Inquiry-based collaboration

Workshops are a popular means of aggregating the efforts of different groups (often who have not previously worked together) within a time-boxed meeting. Such meetings can be effective in obtaining ownership for ideas, exploring options, and organizing efforts for an endeavor. While collaboration can be a powerful tool, workshops can also have many limitations - especially a willingness of participants to make a/b comparisons. In Knowledge and Decisions, Thomas Sowell describes the differences which arise between group and individual decision-making:

Among the ways in which various decision-making processes differ is in the extent to which they are institutionally capable of making incremental trade-offs, rather than attempting categorical "solutions." Consumers continually make incremental trade-offs when deciding what to buy in supermarkets or in automobile dealerships, but appellate courts may have only a stark choice to make between declaring a statute constitutional.

To mitigate some of these effects, McKinsey research suggests working together with a workshop sponsor to implement the following steps in order to enhance the outcomes from such workshops:

1. Establish the decision-making criteria

Determine what an acceptable idea looks like.Develop highly specific definitions of boundaries and evaluation criteria that are tailored to meet the intended purpose of the collaboration. 

2. Ask the right questions

Use questions as a platform for idea generation. Questions should have two characteristics:

  • force your participants to take a new and unfamiliar perspective. When you look for new ways to attack an old problem, you naturally use thinking patterns and ideas that worked in the past, which will lead to fewer good ideas.
  • limit the conceptual space of exploration, while encouraging innovation within that space.

Try coming up with 15 to 20 such questions for a typical workshop attended by about 15 people, and discuss them intensively in small subgroups during a series of sessions.

3. Engage the right people

Pick people with 'in the trenches' knowledge, who can answer the questions you’re asking, rather than for where they are on the org chart. You don't want people making things up.

4. Divide and conquer

Conduct multiple, focused, idea generation sessions, in sub-groups of three to five people. Each sub-group should focus on one question only for a full 30 minutes. This size is important, since it motivates people to speak up. A larger group is more likely to limit participation to a few, dominant individuals. Instead, isolate “idea crushers” in their own subgroup: bosses, “big mouths,” and subject matter experts. Divide the questions so each subgroup has about 5 questions each, since it’s unproductive and too time consuming to have all subgroups answer every question. Plan the groups in advance, and try to allocate questions to the subgroups best equipped to handle it.

5. On your mark, get set, go!

Establish clear expectations about what these sub-groups should - and should not - focus on. Highlight the differences of this approach from traditional brainstorming, where ideas are typically generated quickly, but usually lack substance. Explain they might generate only two or three worthy ideas during discussions, and provide a useful example structure for these ideas, as 'signpost examples'. Also explain that they don't need to worry; there will be plenty of good ideas generated from their collective efforts.

6. Wrap it up

Don't have the full group choose the best ideas from the pile, since attendees won’t have the best perspective to prioritize the ideas for actual investment. Picking winners can also be demotivating, since the real decision makers can overrule the group’s favorite choices after the workshop, and erode both the ownership and the work that's been done.

Instead, each group should narrow its ideas to the best ones which they choose to share with the full group, to motivate and inspire everyone, and end the workshop on a high note.

7. Follow up quickly

Be thorough and responsive in acting on the ideas that are generated, and make sure all participants thanked for their participation, and know what to expect going forward. Close the workshop on a high note that participants won’t expect if they’re veterans of traditional brainstorming: describe to them exactly what steps will be taken to choose the winning ideas, and how they will learn about the final decisions. Too often, workshops are instead left with a bunch of cleanup from vague, poorly crafted ideas. Instead, the idea is to stimulate creativity, and force groups to head down independent paths, and generate proposals that have some real thinking behind them.