Workshop Watch-outs

A 5-day event, like an Ideas Lab or a Sandpit, pushes people to their creative and collaborative limits. The experience can be profound and inspiring: identifying new challenges, discovering and developing with breakthrough ideas, meeting and working intensely with academics from other disciplines. But it’s not always easy. An intense workshop like this also has its challenges. It may require navigating a few tricky moments.

Here’s where people sometimes struggle:


An Ideas Lab brings together a diverse group of people to achieve an ambitious goal or purpose. Forming teams around that objective can sometimes be a painful process. Diverse groups of people mean diverse sets of values, and any group with different values has the potential for conflict. Sometimes, this conflict can resolve quite elegantly, but other times, the conflict remains, and festers. When call this storming.


Storming can be good. It means values are being negotiated, and the potential for shared purpose is close, and having a shared purpose is paramount to forming a team. But storming can be uncomfortable to watch, and difficult to be part of. It might seem like things are falling apart. But in truth people are doing the hard work necessary to come together.

It’s important to facilitate a healthy storming, the kind where people express differing opinions in a productive way. KI creates an open forum for debate, we never take sides, and we help people share their interests and passions, rather than take a stand on a position. We encourage sharing of information, and transparency. If people are truly incapable of finding common ground, it’s best to allow people to part ways, but this is uncommon in our workshops. There is almost always a strong foundation of values that our participants are passionate about and can share.

Leadership Emergence

Some projects require leadership. Often a form of shared leadership is best. Other times it’s important to have one person or group take up the helm. Choosing a leader is almost always an uneasy process.

When a group enters a leadership emergence phase, a few behaviors stick out. People become overly polite. Perhaps they don’t want to seem as though they’re grabbing for power. People may become competitive, especially if the leadership role comes with some prestige or monetary benefit. Consensus seems to be just around the corner, but consensus is an elusive ideal to obtain. Resentment on the other hand can sprout at any moment. Leadership emergence puts trust in its most delicate state.

Whether it’s voting, trial by fire, or even a dance-off, it is important that the group be on board with the process by which a leader will be decided on. If anyone thinks the process is unfair or unsound, we lose the group’s trust. If we press forward in order to stay on time or for any other reason, we will have lost the participants trust and their commitment to the project. This is when it’s essential to allow people to voice their opinions, and invite them to propose alternatives and reach agreement before moving forward with the task at hand. If time really is constrained, you can fall back to a 75% vote of confidence, rather than 100% consensus. Most groups will agree to a vote in order to meet a deadline, but it’s important to check that it’s a sincere agreement.


When tasking a group to take on a challenge, they’ll need some time to muster up the courage to take ownership. In the meantime, it may seem like they’re missing the ball, or asking irrelevant questions. It may even seem like they’re pointing fingers and placing blame on others for the current predicament. Most often, there will be a lingering unconscious anxiety to mount the horse and charge. They’re biding their time.

At this stage, as facilitators we’re likely to step back and allow participants to take ownership. Usually someone steps in to fill the void. The healthiest way is for participants to own the problem and then fix it. They are most likely to continue to pursue their project after the workshop is over if they truly own the challenge. If ownership is given, the likelihood that a group does the work needed to succeed sharply declines once the workshop is over.


Attachment to Ideas

If a participant withdraws from the conversation, we take notice. If this happens to be accompanied by a head scratch, beard stroke, or slightly suspicious eyes, then we know that person has probably just come up with an idea they think is worth hiding from everyone else.

Inevitably, someone else comes up with the same idea (or one very similar) before the day is over. Our beard-stroking participant now mounts an offensive, correcting their peer about what the idea really is. As a facilitator immersed in the field of innovation, we must admit that we find the premise of idea ownership to be rather comical. We certainly respect intellectual property, but we’ve consistently seen the most powerful ideas emerge from groups thinking as one.

In order to facilitate the co-mingling of healthy ideas, we preempt the whole notion of getting attached to ideas. We encourage people to generate a volume of ideas. We ask participants to exchange ideas. Even those who clutch their Post-it notes most tightly tend to comply and appreciate the result of sharing very quickly.


For a half-day workshop, participants tend to get tired around the third hour. For a full day workshop, it’s around 3:00 pm. If a conference lasts 5 days, day 4 is when we see a slow down. Fatigue is relative to expectations.

We balance the type of activity with the level of fatigue carefully. We need the participants to be razor sharp for the tough parts, and more laid back for activities that might be more tedious or contemplative. We do our best to help them manage their energy.

Breakthroughs take Time

Imagine you’re at a five-day workshop, and it’s the night of day two. It feels like you’ve heard most of the same old things. You’re starting to get nervous: why am I here if we’re coming up with the same old ideas? This is completely normal. Breakthroughs take time.

In the practice of deliberate creativity there’s a concept we refer to as the third third. It speaks to the fact that the initial ideas we come up with, in just about any situation, are habitual. We have to take the time to generate enough ideas to get beyond these ordinary ideas to the more interesting ones.

Try this: Name five super powers. Super human traits that if you possessed them, would make you a Superhero. Take a moment, before reading further, to scratch them down on a sheet of paper.


Now check your list against this one:

• Super strength or speed
• Reading minds of people or animals
• Super Intelligence
• Manipulating matter or energy
• Super healing
• Walking through walls
• Breathing under water
• Flying
• Time travel
• Read minds
• Teleportation
• Not requiring sleep

More likely than not, most of your five are listed above. That’s because when you ask the human brain a question, it wants to answer by searching through its memory. Only with persistent effort, which can take time, does it move beyond the patterns it already recognizes, to start to make novel connections and break into the realm of new ideas, those in the third third.

This is probably why at the end of our shorter workshops and events, the participants often tell us they wish they had one more day.

Tolerating Ambiguity

How would Winnie the Pooh solve the climate crisis?

A question like this is amusing for some people, but for others, it seems silly, or even upsetting. It’s not a serious question, and the climate crisis should be taken seriously. We agree, it is a serious issue, and we’ll need an enormous amount of creative energy to solve it. Looking at it from the point of view of Winnie the Pooh might give us a unique approach to solving problems. Asking participants to put themselves in the shoes of somebody else – whether it’s a cartoon character, a super-hero or a world renown problem-solving scientist – inspires different thinking that moves us closer to creative solutions to complex problems. We can use these forced connections and substitutions just to jiggle our thinking.

Getting to breakthrough requires tolerating ambiguity. If there were a straightforward solution that could be reached following a rigid procedure, it’s likely we would have come to an answer by now. For grand challenges, imagination is required, and we lead participants into the ambiguous realm where imagination can flourish.

We introduce ambiguity little by little, providing opportunities to engage thoughtfully, rather than thrusting participants into metaphor without direction and good grounding.


Bringing it all together

In the last ten years we have had the honor of facilitating inter-disciplinary workshops and conferences for thousands of scientists. We’ve seen the birth of breakthrough and it never ceases to amaze us. As we’ve pioneered techniques for collaborating in the scientific community, we’ve learned when as facilitators we should step in and help participants navigate the moments of stress or struggle, and when we should stand back and simply get out of the way so the group can perform and do what it needs to do to produce exciting and innovative science.

We look forward to seeing you at an Ideas Lab!

Know Further: About Tuckman’s Group Development Model (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning). Some articles about shared leadership here, here and here, and this one about the history of leadership theories. More about tolerating ambiguity and the theory of the third third of ideas.