side has six beds that can be held for seven to 10 days.
Health region staff are pushing more and more for clients to seek out the “social” side in hopes of encouraging longer-term betterment, but Rennie notes that it all depends on the individual.
“Our whole philosophy is basically to work with them wherever they’re at” he said, adding that for some clients the centre is for harm reduction and for others it’s the beginning of a better life. It’s not only individuals intoxicated by alcohol that staff deal with, but also a wide range of illicit substances. Rennie said “More and more we see folks presenting here with crystal meth” he said. “It goes in cycles but for the past year it’s increased.
@TylerClarkePA • tclarke@paherald.sk.ca

Facilitation from the Inside Out

June 8th, 2015

Entangled in Masking Tape

Facilitation from the Inside Out

John Epps

1.  We sometimes joke about facilitating and the “Technology of Participation” as requiring expertise in masking tape.  And watching some novices attempt to use it in workshops when they get hopelessly entangled is so amusing that you begin to appreciate the skill involved.  But there’s a lot more to it than that.

2.  To facilitate is, to translate from the Latin, “to make easy.”  One who facilitates is one who makes it easy for others to perform their tasks.  That’s true in a simple and in a profound sense.  Simply speaking, the facilitator thinks through procedures and formats that enable a group to gather its cumulative insights, to order them, and then to decide on a course of action that has consensus and commitment backing it.

3.  Anybody could do that who stops long enough to get outside the content and consider the process, and who is willing to bother with the little logistical details that so often disrupt the flow of discussion in a group.  You could do all those things and still be a meathead.  That’s hardly worth one’s time and energy, though, if done cleverly enough, it might easily be a source of great wealth.  Not many people are willing to do it.

4.  Facilitating in a profound sense means calling out the authentic humanity among participants in a group and assisting the group to become more than the sum of its parts.  It’s a task of reconciliation; of individuals with the group, of people with the organization, and of people with themselves.

What Facilitators Know

5.  Facilitators understand some things about life that undergird our sometimes fanatic concern for details that others regard as unimportant.  Facilitators know that people are moved by hopes and dreams.  Most of us deny that fact:  we’ve been so disillusioned and disappointed that none of us beyond the age of eight takes Santa seriously.  It’s not that the facilitator is naive.  In fact, the good facilitator could give a cynic a case of depression with the facilitator’s lucidity about what’s really possible and likely.  People live in the tension between the desired future and the present condition.  Attempting to reduce that tension by negating the future is a common but dehumanizing practice.  Even in the midst of knowing what you know, you still dream.  People are driven to hope, even in hopelessness, and that hope is a driving force in human affairs.  So facilitators dare to draw on vision to elicit unspoken hopes and dreams for the future, even when their content is highly unlikely.  The facilitator is restoring tension to life.  In this exercise, you are working in an arena that is beyond the simply rational.  You are working with spirit.  And spirit has little to do with statistical probability.  It has to do with genuine desires and passion that operate below the conscious level.  Vision is not what you do, it’s what you dream.  We are moved by our dreams.

6.  One job of facilitators is to discern ways of “smoking out” the real hopes and dreams of participants. to help them get beyond caution and acknowledge their desires, even when it means heightening the tension between vision and reality.  Facilitation is not stress relief.  It does not mean making people “feel good.”  It means making them own up to the energizing reality of life.  Common visions can overcome a wealth of diversity.  A group with similar desires for the future is a powerful force for getting things done.

7.  Facilitators know that problems can be solved:  obstacles are opportunities through which to realize the future. Authentic human potential is often thwarted by negative perspectives that close off alternatives.  Full potential is realized only when one perceives all that is — is good.  This is a perspective on reality, not on a moral judgment; it allows for looking deeply and seriously at reality without being threatened by blocks.  In fact, obstacles, irritations, issues, barriers and constraints are part of life at every point.  They aren’t problems to “solve” as if it were possible to get away from them, they are opportunities to seize in creating a desirable future.  Facilitators help people to get beyond faultfinding, excuse-making and blame-seeking to the underlying factors, or contradictions!  Sometimes you have to be hard on people both to identify the real contradictions and to regard them in a positive light.

8.  Facilitators know that people find their fulfillment in taking responsibility, not in avoiding it.  Authentic humanness is not realized only after hours; the after-hours time is a time of replenishing the energy and perspective required by one’s work.  One’s work, the expenditure of energy, is the place where life finds fulfillment.  Structure, attitudes and habits that deny this fact of life are the major enemy of facilitators.  The old hierarchical form of organization, along with “top down” decision making, has been a very effective form of evading responsibility — for all levels in an organization.  At the top, people declare that they cannot know everything that is going on; at the bottom, people declare that they cannot do anything without permission.  For both levels, and everywhere in between, the structure provides space to hide from responsibility — and authenticity.  This may be one reason that hierarchies are so intransigent; everybody finds them a comfortable dodge.  That one can hide is an illusion that was exposed at the Nuremberg trials:  the soldier is responsible, even when he’s carrying out an order.  By implication, just following orders does not mitigate one’s responsibility for one’s work.  Facilitators know that, and also know that whatever role one plays in however authoritarian an organization, one still has responsibility.  And living out that responsibility is energizing.

9.  Facilitators know that teams are tension filled.  The peace one experiences in human fulfillment is not serenity, it is active struggle with colleagues in a similar cause.  it is using one’s resources to the maximum to achieve what is worth achieving.  So the teamwork that facilitators advocate and generate is not based on mutual affection so much as on mutual commitment to a common task.  Startling amounts of diversity of age, sex, culture and interest can be held within that commitment.  And the diversity is tension-filled.  But is mitigated by common concern to get a job done to which each element of diversity has a contribution to make.  When the tensions are recognized and appreciated, then they tend to produce creativity.

What Facilitators Do

10.  These tidbits of profound understanding give rise to particular actions on the part of the facilitator:  symbolic action, but that does not mean it’s less than real.  This type of action has to do with taking exquisite care to be sure the group is honored.  Life is basically two-dimensional:  the dimension of practicality and the dimension of significance.  The sphere of the mundane is enlivened with elements of practical care that point beyond themselves to significance; symbolic activity deals with this world of significance.

11.  Symbolic action means attending to the space of your gatherings.  The facilitator does not leave it up to the maintenance people to clean up:  (s)he inspects the meeting room at least an hour ahead of time, usually rearranging the furniture to provide a venue that announces to the participants as they arrive.  “Something significant is about to occur here.”  This means providing a decor that highlights the focus of the gathering so that when the minds wander, ‘as they surely will, they wander to something related, to the topic rather than to something unrelated.  And it means during the breaks straightening up the place so that, on reentry, participants hear the same message.  And it may mean filling space with sound — music — during breaks to create a mood of relaxation in the midst of work.  The facilitator  is the profound janitor for the group.

12.  Symbolic action means attending to the time of meetings.  Nothing dishonors quite so much as waiting while one or two latecomers arrive.  If it’s inevitable that some come late, then the facilitator either begins on time or has activities for the rest of the group as special treats.  Rhythm is also important:  the facilitator varies the pace of sessions so that repetition and routine are avoided and people remain attentive to the proceedings.  A boring pace can kill the group’s participation.  The facilitator avoids it.  The facilitator is the profound metronome for the group, sensing the rhythm that is most enlivening at the particular time of day, and pacing the activities so as to capitalize on the “beat” of the group.

13.  Symbolic action means constantly celebrating significant milestones in the group’s journey.  Birthdays, awards, anniversaries, task completions, payday, winning (or losing) an account — virtually anything can be the basis for a celebration.  The point is not so much to have fun as it is to dramatize the significance of the actions that are taking place.  The facilitator is the profound clown for the group.

14.  In terms of selfhood, the facilitator plays the role of a model of authenticity for the group.  (S)he speaks only from experience, preferring remaining silent to giving “good advice” ungrounded in personal experience.  (S)he rejoices in the successes of the group:  and (s)he gives the appearance of having the time of her/his life.  The facilitator can play whatever role the group requires to provide a walking image of authentic selfhood in the midst of practical tasks.  One may be serious, probing the depths of unknown puzzles:  one may be glad-handed, setting at ease those who are reluctant to participate; one may be distant, causing the group to reflect on its own insights; or close, sharing one’s learning in ways that illuminate the present situation of participants.  Since the facilitator has nothing to win or lose, (s)he is totally free to do what’s required by the situation to disclose authentic human potential.  The facilitator is the group’s role model.

The Facilitator Style

15.  The facilitator is filled with wonder at the mysterious complexity of life.  Nothing is without potential awesomeness.  Every person, every comment, every method, every organization is a window into the profound mystery that pervades all that is.  So one exudes appreciation, even while doing fierce battle with the forces of inauthenticity.  Strangely, that same appreciation becomes an infectious epidemic capable of trans-investment.

16.  The facilitator is a person of provocation.  That is, the particular work at hand is done with energy, creativity and enthusiasm:  but the real work of the facilitator goes beyond the particular.  The facilitator, no less than the priest, is in business to mediate between ultimate values and particular situations.  Specifically, the facilitator brings the particular group/organization/individual into encounter with the profound dimension of life, and brings ultimate values down to the practical level.  That’s what it’s all about.  Everything else is just the specific “assignment” within which one operates.

17.  The facilitator is absolution on the hoof.  Blame is not a relevant category for the facilitator, everyone is to blame for anything, so there is no point to grudges and nothing to gain by pretending righteousness.  So (s)he lives as though forgiven of character defects, mistakes, weaknesses and ignorance — not without regrets or apologies, but without the crippling effect of lingering guilt and fears of reprisal.  More importantly, the facilitator brings this stance to the group where it becomes a catalyst of humility and gratitude.

18.  There you have it, the truth about facilitators.  Next time you’re fouled up in masking tape, remember these things.  It’ll add a twinkle to the frustration.

Facilitation from the Inside Out,  by John Epps

© Copyright 1995 LENS International, Kuala Lumpur.  Reprinted with permission



Alphabet of Meaningful Public Participation

November 13th, 2014

(Just for fun, from John Miller)
Ask the “what” questions before the “why” or “how”.
Ask the “big” questions the public can really “own” for themselves (like their values) especially at the outset.
Build consensus on those big questions. Apply that consensus to the work of “experts”.
Create products and use them.
Designing the process is part of the process.
Early engagement reduces reactions later.
Feedback is a 2-way street: close the loop on how you’ve used the public’s products and why you made the choices you made.
Guidelines for the process itself need to be values-based (not rules-based) then fight to uphold them.
Hidden agendas are “good”. These are people who have thought about the issues already, so ask for their piece of the puzzle. (ie; They do not have all the answers).
Invite everyone, even your “enemies”. Recruit for a diversity of perspectives to avoid group-think.
Joint planning creates a better process. Convene a process design committee of well-connected communicators and people who might otherwise sabotage the process.
Know what you believe in …and “own” that for yourself. Do you really care what other people think? Can you stand in front of a group and become their servant?
Listen for the question people are answering, not just the question you’ve asked. (Read that twice).
Multiple intelligences improve the design of your process. Include music, movement, visuals, as well as words. Then layer individual, small group and whole group exercises.
Never assume how people will respond. Ask questions with authentic curiosity and most people will respond candidly.
Open-ended questions stimulate conversation. Closed-ended questions shut it down.
Purpose before process. Make the process fit the people and the purpose at this point in time.
Questions unlock discussion and creativity. Layer them so the answers flow from one discussion to the next.
Reactions and emotions – however volatile – are neither “good” nor “bad”. They are clues to indicate where some wisdom may lay. Don’t be afraid. Ask for what’s alive in the group and they will trust you, the process, and each other.
Seek clarity not agreement. (Smile too)
Think before answering. Give participants time to think. You too!
Unlearn your role as “expert”. Use your expertise to equip others to participate.
Values before structures. All structures reflect values, so build consensus on the values then walk-the-talk. Use values to design the public participation process AND to assess solutions that come forward later on.
Wisdom exists behind/beyond the words. Words are slippery and insufficient for understanding one another.
eXamine your own motives. What’s your “hidden agenda”? What do you really need?
You are neither the target nor the topic. In fact a public consultation is not about you at all.
Zzzz… Wake up!


ICA’s exciting new location !!

June 11th, 2014

June 5, 2014 ICA Associates Inc., ICA Canada and the Institute of Cultural Affairs International have all moved to ground zero of social innovation in Toronto. Our new address is: 401 Richmond Street West, Suite 405 Toronto, Ontario Canada M5V 3A8 The entire refurbished factory building at the busy intersection of Richmond and Spadina in downtown Toronto, with its rooftop garden and onsite daycare, is home to over a hundred arts, cultural, environmental and social innovation organizations. Visit us in person.
Or visit http://401richmond.net

Exploring Collaborative Social Innovation

October 7th, 2013

On Monday September 16th the social innovation lab practitioners group met in Toronto at the Normative Design Studio , hosted by Social Innovation Generation. Monica Pohlmann, a facilitator and sustainability strategist described her work Change Lab Approach with REOS Partners and the Leading Boldly Network in Calgary. Joeri van den Steenhoven, the new director at the Mars Solutions Lab presented the Theory of Change. Joeri has developed a model to create change, scale up change at the systemic level and will be applying this model to youth unemployment and chronic disease in Ontario.


These two speakers catalyzed a stimulating exploration of collaborative social innovation and systems change, what it is, why it is important and some final clues on how to go about doing it. Both these initiatives are difficult to articulate because they have not been fully formed, the results are still unknown. As a facilitator and environmental scientist, I was interested learning more about the process design of collaborative social innovation with multiple stakeholders.


Collaborative Social Innovation

Collaborative social innovation involves different sectors and actors (business, government, non-profits, end-users) working together to co-create and innovate to solve a shared problem. The ultimate goal of collaborative social innovation is changes to concepts and mindsets. Initiatives such as the Leading Boldly Network and the MaRS Solution Lab present new ways of problem solving to address complexity. As Pohlmann shared, “Collaborative social innovation creates capacity for system wide change.”  Collaborative social innovation is in response to the fact that complex issues are not solvable with more programs, and system wide changes require collaboration across sectors.


Collaboration that Matters
What does it mean to gather people? How does it shift the responsibility of problem solving?

The key factor that enables social innovation is collaboration. When we work together across disciplines and sectors systemic problem solving happens. Engaging people with different experiences enables us to build greater understanding of problems and enables us to think of solutions in new creative ways.


Collaboration assumes you can learn more from people that do not think alike than two who do. This heterogeneity leads to creativity and a deepening of understanding.


Collaboration is not solely about producing ideas, it is about building trust, collective meaning and sense making about the issue at hand. This creates a sense of cohesion and sense of ownership over the process. This shifts the responsibility from a single agency to the range of stakeholders that are involved in the system. Collaboration is about bringing people together that have different power in relation to the problem. By focusing on a common intent, collaboration focuses all the power of multiple stakeholders on a specific problem.


Social Inclusiveness
How can we truly participate in collective decision-making? How do we bring our human-side to decision making?


To succeed, social innovation must involve all categories of stakeholders within a given system with a range of different perspectives and ways of thinking about the problem. These range of stakeholder include the end users (people on the ground) to those responsible for implementation (policy makers). In social innovation we need to accept that everyone has wisdom and creativity to offer to the solutions.


To succeed in collaborative social innovation, it is important for participants to engage their whole self in the issue at hand. This human factor is about sharing emotions, developing empathy, and deep listening. This listening can be transformative; at the end of the conversation you have changed, and are connected to a deeper source of knowing (See: Theory U).


Learning and Re-framing
How do we learn to work together? How can we re-frame our problems?

Learning for innovation can be seen both as a product and a process.


Collaborative social innovation goes beyond learning new information; it is about learning from and with another, building new relationships and ways of re-framing the problem from a shared-systemic perspective. As stakeholders collaborate they learn they are connected to new networks and learn to see themselves as part of a larger system.


Thinking holistically about complexity can be uncomfortable; time consuming; and is unpredictable. Learning can also about unlearning. Pohlmann spoke of the need for rituals within organizations, to release and let go of structures that are not working to allow for new ways of seeing to emerge. Learning is an essential component to the prototyping and co-creation phase of innovation, as concepts and ideas are tested often and the model is tried again. For more please visit Design Thinking.


Approaches to Social Innovation


A change lab is an approach to social innovation to deal with the complexity of social and environmental challenges.
It is an organizational form that hosts and creates a safe, creative space for multi-stakeholder groups to discover innovative solution to complex systemic challenges. The Change Lab focused on improving children services in the Leading Boldly Network gives us an example of collaborative social innovation and follows the process of Theory U .


The essence of the four-phase approach of Theory U follows

  • Co-Initiating -  the core group develops and common intent
  • Co-sensing  – the group observes what is happening with a direct link to the context
  • Presencing  -  articulating the group’s deepest intention
  • Co-Creating – prototype the new living examples
  • Co-Evolving – decide which prototypes will have the highest impact on the system


In the co-initiation phase, Pohlmann worked with human services and early childhood development professionals to craft the central question of the change lab, “How can all of us ensure that all children in Calgary grow, learn and thrive by the age of 5?” The co-initiation phase also involved the development of a core team to lead the initiative.


In the Leading Boldly Initiative, the co-sensing phase involved dialogue Interviews to engage members of the network. The interviews were with a range of stakeholders (policy, funding, advocacy, end users) and formal/informal leaders. Monica spoke of the importance of clarifying intent rather than pre-determining questions. The underlying question during this process for the core-team, “What are we learning about the system through these interviews?”


Although still in the co-sensing phase, at each phase Pohlmann has crafted a process for stakeholder to learn together. In the Presencing phase this includes developing shared learning journeys. In the co-creation phase the group will go through ideation and innovation workshops, and action/ reflective learning. The co-evolution phase will be focused strategy design and delivery. This whole process requires deep attention and awareness from the participants. The Leading Boldly Network has also included scaling up (sharing insight with a broad set of stakeholders) and scaling out (the process of implementing systems change).


In the second presentation, Joeri van den Steenhoven expanded on the theory of change. The Theory of Change is similar to the change lab approach but there is a greater emphasis on the components of system change rather than collaborative learning. The Theory Change has some of the following elements that are rows Policy, Design and Capacity building. Some of the stages are:


1. Hypothesis – developing a hypothesis about the issue at hand and narrowing down the problem
2. Analyze – gathering more information from experts
3. Test – the hypothesis
4. Method – develop a method for problem solving
5. Conceptualize – the solutions
6. Prototype – co-create and prototyping solutions with stakeholders
7. Scaling and implementing; successful interventions scaled up and out to create system change

- Vision; developing new policy, funding, legislation
- People; meeting early adopters, ambassadors, core group of stakeholders to build capacity and networks


Joeri made the point that in practice this process is not linear, but rather “spinning discs” between these various relationships and change components.


In summary, ideas are somewhat easy to produce. Theoretical models and co-creating prototypes are a little harder. What is difficult is actually implementing the model in the fabric of everyday life. He talked about this as scaling. Scaling is about integrating a network of interventions on a system level.


Lessons Learned

Fellow participants in the event shared some of the barriers they experience to collaborative innovation. Inside of organizations these barriers included working in silos, working with evidence base-approaches, and working with organizations where there is little trust between groups.


Practitioners spoke about the need to develop “collective capacity for innovation.” Mark Kuznicki shared the hybrid approach; working with organizations in part training and part action learning. In this way, the pre-conditions for collaborative innovation can become embedded in an organizational culture. One can imagine a society where innovations are easily scaled because this collective capacity comes embedded in culture.


Process Tools


For multi-stakeholder collaboration and social innovation there are numerous tools that are useful. I find Theory U a useful framework for inner knowing but there are others. These tools range from strategic thinking models, to structured and open dialogues. In my work I use techniques from the Art of Hosting (http://www.artofhosting.org) and the Technology of Participation (ToP). I have explored a body of knowledge focused on whole system change. Readers may find the following tools useful in facilitating collaborative social innovation:


Technology of Participation tools from ICA

  • Image Change Theory – for understanding the human dynamics of change
  • Transformational Strategic Planning – for participatory strategic thinking
  • Social Process Triangles – for whole system change analysis
  • Consensus Workshop – for large group model building
  • Focus Conversation – for group reflection and planning
  • Historical Scan – for co-learning from the lived experience


Other Tools

  • Art of Hosting
  • Appreciative Inquiry – to focus on possibilities
  • Collective Story Harvesting – to relate personal experience to the whole system
  • Circle Practice – to build deep listening within the group




Collaborative Social Innovation requires collaboration, learning, and including multiple perspectives into problem solving. This work is complex, adaptive and messy. Although we recognize the benefit of collaborative social innovation, the process of social learning in multi-actor innovation is not yet fully understood. By the end of the September 16th session, I was left wondering, how can I as a facilitator support new forms of learning that tap into individual’s experience and wisdom to co-create the most desired future?


Kaitlin Almack

ICA Associates E Books

September 27th, 2013

ICA has published 5 books in electronic formats.


The Art of Focused Conversation

The Kindle edition is available at Amazon for $ 12.93

The EPub edition is available at New Society Publishers for $ 14.25
The Art of Focused Conversation for Schools

The Kobo edition  is available at Chapters/Indigo for  $ 7.69

The Kindle edition  is available at Amazon for  $ 12.55


The Workshop Book

The Kindle edition is available at Amazon for $ 13.52

The EPub edition is available at New Society Publishers for $ 14.90

Transformational Strategy

The Kobo edition is available at Chapters/Indigo for $ 7.69

The Kindle edition is available at Amazon for $ 9.99

The EPub edition is available at iUniverse for $3.99

The Courage to Lead

The Kobo edition is available at Chapters/Indigo for $ 7.69

The Kindle edition is available at Amazon for $ 2.94

The EPub edition is available at iUniverse for $3.99

ToP Group Facilitation Methods – Online Course – - I am convinced!

September 17th, 2013

I was pleased to have the opportunity to join one of the new online ToP Group Facilitation Methods courses of ICA Associates of Canada the other week. I had been skeptical of the value of online training for face-to-face facilitation, but I was impressed and came away convinced!

The Technology of Participation, pioneered and refined by ICA in over 40 years of experience worldwide, is a proven system of facilitation methods and tools that can be adapted and applied to help all sorts of groups accomplish a wide variety of tasks together. It has been central for many years to how I work myself. Today’s Group Facilitation Methods course was first piloted in the early 1990s, and is now delivered by national ICAs and their local partners all over the world to many thousands every year.

In my own 20 years of experience of the course I have become familiar with many variations in how it is and has been delivered, not least which of the core ToP methods are included in the standard two days of training – only Focused Conversation and Consensus Workshop, or also Action Planning. Tailored, in-house courses vary even more widely in their formats than scheduled, public courses. Additional courses cover additional tools and methods, and support learners to gain the skills and competencies they need to apply them effectively in their own situations.

The basic structure of the course, however, has proven remarkably powerful and resilient across time and context. First, demonstrate each method. Second, talk through the theory of how and why it works and how to use it. Third, give every participant and opportunity to practice the method in safe and supported small groups with expert and peer feedback. Fourth, support participants to plan how they will use the method for real in their own situation in the near future. End-of-course participant satisfaction ratings on ICA:UK Group Facilitation Methods courses commonly average over 8/10, and 10/10 is not unusual. How could such a tried and tested approach possibly be translated effectively into a virtual environment, I wondered?

One of the keys to the effectiveness of the online course, I have concluded, is the choice of Blackboard Collaborate for the virtual training room. While many ToP practitioners have adopted Adobe Connect as their platform of choice for virtual ToP facilitation, the whiteboard facility in Collaborate does seem to work better for virtually replicating the real-world sticky wall, such a valuable tool for the ToP Consensus Workshop method.

Perhaps more important is the advance preparation that is expected of participants before the course, including advance scheduling of homework and practice time in between the virtual sessions. While the face-to-face course is commonly delivered in full in two consecutive eight-hour days, the virtual course is delivered in six two-hour sessions spread over two weeks or more, with considerable homework expected as well. Participants receive the same GFM course workbook, but by email in advance, and also e-books of the Art of Focused Conversation and the Workshop Book. They are expected to review the workbook and at least the introductory chapters of the two books in advance of the course, meaning that they arrive with a good overview already and some considered questions to ask. This makes a considerable difference to the depth of discussion achieved online.

The first week of the online course covers the Focused Conversation Method and the second week covers the Consensus Workshop method, while face-to-face courses most often cover one method per day. Session one of each week demonstrates the method and introduces the theory, and is followed by homework to embed the theory and raise further questions to address in session two. Session two completes the theory and supports participants to plan their own real-life practice of the method. Before the course begins they have real-life group sessions scheduled to enable them to practice for real, rather than with each other as on the face-to-face course. Session three debriefs the practice sessions, and looks at further applications for the method in particpants’ own situations.

The course I joined, with sessions timed for North America and Europe (at 6-8pm London time), was attended by six participants from various locations across the US and Canada, plus me and Bill Staples of ICA Associates as guests. Another parallel course was running the same days with sessions timed for North America and Asia, and was being attended largely by a group in Korea. Both courses were being led by veteran ToP trainers Jo Nelson and Wayne Nelson, with focusing on technical support.

The group was a mix of independent professional facilitators and managers and internal consultants within large organisations – not so different to groups I am familiar with from face-to-face public courses. I was very impressed with how much value they were clearly getting from the course, and how much they were appreciating it. It was clear to me that the virtual demonstrations of the methods did not provide an equivalent experience to face-to-face demonstrations. For participants with sufficient experience of group work, however, and with their advance reading on the methods, they clearly provided a perfectly adequate basis for the theory and practice to follow. Moreover, that theory and practice seemed to me to be no less rich and insightful than in face-to-face courses of my experience. What was lost by not spending intensive face-to-face time together seemed to be more than compensated for by having considerably longer study and reflection time over the whole two-week period of the sessions. What was lost by not practicing together with each other, and sharing peer feedback based on direct experience of each others’ practice, seemed to be more than compensated by practicing in participants’ own real-life contexts and working with real groups to address real issues. While I was fascinated by the many comparisons I was able to make between the online course and the many face to face courses I have led, the group were clearly not burdened by how the course might have been in a face-to-face version but were engaging with it and appreciating it just as it was.

I have no doubt that many learners will continue to prefer face-to-face training, and that many will gain more from that than from its online equivalent – not least those who might for any reason fail to give due time and attention to the homework that is such an essential element of the online course. Equally, however, I am now convinced that there may be many learners for whom the online course might be a perfectly acceptable alternative when face-to-face not possible for travel, cost, timing or other reasons – and that there may be some for whom a virtual environment may suit their learning style better, even when learning methods and skills of face-to-face group facilitation.
I think the key for learners will be to select the type of course that best suits their learning needs and style, and their context and preferences as well. This innovative new online course of ICA Associates is doing a great service to learners by making the ToP Group Facilitation Methods course available online for those that might benefit from it more than face-to-face, and for those that otherwise might not be able to benefit at all.

Participation – Blip on the Radar or New Paradigm?

August 21st, 2013

Is citizen and employee participation just a blip on the radar – the flavour of the month – maybe the year? Is it an add-on, a slight turn of the dial? Is it a utilitarian means to an end?


Does it have, wired into its core, genuine value beyond the content results of a meeting? Does it provide us with a new foundation? Does participation involve a fundamental shift in our thinking that alters our basic philosophy and approach? Is it a dimension of a new paradigm, a new way of being and working together? Is this a revolution – evolution in human affairs?


Participation is sometimes seen as debate and confrontation where there are a few winners and a lot of losers. We have been well trained in those methods. I’ve heard people use the term ‘debate’ to describe very casual, exploratory conversations.


Participation is used as a forum for government departments, lobbyists and experts and it can too often be a thinly veiled sales job in which persuasion wears the guise of inviting input. Public consultation is often a frustrating exercise of responding to prepackaged solutions resulting in little change. In the name of participation, people are floated a balloon and asked if they like it; kind of taking the public temperature. Many businesses and organizations are structured to isolate decision-making authority in a small, senior leadership group or one individual. Any meaningful input is sought within a tight circle. PowerPoint presentations with the tossed off, “Are there any questions?”


Popular community organization techniques have been based on the assumption that local people must make demands of those who are really responsible. It’s called participating. Is standing outside the gate throwing dirt clods really meaningful participation in public policy and program formation? Development projects are all too often created by experts and taken to people for their concurrence or minimal modification. They call this local participation and actually get away with it.


“All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall”, said Pink Floyd. Makes it sound like a something that can’t and probably shouldn’t last. It seems like participation has become one of those really great sounding words that has been grabbed and twisted by the marketers, consultants and bureaucrats until any real meaning and authenticity has been squeezed out of it entirely, leaving the cultural landscape littered with the dead, dry husks of terms that once had life and meaning.


But cynicism comes easily. It’s not difficult to find the rips in the fabric; especially when it is stretched from so many directions, the stakes are so high and we are all so well informed. It’s easy to feel that participation has become one of those socially comforting euphemisms used to lull us to sleep. We say to ourselves, “They ask questions and say they seek input, but are they really listening? Will they actually use my ideas? Is this worth my time and energy?” We become isolated and alienated from the choices that give our lives texture, shape and meaning. We hope someone will think things through and act on our behalf. At the same time we cry in the dark, because we feel ‘they’ are not listening. We shut down and reduce our social involvement to judgment and criticism. It’s real paradox and we get caught in it all the time.


No wonder they call it “the matrix.” Want the blue pill of carrying on with life as is? How about the red pill that launches a quest into the unknown where we might find some truth?


Garrison Keillor, on the Prairie Home Companion radio show, once said, “The antidote to cynicism is curiosity.” A curious statement itself, that. Sounds dangerously like a red pill to me.


What happens when we explore our situation in the world or our organization with an open, curious mind? In the Matrix, Morpheus says to Neo “You have to understand that many people are not ready to be unplugged, and many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it.” Will our favorite assumptions hold up if exposed to light? Will we find ourselves actually having to change our minds? Imagine that. Scary business. If what you really want is to maintain certainty, power and control, take the blue pill of ordinariness.


Curiosity entices us out of the comfortable seat of simple thinking. Open thinking puts the “sacred cows” that have held our illusions about the world in place in serious jeopardy. Trinity says, “It’s the question that drives us, Neo.” Once we take that red pill, we cannot be the alienated, critical, passive consumer or the isolated leader giving directives anymore. The red pill of curiosity drives us to ask open questions, think things through and abandon conclusions until we actually get to them in the end. We are given the bum’s rush out of detached cynicism and are plunged into taking responsibility for the relationship we assume toward our situation. We become explorers and seek new perspectives and understanding. Conversations become open inquiries. Certainly, curiosity is neither easy nor simple, but it releases the human spirit.


Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” He talks about a ‘message’ as, the change that a new innovation introduces into human affairs. So, he’s not talking what we write, say, tweet or broadcast. This is a meta-message that signals an alteration in the pattern of human interaction; how we relate to each other and to the world. He’s telling us that how we do what we do really does matter. The way we do things actually does communicate something; sets the stage for what can happen. For participation as a deeper message, that’s a just wee bit on the radical side.


In addition to saying the medium being the message, he also says “The content is the audience.” Radical, radical and even more radical. He doesn’t say the content is for the audience, he says the content actually is the audience. That’s us. We are the ones with the thoughts and ideas about our situation. The content is our own hopes and dreams, our questions and conundrums, our insights and judgments. It’s our life.


Let’s look at participation in this context. Let’s say we take the red pill. Let’s say we are looking for ways to actually recognize those around us as the content. We’re used to lectures. We complain about PowerPoint presentations in the dark and “death by PowerPoint”, but a lot of them still happen, every day, every meeting. It’s like we’re stuck in a weird ‘do-loop’. The “content” comes from experts and leaders. For many, the best participation ever gets is the question and answer period at the end of a talk. Then we wonder why things don’t get done, why plans go off the rails and why people are so disengaged. The content, in this case is not the audience, but for the audience. Are we just using a cute 20th century technology to make the best of a medieval modality?


Without question, authentic, meaningful participation introduces a new way of doing things together. It is a red pill. No question there. To facilitate real participation, to actually begin with questions and trust those gathered to form new insight is truly a different modality.


The assumption underlying authentic participation is that each person has real wisdom about their situation and the group needs all of it in order to make the wisest choice. The whole produces understanding, insight, meaning, decisions and results far beyond the simple sum of the parts. Something magical happens when a group shares their wisdom and seeks to see the connections among their ideas, the commonality in their thought. It spirals them deeper, beyond the surface level of arguing among people, to synthesis of thought. It gives them a new sense of themselves as a group. They took the red pill and their world opened up.


I encountered an international aid agency that, working with a local government unit in Southern Africa, dug wells for each village in its district. On their monitoring trip, they found most of the wells in a state of disuse, disrepair and contamination. To their credit, they asked around and discovered that the people regarded them as government wells and felt no responsibility for their upkeep. In order to give the villages a genuine sense of ownership of the wells, it was necessary to go back to each village to hold a community meeting involving the residents and helping them make plans for ongoing well upkeep. People not only learned about well maintenance, but by making the plans themselves and carrying them out, they assumed ownership of the wells and responsibility for their water supply. They wove caring for the wells into the fabric of their community life. Engaging people in a real dialogue over the necessities of their own situation transformed them from passive receivers of external service to active participants in meeting their own needs.


I participated in a community consultation in an isolated, rural Egyptian village. In answer to the question, “What would you like to see in this community five years from now?” the overwhelming response was clean water. In spite on marginal education, limited literacy and minimal exposure to science of gastro-intestinal maladies, everyone knew that it was contaminated water that was killing them and their children.


They dug a well, laid pipe, set up a very basic water system and it was not long before infant death due to dysentery and dehydration declined dramatically. The flies disappeared from the children’s eyes once it became easy to wash.


Authentic participation is becoming recognized as an essential part of a healthy society that fulfils a basic aspect of human character. People are no longer willing to passively accept their circumstances. They want to take part and participate directly in making the decisions and changes that affect their lives and complaining is just not enough. We are seeing it happen right around the world.


Leaders are becoming facilitators in a continuous development process rather than directors that produce a pre-planned result from a script. Facilitative leadership is emerging as a new way of seeing the task of guiding groups. It is beginning to mean creating original plans based on the ideas of the members and a group consensus. The emphasis is shifting from control and confrontation to dialogue and collaboration within and among communities, agencies, development organizations, governmental units and the private sector.


If we begin to view participation as a genuinely new paradigm, it can launch new levels of genuine dialogue. Real conversation, respectful of the value of the participants and their input, acknowledges and includes a variety of perspectives and uses the ideas to form consensus. Participation can be a process that empowers people to become the active agents of positive and significant change.


Methods, processes, techniques and structures that maximize citizen participation in our communities, projects and organizations are a critical need. We need training in methods of participation that draw out creativity and insight, develop consensus, release motivation and result in positive action. Methods and tools for participation can enable groups to analyze their situation, develop a shared vision, discern necessary directions, identify projects, create action plans, carry them out, hold accountability and learn for experience. We need ways to structurally integrate meaningful participation into our community and organizational life.


The key to authentic participation is beginning with a question. Beginning with an answer, whether it comes from leaders or participants, limits participation, creativity and innovation. Brainstorming is a great start. Each person’s wisdom is valued and all responses are included. If the process stops there, it is simply a technique for eliciting data. People paper the walls and go home– cynicism pretty solidly intact.


Groups involved in brainstorming need structured ways of processing their ideas. Whether they reflect on the ideas, cluster them to find themes or identify priorities, a collection of individuals begins to become a group. They see common patterns of thought and the connections they discover bring them and their ideas together. The ideas now belong to the whole. They can move on to form a consensus appropriate to their common question. Plans and decisions become the property of the whole group.


Authentic participation builds a sense of unity and common ownership of what has been created. It motivates people toward positive action and instills a sense of responsibility for what happens. Commitment is a word we’re so terribly afraid of uttering and the quality that is so desperately needed in our organizations and communities. A dimension of truly sustainable development, organizational change or continuous improvement is the development of capacities that enable people to make and pursue genuine choices.


If our efforts are to actually benefit the people of the world, build strong communities and viable organizations, we are going to need everyone’s imagination, creativity and energy. We need to begin acting as if participation is something far beyond a fleeting fancy and weave it into the fabric of our common life. We need to put in place a new social modality – a new way of being together. Once you take that red pill, there’s no going back. You’re conscious, inquiring and questing. To quote Tracy Chapman, we’re “Talkin’ ‘bout a revolution”


Wayne Nelson

Welcome New Certified ToP Facilitators

November 2nd, 2012

We are proud to add 2 new Certified ToP Facilitators.

Lydia Franc Beauvirage is from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. She is a PHC Facilitator with the Prince Albert Parkland Health Region.

Helen Break is the Director of Corporate Strategic Initiatives for the City of Oshawa, Ontario.

Lydia and Helen have both demonstrated their competence as a facilitator and excellence in applying ICA’s ToP methodology. They join a growing group of excellent facilitators around the world.

We welcome them and wish them continued success.