Collective Intelligence Design Workshop for Sustainability

Workshop Design methods, Discovery and Ideation

How do you facilitate Collective Intelligence?

How I used facilitation tools and techniques to organize and deliver a series of workshops for the Observatory on the Dialogue in the Agrifood System (OsservAgro).

OsservAgro has the goal of promoting a collective reflection process on the relationships between science and society by involving all agri-food system’ stakeholders: knowledge builders, businesses, knowledge mediators, decision-makers, and civil society.

Collective Intelligence is the emergent phenomenon created by people collaborating. They co-design possible solutions to the complex problems they discover through cooperation. Co-creation leads to more inclusive and systemic solutions that are more robust, sustainable and long-lasting.

How to design a workshop?

A Co-Design Workshop requires these elements:

  • a Sponsor and/or a client which decide the purpose of the workshop;
  • one or more facilitators who are put in charge by the Sponsor to organize and deliver the workshop;
  • a facilitation plan, including a vision and specific objectives;
  • a location or an online facility where to hold the event;
  • technical equipment and resources;
  • participants invited to attend the workshop.

As a facilitator, you need to adopt an adaptive and iterative design approach. You have to learn about the objectives that sponsors want to achieve, so that you can plan and design together with them the actual structured activities to be facilitated during the workshop.

Workshop Design Phases

Usually, I divide the workshop design work into four phases:

  1. Discovery
  2. Ideation
  3. Delivery
  4. Reflection.

This breakdown of steps has a lot of similarities with the design thinking process, the Human-Centered Design framework, the Service design process or the Lean Startup model in the business field.

It is based on Strategic Design and it is inspired by many of the principles you can find in: Systems Thinking and Critical Thinking.

Second-order thinking is another approach laying at the base of a robust Workshop Design strategy. It requires reflecting critically about how facilitators, sponsors, organizers and the same participants are acquiring knowledge to see if you need to adapt your plans according to what you have discovered through action.

The Discovery Phase

Information gathering

If it is your first workshop, you will need to meet Sponsors and organizers to understand as much as possible of their world. While you need to be a deep listener, you will have on the one hand to write down and have a shared agreement on the final objectives, on the other hand, you need to help them to clarify those objectives in a non-ambiguous and feasible way. Your role as a facilitator is already starting when you work with the organizers on day 1.

(Users) Participants Research

The facilitator needs to work as a Designer following the Human-Centred Design principles. We need to create tools, services, and co-design workshops that are solving the real problems of our stakeholders. While this requires, usually, extra effort in the Design Research phase which could increase the required budget and competencies of the designer/facilitator, it is also very difficult to access the intended audience.

Many social innovation workshops are open to the public and not strictly planned in terms of the profile for the people invited. It becomes very difficult, due to time and resources constraints, to interact with the workshop attendees with the intention of building a more tailored workshop for all of their needs.

There are several alternatives, from the very approximate and improvised ones (interviewing the sponsors, doing stealth guerrilla research, proto-Personas, etc)  to the more radical and blocking (refusing to work for an unknown public!).

I was never able to do proper research and my best strategy has always been the following: never assume anything or, even better, always assume the worst possible scenario.

The Ideation Phase

Strategy and Planning

The craft of deciding how to actually organize the time in a room with participants is leaning more on the art side of things rather than science. You are dealing with people so you need to take into consideration the complexity of a group of complex organisms organized to create a synergistic mind to be more intelligent than just one of them. Yes, the ingredients are there, and experience helps but as it happens for the best cooks it is only when you have a wide range of facilitation tools available, good raw matter (the people!) and a clear vision, that you can aim at great success.

If you are preparing a workshop after the first one in a series, you will need to take into consideration any useful insights you have discovered during the previously facilitated events. This is where, in the Iterative Design approach, you apply the Adaptive Design mindset to facilitate the emergence of the final outcome most wanted by your group of stakeholders.

Using insights from previous workshops the designers refine and adapt the goals and the delivery plan to accommodate hints and suggestions.

You are building upon the feedback and the insights and the lessons learned from the previous workshop and you adapt your strategy and your plan in the structure of your delivery for the next workshop.

Define the Objectives

You need to transform requirements, needs and wants into objectives.

When it’s impossible to define a specific set of knowledge or skills that will be obtained by participants, the facilitator needs to negotiate, at least, the general aims or artifacts the Sponsor wants to get.

In OsservAgro’s case, there was the strongly declared aim of writing a Manifesto for the movement and a scientific publication illustrating the method and the outcomes. This was the North Star for me, as the facilitator, to drive choices and allocate resources. It was particularly useful to define the agenda for each workshop while keeping the continuity of all the design phases. I was lucky to work with clear-minded people: be very careful when you are not able to agree upon clear objectives for your workshops, it can lead you to chaos.

Content design and knowledge

During the preparation phase for the facilitator might be difficult to deal with new knowledge-domains, and new terminology, but this should not be the main concern for the facilitator because they are not supposed to be subject matter experts. Facilitators need to become effective collaborators by creating a synergy with the organizers in a way that they trust them and vice-versa. It’s difficult to design and deliver a workshop if there is not a solid trust relationship established since the very beginning.

The Agenda: Designing the Structured Activities

The Workshop Outline is the most important design tool for a workshop. A facilitator must use it as the single-source-of-truth establishing the written plan to reach the workshops’ objectives.

Sometimes you can be explicit and take the Learning Outcome concept from the training field as a design tool. But most of the time it is impossible to state, clearly, upfront, what “by the end of this workshop participants will know…”, know what?

We are gathering to discover together what we want to know more of, it’s difficult in these cases to state it upfront.

According to the difficulty and the ambition and the scope of the workshop, you might need a number of preparation sessions. Sometimes, a lot of them. In my experience, I tend to work from 1 hour to one day for each actual hour of facilitation. This is one of the difficult and hidden aspects to communicate to the outside world. That is why the session design should be participatory.

The facilitator is already starting to work since the first meeting with the sponsors and the organizers. They are more designers facilitating the process of co-designing together. Although there is less pressure for going fast and quick or having to respect specific constraints, so you are more free-flowing, the facilitator still needs to work as a designer having the goal of preparing the workshop. Especially if you need to be ready before the delivery date to support promotion activities start to prepare learning materials.

This phase needs to be managed as a real production process. The more you iterate, the more you’re able to reach your workshop with well-crafted sessions with very clear instructions enabling participants to give their best contributions towards the workshop’s goals.

How to collaborate

It’s very important to establish an environment of collaboration with a very open bi-directional communication channel, between the facilitator and the sponsors.

It is called co-design because the workshops are created together. Not only the participants are working collectively to pursue the workshop’s aims, but the Workshop Design is also collaborative and it needs to include, as much as possible, a representative group of all stakeholders. The facilitator is the orchestrator and the lead designer of the co-creation process.

The mood and the environment between the facilitator and the organizers need to be very smooth and the right place where everybody can be included in the preparation phase.

Not only everybody can be creative but the facilitator has the important responsibility of promoting the focused creativity of all the people involved.

While it is important to know how to combine different design and facilitation tools with the right timing, for the right people in the right way, (un)fortunately, there are infinite ways to prepare the recipe for a successful workshop. It’s like preparing to go into the field where you must have a plan but you also need to be ready to improvise. This is something that lies on the shoulders of the facilitator because they need to be ready in a redundant and conservative way about the many areas that can be faulty.

The facilitator’s role

During the delivery, the facilitator is not participating at all in the structured activities. A facilitator is responsible for:

  • leading the dialogue
  • timing
  • promoting the resolution of disputes
  • negotiating debates

And, the facilitator has a very important goal on top of all the others that is to bring the results home. The facilitator needs to do whatever is in their capabilities to reach the final objective negotiated with the organizer during the preparation phase.

In these regards, the facilitator needs to be a project manager, a coach, an organizer of the communication flows, and then needs to be the director of this Little Big Show that is going to happen in a collective way during the workshop.

From this point of view, it can be something really exciting. At the same time, you need to be able to get under a certain level of control of all of those aspects and be ready to improvise and cover any lack, or of any issue that will inevitably arise and still aim at creating the best possible outcome.

Learning experience design for social innovation

In the end, you are preparing a learning experience for a certain number of people that are going to learn, open themselves with others, discuss, work together in order to face some complex challenges. We’re talking about facing world hunger, improving the adoption process internationally, reducing the hazard of specialized workers in the heavy industries or in the healthcare or in the finance world or working in the field of social innovation in which you want to empower both the common citizens as well as scientists with the tools of clear communication with the final goal of facing problems as sustainability. The previous are some instances where I had the chance to facilitate workshops.

Keep following curatella.com to read about the next Workshop Design phases: Delivery and Reflection.


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Senior Experience Designer. 25 years designing, developing, writing, speaking, facilitating and teaching.

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