As a leader, you’re faced with more complex challenges and opportunities than ever before. Traditional management theory says that you are the one that needs to come up with the solutions to help your tribe navigate through it all. But the fact is that you can’t (and shouldn’t) try to sort through all the possibilities and choices single-handedly.
Here’s one invaluable skill that you probably didn’t pick up in business school: crafting large-group conversations that effectively harness your staff’s collective wisdom, creativity, and capacity to deal with complex issues.
Andrew Carnegie once said that “The only irreplaceable capital in an organization is the knowledge and ability of its people.” Let’s talk about three specific workshop methods you can use to tap into that knowledge and ability as you address specific issues. These methods are scalable (whether your group is 5 or 5,000) and can result in your organization having better information, making clearer decisions, and responding faster to opportunities, challenges, and change. All three models can be used to explore a specific organizational issue, or to initiate an organization-wide strategic planning process.
Workshop Method 1: Open Space Technology
Harrison Owen, who developed Open Space in the mid 80s, bemusedly talks about its origin:
I had occasion to organize an international conference for 250 participants. It took me a full year of labor (plus dealing with details, frustrations, and egos). At the conclusion of the conference, it was agreed by one and all (including myself) that although the total event had been outstanding, the truly useful part had been the coffee breaks. The one thing I had nothing to do with. My next question was a simple one: is it possible to combine the level of synergy and excitement present in a good coffee break with the substantive activity and results characteristic of a good meeting?
And that’s how Open Space was born.
The least formally structured method I’ve found, Open Space workshops (sometimes associated with the idea of an “unconference”) usually takes place over 1-2 days. A topic must be defined, but the event begins with essentially no pre-baked agenda. The event can be promoted as widely as you like, but attendance has to be voluntary—the people who show up are going to be the ones who are passionate and responsible enough to get things done.
So here’s what Open Space Technology looks like…
As an Open Space facilitator, you’ll play host — gathering participants in a giant circle around an open space (there it is), focusing the group on the task at hand, describing the process, and then getting out of the way. Around the central task, each person is invited to identify an issue for which they have some passion. They will write it with a marker on a sheet of paper, and post it on a matrix on the wall (which morphs into the agenda). In doing so, they accept responsibility for convening a breakout session on their issue and making a written report of the results. Everyone else signs up for the sessions they want to attend, and people dive in.
Reports from each session get written up using a simple template (reports can include action plans, but that usually requires a full two-day workshop), and are posted on the wall as “breaking news,” to create immediate buzz and follow-up. The complete set of reports can be printed, bound, and delivered into the hands of each participant before they leave—a satisfying symbol of all they’ve gotten done.
Open Space works well if:
- There is a concrete and critical issue to be grappled with.
- The issue is complex enough that nobody can quite get their arms around it (if senior managers think they already know the answer, it will be an exercise in frustration for everyone).
- There is lots of diversity among people and points of view.
- There is real passion (people care!).
- The issue is urgent!
How many people can come, and how much time will it take?
Open Space is incredibly scalable. Owen has conducted workshops with as few as five participants, and as many as 2,000. One full day is required to do an Open Space workshop justice, but people start getting tired around the two (or two and a half) day mark — the maximum recommended time.
The online home of Open Space is openspaceworld.org. You can get a taste for the experience through the site’s guided tour. The best walkthrough is Harrison Owen’s Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide (3rd. Edition), which is detailed, practical, and full of helpful examples.
Workshop Method 2: The World Café
The World Café is a creative way to generate shared insights through a series of small-group discussions. The initial idea was born in 1995, when consultants Juanita Brown and David Isaacs were hosting a set of strategic dialogues on Intellectual Capital. On a whim, one of their collaborators set the meeting space up with improvised café-style tables. It was a move that changed the group’s dynamics in radical and surprising ways. People huddled around the tables, learning together, testing ideas and assumptions, and building knowledge… and eventually organizing themselves to move between tables and make connections amongst the conversations.
So here’s what The World Cafe looks like…
As a World Café facilitator, you’ll create a hospitable space filled with tables (usually with four chairs each, and set up to look as much like an actual café as possible). You will welcome participants, set the context, share the café etiquette, and kick off a series of small group discussions. At the end of each discussion (at least 20 minutes), everyone will move to a different table except for one person who stays as a “table host” to welcome the new group and fill them in on the previous conversation.
Each round begins with a meaningful question. The same question may be used for multiple rounds, or you may use a series of questions that build on one another. After (or between) the small group dialogues, people are invited to share emerging insights with the large group. These insights are recorded and become the output of the workshop.
One of World Café’s greatest strengths is how naturally people enter into it. Peter Senge commented, “I have been repeatedly struck by the ease of beginning a World Café-style dialogue — how readily people shift into heartfelt and engaging conversations.”
Caution! The method is not a good fit if you’re driving toward a predetermined outcome, or want to develop detailed implementation plans and assignments. It may also be more difficult when there is preexisting conflict or polarized opinions within a group. World Café can tolerate more a loosely-defined topical focus than other methods, but will also yield the least defined results.
World Café works well for:
- Sharing knowledge, building community, and exploring possibilities.
- Conducting an in-depth exploration of key challenges and opportunities.
- Engaging people who are meeting for the first time.
- Deepening existing relationships and mutual ownership of outcomes.
- Connecting the intimacy of small-group dialogue with the excitement of large-group participation.
How many people can come, and how much time will it take?
World Café requires a dozen or so people to be effective (enough to fill three tables), but Brown and Isaacs have successfully used it with 1,200 people at a time. Of the three methods, World Café is the most flexible time-wise. It can stretch over two or three days, but can also be completed in a couple of hours or as a component of a larger event.
You can learn more about World Café at theworldcafe.com, or through the pages of Brown and Isaacs’ The World Café: Shaping our Futures Through Conversations That Matter.
Workshop Method 3: Appreciative Inquiry
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) first emerged in the 1980s at Case Western Reserve University. David Cooperrider, a doctoral student in organizational behavior, began to see that traditional problem-solving approaches often led to discouragement and blame, and didn’t take organizations where they really wanted to go. In one particular consultation with the Cleveland Clinic, he decided to put aside the usual root-cause analysis of failure, and instead analyze the root causes of success. The approach led to a wealth of insights and positive energy within the organization.
At the most basic level, that’s what AI is: the exploration of what gives life to organizations when they function at their best. In practice, it often takes the form of 3-5 day workshops, or “summits,” that bring together a broad range of internal and external stakeholders. Participants will: 1) discover the organization’s core strengths; 2) envision opportunities for positive change; 3) design the desired changes in the organization’s systems, structures, strategies, and culture; and 4) implement and sustain the change and make it work. This process is often described through the “Four Ds” of AI (see diagram below).
So here’s what an Appreciative Inquiry Summit looks like…
As a facilitator, you will welcome participants, introduce the process, and then connect them into interview partners (where each person is paired off with someone in the room with whom they have the least in common). You will give these partners a significant amount of time (generally an hour and a half) to interview each other one-on-one using a pre-set interview guide. The interviews will include questions about the person’s high-point experiences related to the inquiry topic (with specific, real-life stories), and about their personal vision for the future.
After the interviews are complete, the partners will gather into tables of six, where they will share their insights with one another and begin to identify common themes. You will lead them through group exercises to articulate the “Positive Core of Strengths” of the organization, and then a collective vision for the future.
At this point, the group will identify specific strategic topics that they want to focus on, and will self-organize (with minimal but mindful facilitation) into groups, with each person working on the topic he or she is most passionate about. The groups will develop “Provocative Propositions” — statements that vividly describe what future success looks like within their topic. If you’ve allowed enough time, these groups can also be asked to develop detailed action plans and timelines, and to work as a go-forward teams that are responsible for post-summit follow-up.
An Appreciative Inquiry Summit works well if:
- There is a clear and compelling task.
- The task is driven by true curiosity and requires collaborative action.
- There is a willingness to unconditionally focus on the positive.
- Senior leaders are committed to supporting the decisions and outcomes.
- A wide representation of stakeholders are available to participate in the entire summit.
- Your organization includes people who are averse to change (by rooting the inquiry in the best of the past, you’ll be able to disarm concerns about the future).
How many people can come, and how much time will it take?
I’ve personally facilitated AI summits with anywhere from 20-120 people, but I know that the approach can be done in a simple form with as few as six, and has been successfully used with 1,000 or more. A full AI summit will take at least three days, but can productively use as many as five (although at some risk of participant fatigue). If you are working with geographically diverse stakeholders you can conduct a series of mini-summits in different regions before integrating the results with a smaller team.
You can learn more at the Appreciative Inquiry Commons, but I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of The Appreciative Inquiry Summit by James Ludema (et al.), which provides a detailed, end-to-end walkthrough of the summit process.
Final word: Research shows that dialogue-based workshop processes (like the ones I’ve described) result in positive, happy, and engaged staff, improved stakeholder relationships, and more functional and productive organizations. I hope you’ll consider incorporating one of these methods into your organizational or team planning. If you do, I’d love to hear about it.