Although the Knowinnovation team facilitates a number of different kinds of workshops and events, we’re probably most known for running Sandpits and Ideas Labs. These events, very intense and immersive, bring together people of diverse backgrounds and disciplines in order to generate ideas for radically novel research proposals. KI has developed a process that helps these extreme ideas emerge, but there’s another very important component to the success of these workshops: the collection of participants in the room. Here’s how we counsel our clients to organize a group for one of these events.
How many Participants?
Ideally there are 25-35 people in the room. Forty is doable, but it’s probably too much. It makes the herding-people-around during the event a bit unruly and time consuming, and eventually, when the groups form, they are numerous. That might mean more potential projects, but it also means that during the report-backs and presentations, the participants get fatigued and the peer feedback loop – an important part of the Sandpit – won’t be as constructive.
Situated around the Problem
Each participant needs to have some connection with the problem area; their expertise has to be relevant to the challenge. They might only understand or have experience with one aspect of the problem, and that’s okay. They don’t need to understand all aspects of the problem, but at least some part of it.
We need to have “as much diversity as we can afford,” to quote Michael Kirton, originator of the Adaption-Innovation theory, yet we don’t want to have more than we need from any single discipline. There might be a need for three or four people from several key disciplines – those with the most obvious impact on the challenge at hand – as they will be the key members of any project team that forms. And there might be two participants from several other disciplines slightly removed from the question. And then several outliers, for instance an artist or illustrator, or a designer, an architect, or someone from a totally different field of study or practice, and yet their experience can be related, in some way, to the central problem.
One example of this is an Ideas Lab we facilitated on the subject of enhancing and improving upon Photosynthesis. As would be expected, there were biologists, biochemists and plant scientists in the group. But there were also two physicists, who helped to draw people’s thinking outside the norm. They asked questions that helped to test assumptions, and proposed analogous theories from their domain that helped the scientists “closer” to the question look at it differently.
Not all Sandpits are stakeholder driven, that is to say the central problem has a clear problem owner. But when there is a stakeholder, it’s important to have the voice of the user/customer represented in the participant group. The perspective of someone so close to the problem can keep the groups grounded. While we want the research ideas to be very novel, even close to impossible – we also want the outcome to be meaningful to the target user or beneficiary.
The participants need to have elasticity in their thinking and to have an intellectual appetite. Young academics (and entrepreneurs) are ideal, and seasoned thinkers are good, too, as long as they have the capacity to keep their minds open and their egos in check. Senior academics can add a great depth of knowledge and experience to the group, and if they are willing to collaborate and share knowledge without dominating, their contribution is very important. We look for open-minded thinkers who are enthused by the mix of ideas that come up in discussions with people of different types and levels of experience.
Empathy over Eminence
If we do need to recruit more senior academics, we look for people who can demonstrate the ability to “bring on” younger researchers. These are generally scientists who’ve had team members in their labs who’ve then gone on to form their own labs. We’re looking for senior academics who are good at working in a more Socratic way, for whom it’s natural to help develop rather than direct the thinking of their younger associates.
Avoid Big Egos
The watch-out is for high profile academics with long lists of articles and credentials and egos to match. They get invited because it’s perceived that they lend credibility to the event, or because the organizers might fear a backlash if they aren’t included. Everybody comes to a Sandpit with a potential idea in their back pocket, but most participants encounter new and more intriguing ideas during the first two days and drop their original idea fairly quickly. The heavy-hitters tend to hold on to their own idea too fiercely, pushing it into the mix or trying to round up a group around their pet project while taking a very directive role. Their group then ceases to be collaborative; younger academics who are attracted to the star power fall into lower status roles which limits the extent of their contribution.
Very often these projects don’t get funded because they lack the spark of those generated from new minds colliding in the fold of the energy of the Sandpit, or because the mentor team recognizes the project as just another iteration of the senior academic’s work. The senior academic gets angry and the younger ones stand beside him, bewildered, thinking they’d attached themselves to a sure bet. It’s a shame because if they hadn’t rallied around the big name, their own thinking would have probably have extended further and in many different, more interesting directions.
Of course not all senior academics are domineering, and most are very happy to sit at a table with other participants with varying levels of knowledge and experience. But if the egos are too large – junior or senior – they will inhibit the collaborative thinking that is the trademark of a Sandpit.
An ideal ratio of women to men is 50/50, but it’s often hard to achieve this in some of the scientific fields we explore. The dynamic of a Sandpit or Ideas Lab with only one or two women present is significantly inferior to one with a larger percentage of women. There is a body of research about how women impact the collaboration of working groups, and we’ve already written about what we call the female factor.
Different and Unknown
The Sandpit was founded on the premise that if you are looking for a different result – multi-disciplinary projects with a high degree of novelty – then you have to do something different from the normal channels used to generate research projects. A Sandpit is different in terms of the process that individuals go through to get to new ideas for research projects and Knowinnovation is constantly reviewing and renewing our meeting methodology to keep it fresh and innovative. But the best results come when the people in the room are different than the usual suspects who are normally consulted. Ideally the participants don’t know each other. They might know of each other, but the most creative output comes when people are meeting up for the first time on the on-line network just a few weeks before the event, and in person for the first time when they walk into the Sandpit meeting room.
The Ideal Participant
A Sandpit is demanding on participants. They are asked to meet and connect with new people from different fields and to quickly form teams and solve problems together, ultimately competing with these newfound peers for funding. It can be a stressful experience, so collecting the right kind of participants is key. The ideal attendee is:
● generally curious
● collaborative and ready to work in teams
● open to new ideas and new ways of thinking and working
● willing to take responsibility for their own level of participation
● able to express their thinking so those in other disciplines can understand
● aware of their own ego and able to maintain it
● capable of contributing constructively to their own teams and others
● a good sport; sees value in having participated, whether funded or not
Knowinnovation uses a psychologist to review the Sandpit participant applications, gauging their capacity to work collaboratively within an intense group setting. This guidance helps to get the right people in the room and increases, significantly, the level of innovative output from the event, both in terms of diverse and interesting working groups and research projects that will lead to exciting science.
It’s important to note, too, that the Sandpit/Ideas Lab experience isn’t for everyone, and not every kind of academic or scientist is suited to work in the environment we create or the methodology we use. That’s why it’s important to select the right kind of people who will thrive in an open, collaborative climate.