Last week I facilitated a really hectic workshop on the fascinating topic of ‘community-based adaptation (to climate change) and resilience in the East and Southern African Drylands‘. A number of us (in the organising team) wondered at a point or another if the workshop was the best venue to create new meaning around this complex topic.
Workshops… are they still any good to express ourselves and create new meaning? (Credits: UNAMID / FlickR)
Simultaneously – aaah serendipity… – my friend Amanda Harding posted about ‘Reinventing the workshop‘, giving the example of an event (that suspiciously looked like a writeshop, if you ask me though).
Perhaps ‘workshops’ are indeed past their prime?
And since change is here to stay and we have to facilitate it, one of the things we’ll have to do on a regular basis is to kill our darlings, our pet ideas and approaches, our professional hobby horses.
At least review them critically. To see if they still strike a chord in our changing environment.
So one of my darlings is about to be killed right here: THE WORKSHOP
Particularly if the objective of ‘THE workshop’ is to carve out new grounds…
The problem of wishy-woshy workshops… Idealistic without a focus…
Amanda points in her post (co-written with Red Plough‘s Terry Clayton) that the workshop has become a ‘meme’. And indeed a number of things are wrong with workshops: They can be terribly designed and end up like orchestrated death-by-Powerpoint anti-learning operas; they may tend to solve everyone’s problems without any clear focus (see meme here); badly facilitated, they can actually contribute to worsening understanding AND relations between people.
But what I’m thinking about here, together with another mate who attended the same workshop last week is this:
Even if well designed, even if well facilitated, have workshops not become a standard solution that we revert back to, in a standard mode and in our comfort zone?
Where is the triple-loop learning here?
It’s not the first time that I have my doubts about workshops and what they can achieve… And one of my conclusions is that despite the best intentions probably the single most important aspect remains building and strengthening connections and relations: the social weaving. But that doesn’t stop me from looking at possible options.
Isn’t there an alternative?
Should we not follow the example of the World Bank’s John Heath (see 12th minute onwards in this excellent videotaped discussion of how The Bank learns) and focus on making time for learning by not jumping on what it is we want to achieve with events or happenings.
Should we not follow the recommendation to bring diversity and argument at the centre of our deliberations (recommending again this great BBC article about the fallacy of the wisdom of the crowds on this topic) and rather focus on bringing very small groups of very diverse people together, outside their normal work environment, in a sort-of retreat, to explore promising new avenues and explore old topics with fresh pairs of eyes and complementary brains?
Should we not leave our voice and our pens/computers outside to let our other senses guide us in exploring the edges of our consciousness? Creative drawing, using metaphors, miming, observing (e.g. animals), using our body to solicit other avenues of our resourcefulness… ?
Should we not encourage more walking about, more journeys together to reflect on work, more cooking and eating together to explore new surfaces – indeed perhaps a cookshop might be as ground-breaking as a workshop for that matter?
Should we not refuse to bring people together physically and rather bring together virtually a group of people who practice Personal Knowledge Management to explore each other’s questions and musings and build upon that? Could a duo’s journey be not innovative than an entire room full of people?
Hmmm… lots of options hanging up and I’m not sure any of these would bring us further?
And what if the answer is in the workshop itself?
If un-conferences and workshops are sticking around, can we not think of a set of alternatives – which are already tested anyway:
- Pure Open Space Technology workshops?
- Other events without a preconceived agenda where perhaps organisers get participants to think about hard/complex questions they want to explore and filter out the most complex/interesting questions in a crowdsourced manner, to go more deeply in the fields concerned?
- Happenings with staged ‘conversations and interactions for change’ such as this useful idea below…
The bottom line is also that we should clearly understand and distinguish when we want to have a workshop, a workstop (where we would stop working and explore relationships), a talkshop (where people have the entire liberty to explore anything in conversations), a writeshop where the point is to write some outputs etc.
One of the most important questions (from the BOSSY HERALD) to ponder when thinking about organising an event is whether we want to level knowledge or deepen it, and whether we want some output or some interaction. Totally different dynamics are at play in either case…
And all that said, I am still pondering the following, perhaps you have some answers:
- Can we genuinely ‘explore new grounds’ with a group beyond 40-50 participants?
- If so, what have been the ingredients, principles or heuristics that worked in your experience and that you would suggest following?
- If not, what have been the best alternatives to workshops to bring up a totally different experience, that you think could be reproduced in other settings?
- What have been your best examples of events or happenings that led people to change, not just to learn new ideas and share much? How did IT work?
Phew! Sounds like this reflection might go on for a while still…
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