Facilitation training will help CED stay on 'ToP' of its game

ToP facilitation training gives participants the opportunity to practice their newly acquired skills during the workshop.A major facet of community development is collaborative decision making. However, effectively leading groups of oftentimes diverse stakeholders to engage in meaningful and inclusive participation is sometimes challenging. That’s where good facilitation comes in.

Facilitation is one of the many services offered by the Community and Economic Development (CED) program at Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. In its ongoing effort to provide exceptional service to Iowa communities, CED hosted ToP® (Technology in Participation) facilitation training August 7–8 in Ames. 

Nineteen ISU Extension and Outreach employees attended the training, including 15 CED faculty and staff, three Professional Development staff, and one 4-H staff person.

The training will enhance ISU Extension CED’s ability to offer facilitation, strategic planning, and group consensus workshops to a wide audience.

ToP® facilitation methods “help groups think, talk, and work together by providing facilitators with structured participatory methods” that have been created and refined over the past 50 years (ToP Facilitation Methods).

“This is an intensive-methods transfer course in which facilitators learn the three collaborative methods that are the foundation of the Technology of Participation series: Focused Conversation, the Consensus Workshop method, and Action Planning,” said Deb Burnight, Prairie River Partners training consortium registrar and one of two instructors who conducted the training at ISU. 

“These methods can be used in an infinite number of situations. When creatively combined and adapted, they serve as powerful tools for any size group to think and work together in innovative and productive ways,” Burnight said.

The “Focused Conversation” method 

  • Provides a structure for clear dialogue and reflection
  • Probes beneath the surface to the depth of a topic
  • Encourages a diversity of perspectives

The “Consensus Workshop” method

  • Engages the participation of each group member
  • Focuses the group’s consensus
  • Builds an effective team partnership
  • Helps facilitate consensus in large groups

The “Action Planning” process 

  • Visualizes and articulates the completed task
  • Analyzes the current situation
  • Maximizes involvement
  • Creates clear forms of accountability
  • Develops an action time line 

Training participants experience the methods, discuss the theory behind them, practice them in small groups, and then get feedback on their own styles and skills.

The ToP® methodology was developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs, a nonprofit organization that has centers in more than 30 countries around the world and whose purpose relates to both community and human development. 

A variety of organizations have used ToP® methods, ranging from government organizations, nonprofits, and educational institutions to businesses and multilateral agencies. 

The ToP® course is recommended for committee leaders, executive directors and board members, peer mentors, facilitators, project managers, trainers, consultants, community leaders, and active citizens.

The ISU Extension and Outreach staff who participated found the training meaningful, as their comments on the workshop evaluation forms demonstrate:

“I gained a great deal of clarity in using brainstorming more effectively than just making a list, and some of the science behind getting the most likely answers out first, pairing first connections, and then finding innovation in the later answers. Very helpful.”

“I thought [the training] was excellent and am looking forward to taking more workshops in the future both in an official capacity at Iowa State and for personal development.”

“This two-day training provided ‘real-time’ tools that would benefit any facilitator regardless of their scope of work. The class moved at a great pace, and participants were allowed time to practice their new skills.”

“I see a lot of people who have participated in a facilitation and then gone out and attempted it themselves, thinking they know all there is to know about facilitation through osmosis. Take this class instead of muddling through on your own.”

The response to the August ToP® training was so positive that community development specialist Shelley Oltmans organized a follow-up session on September 20 for those who attended the training to practice the technique, as well as for those who did not attend the training but were interested in experiencing the methodology. 

CED faculty and staff are already putting their newfound skills to work.

“We are working with the Institute of Cultural Affairs, who developed the ToP® training techniques, to incorporate some of their methods into the Leading Communities leadership program,” said Deb Tootle, associate professor and Extension specialist in community and regional planning.

“ The techniques we learned will help us engage more diverse community members in the processes of community participation and leadership,” she added.

“I plan on using my updated facilitation skills when presenting programming such as Leading Communities, leading processes such as project planning, and during projects such as using an action plan when discussing a capital campaign,” said community development specialist Brian Perry. 

“I am working with two community development specialists and we are in the early stages of discussion with a nonprofit where action planning seems to be the appropriate method for moving the board forward.” 

For more information on the ToP® facilitation and to attend a session, contact Deb Burnight at debburnight@gmail.com.