I recently ran two workshops with different energies:

In the first we planned a project. Although there were many unfinished ideas to be discussed, we agreed the tasks and deliverables which teams wrote up on sticky notes.  We sequenced the notes on a wall chart, putting in dependencies, responsibilities and durations.  I captured the plan in MS Project the next day which we reviewed.  We closed off with a clear recommendation to the board.

In the second, representatives from different countries met to initiate another project. There were different perspectives on the context, scope, and solution.  We worked our way through the agenda, the team moving slowly and cycling back to re-discuss some of the key issues. At the end of the day we had a log of issues, a set of principles, suggested actions for progress and topics open for resolution.
Here is a framework of four domains I have used to understand the difference between the two sessions.

Simple domain – “known knowns”

The leader’s role is to assess and categorise the facts and decide an approach, based on what is already working.  These issues are not usually addressed in workshops.

Complicated domain – “known unknowns”

There are a number of possible right answers.  Leaders and teams investigate several options, with input from experts, and decide on the most appropriate “good” (not necessarily “best”) practice.

Complex domain – “unknown unknowns”

There are no right answers to be wrung out of discussion.  The team share information about their situation and resources.  During this conversation the team first see where they are and then allow patterns to emerge.

Chaotic domain – “unknowables”

Searching for right answers is pointless.  The leader first acts to contain the damage and establish order, bringing the situation back to “complex”.  A good leader may also find ways to launch innovation from the energy in chaos, delegating crisis management and new initiatives to different managers and running them in parallel.

Most workshops play out in the complicated and complex domains. The first workshop in my example was “complicated” the second was “complex”.  It is worth reflecting in preparation, on the domain in which the workshop will unfold.In the Complicated domain, project initiation with the required experts is appropriate and can deliver massive benefits.  In the complex domain, the conversation should be slowed and taken beyond a single day.  Here are five points worth considering in a complex domain:

  • Engage as many people as possible in the discussion.  Large Group Methods work well for this.
  • Agree behaviours and allow groups to self regulate.  The law of two feet, in Open Space workshops is a good example.
  • Stimulate components of natural growth.  When topics take a life of their own, allow them to develop.
  • Encourage diverse and dissenting views.  Build questioning and reflection into the process.  Allow ideas to be challenged.
  • Create a nurturing environment.  Include structures to allow good things to emerge.  Reward all ideas.

(From the  Cynefin framework developed by David Snowden and Mary Boone – pronounced ku-nev-in – Welsh – all the factors in our environment that influence us in ways we will never understand)