ICA Associates Canada publishes ‘Getting to the Bottom of ToP’

“Getting to the Bottom of ToP: Foundations of the Methodologies of the Technology of Participation” by Wayne and Jo Nelson of ICA Associates Canada has now been published! It is now available from the publisher iUniverse, and also from Amazon. For now it is available as a paperback book. The ebook version should be available in January.

This is the book that Wayne Nelson started some years ago to document and share the foundations of ICA’s  Technology of Participation (ToP) methodologies, and that Jo Nelson has worked to finish after his death.

Here is the official description from the back cover:

“People demand authentic participation in decisions that affect their lives. Technology of Participation (ToP™) Methods answer that call. ToP Methods work because they reflect how humans think, choose, plan, and develop. They grew out of decades of reflective inquiry into what works in real life, influenced by study of phenomenology and existentialism. This book explores the foundational understandings then builds connections to seven core ToP Methods to give the reader a sense of the methods as a deep body of knowledge.”

Review by a colleague:

“A deep bow to Jo and Wayne for providing a profound and helpful exploration of the phenomenology of practice of ToP. I have longed for decades for this book. In this breakthrough work the Nelsons expose the philosophical foundations of the ICA’s ToP methods in ways that scholars and facilitators alike will find useful. By tracing ToP’s ancestry to the existentialist’s insights of Kierkegaard and Sartre, and the phenomenological methods of Husserl and Heidegger, this book not only provides conceptual clarity but releases a deep wellspring of motivation and skillfulness for practitioners of ToP. I will definitely use this book in teaching my NYU Wagner grad courses on innovative leadership.”

Robertson Work, author of A Compassionate Civilization, NYU Wagner professor, and UN consultant

This post was written for ICAI’s monthly bulletin the Global Buzz, January 2018.  Read on for the free preview from  iUniverse


Wayne Nelson began writing “Getting to the Bottom of ToP” on behalf of the Institute of Cultural Affairs in order to capture and communicate the deep wisdom behind what is known as the “Technologies of Participation” so that present and future generations could use and build on the methods with deep understanding and consistent integrity. ToP Methods are a rich body of knowledge, not merely a collection of tools and tips for group facilitators. By connecting the dots between theory and practice ToP Methods will become more widely appreciated. Think of reading this book as an invitation to dialogue.

New generations of practicing group facilitators may not know whose shoulders they stand upon. Many of us in ICAs around the globe shared a concern that the intellectual giants who created ToP Methods were aging and dying. They were involved in ICA when it was a social movement from the 1960s through the 1980s. Some began earlier through the Ecumenical Institute. Capturing the origins and history of Top Methods was complicated by an early norm of not documenting specific sources or giving specific credit to individuals in favour of attributing the group for the work.

Wayne had to go back to the sources. He spent every spare moment for several years interviewing the remaining “old hands” who were around when ToP Methods were developing. He read and re-read Heidiger, Husserl, Kierkegaard, Bultmann, and other (Phenomenologist and Existentialist) philosophers to disentangle their influential concepts and insights and translate them into language that might be accessible to today’s reader. That was the hardest part of the book.

In January 2014 Wayne completed the chapters on phenomenology in a form that I could understand for the first time. Then, sadly, he died of a sudden heart attack. Practically speaking, the book project was stalled. Ironically, another intellectual giant was lost. And personally, our lifetime together came to an end.

The rest of the book, the practical application section, existed mostly in outline form. Luckily my strength has always been on the practical applications and teaching about how and why facilitating participatory processes using ToP Methods works. I decided to complete the rest of the book on what I know best. Therefore “Getting to the Bottom of ToP” became a serial collaboration. It includes sections from Wayne and myself, and articles written by Brian Stanfield too. Brian was a wise and inspiring colleague of ours at ICA Canada who wrote three books on ToP methods and practices through the 1990s. I hope you discern and enjoy the differences in writing style throughout the chapters….

Jo Nelson


Why did we write this book?

Across the world many people have taken facilitation courses from the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) and are using the Technology of Participation (ToP) methods in organizations. Many others have participated in facilitated sessions and seen these methods at work to turn their organization around, put them on a fresh footing, develop a new spirit as a team, and form an operating consensus about the future.

People keep asking us questions as they sense there’s more behind the methods than they see. They want to understand the underlying integrity that makes them work. They ask:

  • What makes these methods effective?
  • Where do they come from?
  • What is the deeper set of ideas behind them?
  • Is the style of the facilitator as important as the method?
  • I use these methods, and they don’t work as well as I think they should. What do I need to learn?
  • What is the “plus factor” I need to understand and use to get the results I know these methods can deliver?

The answers are long, but the long way is often more scenic. ToP methods of facilitating participation are much more than a neat way to get meetings to go somewhere. They aim to build off the deep undercurrents of history, deal with some major contradictions of our day, create a new paradigm of participation, and bring about profound transformations in people and society.

This book intends to address these questions and articulate the underlying patterns that form the integrity of the methods. This understanding will enable practitioners to adapt the methods to a continually changing environment, while staying true to the underlying patterns of thinking that form the “magic” that makes the methods work.

What are ToP methods?

ToP methods are the core tools developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs over the last 50 years, based on a body of knowledge derived from exploration of the insights from a wide variety of sources from philosophy, theology, sociology and cognitive theory as well as application in action research. These methods are firmly rooted in phenomenology.

Although many tools have been developed from this rich experience, five core methods are presently formally acknowledged by ICA internationally as ToP methods: the focused conversation method, the consensus workshop method, participatory strategic planning, action planning, and one that’s variously called journey wall / wall of wonder / historical scan. These five methods are extraordinary in their ability to respectfully guide groups through clear thinking to create results in a short period of time. They have the potential to transform the way people work together in groups.

Section 1 of this book is about the theory and background of ToP practice.

Chapter 1 explores the roots of ToP participatory methods: the understanding of phenomenology as the “study of that which appears to us,” as people grasp meaning through reflection on their actual life experience.

Chapter 2 describes the formation of ToP methodology through the application of phenomenology.

Chapter 3 explains how the phenomenological method is applied to ToP methods, and Chapter 4 thoroughly introduces the five core methods.

Section 2, which covers chapters 5 through 8, provides an in-depth explanation of each of the five core methods, including the “state-of-the-art” steps of each method, common adaptations, and the consequences of changes.

Section 3, in Chapter 9, investigates the design aspects of applying the phenomenological method in the structure of facilitated events.

Section 4, in chapters 10 and 11, examines two additional ToP methods for depth study.

Finally, the conclusion summarizes the book and takes us into the future.

Wayne and Jo Nelson worked with the Institute of Cultural Affairs globally from 1970 until Wayne’s death in 2014. Together they used their degrees in sociology, religion, anthropology and education to guide their work in participatory development and group process facilitation in villages and organizations in many cultures. Jo continues to work with ICA Associates, Inc. in Toronto as a trainer and mentor. The Institute of Cultural Affairs has over 50 years of experience in participatory development in more than 35 nations. For over four decades the Canadian Institute of Cultural Affairs has promoted positive social transformation.