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 shifts in images that need to happen, rational and experiential aims for the intervention, and the central question and underlying 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 extensive 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
There is also an in-depth chapter on the ToP Design process and the underlying philosophy that makes it work in the book Getting to the Bottom of ToP, by Wayne and Jo Nelson, published by iUniverse and available in paper or ebook formats from or Amazon.

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