To See or Not to See

The workshops that Knowinnovation runs are often fascinating: we get to collect a diverse group of very intelligent minds in a room for a week, around an important challenge, and walk them through an intense process where they often re-define the problem and generate a number of ideas for potential research projects that will help us better understand the problem, if not help to solve it. In the right environment, people can move extremely fast and far in their thinking, surprising even themselves with their own ideas. It’s something to witness.


Which is probably why we get a lot of requests to have visitors at a Sandpit (or Ideas Lab) event. Often, a few higher-ups want to come by and see what this multi-disciplinary methodology is all about. Or all the staff who’ve worked hard on all the logistics want to reap the benefits of their organizational talents, and see how it all comes together and what comes out of it. Or a colleague down the hall might be thinking of hosting a meeting like this, too, and sees this chance to get a preview. Everybody wants to know what happens at one of these workshops.

We hate to be killjoys, but we do our best to avoid having extra people mulling about the side and the back of the meeting room, in observer mode. It does have an impact on the workshop, having a lot of observers, and it can be detrimental.

One of the first priorities on day one of our workshops is to create a climate in the meeting room where people can begin to feel at ease saying whatever comes to mind, and trusting that others will understand that they are experimenting with ideas, and if something a bit odd or non sequitor comes out, they won’t be judged by it. That in fact, this kind of stream of consciousness exchange is what might trigger an idea for a break-through research proposal. It’s extremely important to build this rapport among the participants and mentors in the room.

look again

But you can imagine if there is a revolving group of strangers who come and go and stand on the side of the room and watch and listen – and chat amongst themselves – it’s a bit unnerving for the participants, who start to feel in a fishbowl and get self-conscious, which effects their ability to express themselves freely. Our process will help people will begin to trust each other and take intellectual risks. The presence of an observer can thwart that, instantly, unraveling the trust that we’ve spent days building.

Usually, there are guest speakers who visit to the workshop for one day mid-week, but they interact with the participants; they have a specific and provocative role. What we want to avoid are the people lurking and listening who will change the mood of the room, and so we try to discourage event organizers from inviting people to come along for a morning, or to pop in for a day just to see what’s going on.

When it can’t be helped, we introduce the observers to the group and invite them to participate. It’s the lurking on the sidelines that steals energy from the participants. This is tricky because often the observers view themselves as above the process. We coach them to be present and focused – not checking their emails or doing other work – and they should interact as curious and engaged listeners, and most of all, to be humble and let the participants drive what’s happening.


The best-case scenario is that the people present in the meeting room are those who have a specific and active role: participants, mentors, facilitators, provocateur speakers and event organizers. And that those would-be observers, despite their keen curiosity, will put their own needs aside in service to the challenge at hand, and let the event unfold with only necessary people in the room. The truly novel research proposals that emerge under these optimal conditions will be the best way to see – and measure – what happens at a Sandpit or Ideas Lab.


Know Further:

An article about Tuckman’s model of how groups form, and his original article. An article about the impact of observers on group process. Why trust is important when groups work together.