Two kinds of workshops: linear and emergent


A lot of collaboration in large enterprises is due to ambiguity, and for good reason. The acceptance of ambiguity, and exploration of it, leads to new knowledge and more clarity. The new knowledge helps us move in a relevant direction. Software and digital infrastructure can’t be implemented until there is enough knowledge about at least the direction of the implementation journey. In my line of work as consultant and digital advisor, there is often a need to get more clarity around business ideas to enable progress.

Many opportunities and challenges that my clients face come from early idea stages, where ideas may not even be formulated more than as a vague direction of inquiry. For these emerging business ideas, it is often helpful to bring together a team from the client to help clarify and articulate the ideas. They bring more experience and a wider base of knowledge which is helpful to explore the direction further.


Workshops: linear and emergent

There are two basic kinds of workshops, linear and emergent, for a lack of better names for them. The linear workshops are well-planned mini-projects in which the process of discovery can be well planned, even when the content is not. We know what we seek and can plan relevant games and methods to get there. The emergent workshops will by nature not have a predetermined process of discovery, they still need to be well planned, but the process of discovery can’t be known and the workshop will unfold as knowledge is gathered.

“We cannot solve the our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”

Albert Einstein

We need to understand the situation we are in, the problem at hand and the direction it takes us, to identify relevant methods. We may like to use certain methods, yet a profound understanding of the problem to solve should define how we think about solving it. A good understanding of our context will help us determine relevant methods to deal with the situation we face. It is good to get a second opinion from a frank and knowledgable person as to what context we are in and how to deal with it. Good frameworks can help us navigate the unknown. It takes humility to face the issue of whether we are the right person, or even a good match, to facilitate a workshop or lead the exploration of an area, especially when we are new to it.

The Cynefin framework

The Cynefin framework can help us frame the situation we are in. The framework was designed to help leaders respond adequately to situations they face. It helps practitioners make choices about the order of actions to take, such as sense, respond, analyze and gather more facts. Using the framework, we can determine which of five operative contexts is prevailing in our situation: Simple/Obvious, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic and Disorderly.

I tend to prefer linear workshops for Simple/Obvious and Complicated contexts, and sometimes the Complex situations as well. The emergent workshops are most suitable in Complex, Disorderly and, if relevant, Chaotic situations. They are significantly more demanding for the facilitator as course corrections needs to be done continuously. The decision for which kind of workshop rests with the workshop organiser and how the workshop can unfold: is the trajectory known from the starting point A to the, possibly unknown, destination point B?

What is complex and what is complicated can depend on the knowledge and experience of the team. What can seem complex, can be “just” complicated for a team of experts. It helps to dive into the subject in advance to design the workshop based on what can be expected. With additional skills and experience, we may be able to determine that the problem is no longer complex, but rather a complicated one, and deal with it in a linear workshop with a high degree of certainty of how to move towards outcomes.

The match-making of knowledge and skills of workshop organisers, facilitators and participants is key to good workshops. We often fail to diagnose the problems we face in enough nuance. We then choose the wrong metods of solving them, we waste participants’ time. It may still be a lot of fun to participate, but the results will be sub-standard.

Make your next workshop great

The core idea here is that workshops need good preparations to become successful. A solid understanding of what kind of problem we face helps us decide the workshop process and format, and to identify the best participants. We should do what we can to think through what kinds of, and levels of, knowledge and skills are suitable when we build new knowledge and solve problems.

This is the first in a series of articles that deal with how we can find direction with undeveloped ideas using workshops and other methods, early on in projects and initiatives.