1. Participation is great, but workshops are weak tea

Marc Rettig
6 min readAug 23, 2017

What do we mean by “participation”?

The work I’m involved with has largely to do with participation. By that I mean:

Participation: the way people engage together, who engages, what “together” means, and how that adds up over time to something that matters.

This matters greatly in organizations, though it isn’t always easy to arrange strong participation in a hierarchical structure. Those levels and silos, with their various local incentives and agendas, can get in the way.

Participation is essential for systemic work.

As we all increasingly move away from fragmented, profit-as-sole-motivation, manufacturing-inspired structures and processes and explore our way into connected, sustainable and equitable, ecosystem-inspired models, co-<fill in the blank> is the only way forward. No single group of experts is sufficient for the job. No one organization can hero their way into the next economy. No team, department, or solo institution can innovate their way to community health, wise governance, or social progress.

We can’t get anything done without other people. Most things that matter involve gathering across boundaries.

If it’s big, long-term, cultural or systemic, it involves a lot of people. People who aren’t like you. After years of working in rooms full of people who see each other as “different,” I can say that most often “they’re different” means “I’ve never really listened to them.”

Participation is strategic when it bridges boundaries and marries differences. Work that matters requires both.

Any gathering is a grove of possibilities and gifts, but we aren’t so good at tapping them.

People contain so much, and our gatherings make room for so little. How can we make room for what people know, what they can teach, their skills, their passions?

Participation is strategic when it makes room for people to combine their gifts and align them toward a purpose that kindles their coals.

Big stuff is complex. So is long-term stuff. We can’t handle complexity without many points of view.

It’s a tenet of systems science. It’s such a common theme that it’s listed in TV Tropes. In a complex situation, no single point of view is adequate for seeing what’s going on. Why? Because multiple points of view are legitimate — reality provides evidence for more than one honest interpretation. We see the situation differently because we are looking at it from different points of view.

Participation is strategic when it allows us to embrace complexity, engaging many points of view as a way to see and create inside complex situations.

It takes a long time to get there, and we can’t see where we’re going.

Systems work involves time and uncertainty beyond the powers of our usual planning and project management tools. Lacking alternatives, most groups who are charged with The Big Difficult Challenge apply a mix of staged planning — breaking things into project-sized chunks — and workshops: gathering people for a few hours or days at key points in each stage. That’s “input,” not participation.

Workshops are famous for building short-term connection and enthusiasm, but contributing little of substantial, long-term impact. By themselves they aren’t the vehicle that will carry us through a long journey of uncertainty.

Why workshops are weak tea

  • “At least it’s hot”
    We’re often grateful that people got together and participated at all.
  • “It’s better than plain hot water”
    Our alternative is to have meetings where we just talk about stuff. The usual people talk the most, new suggestions are listened to, and the status quo is safely reinforced. Often workshops are embraced in the dear hope that something different will happen.
  • We’re used to it
    We know how to plan and pay for a workshop. People know more or less what to expect. We know how to schedule a room, order coffee and sandwiches, and use the whiteboard. Workshop tea is easy to make, because we make it all the time.
  • Workshops typically limit participation
    Consider the usual palette of workshop methods — presentations and reports, managed discussion, brainstorming, open discussion and debate — almost always, control is centered among the organizers and sponsors, and only one or two people are deciding what happens next. What we call “participation” usually looks more like “contributing to the topics and activities the organizers decided we should do.”
  • Without repeated gathering to maintain relatedness, impact fades
    “We had such a good group feeling in the workshop, and so much enthusiasm for the ideas. But six weeks later we were all back to the same patterns we set out to change.” It’s not hard to hold a workshop that results in something that feels strategic, and that brings a sense of relatedness to the people involved. But because the relatedness fades without continued contact, continued participation, so also fades the workshop results.
  • Workshops encourage an episodic view of participation
    We often overburden our workshops with expectations. “It’s so rare to get all these people together, we need to pack a lot into the agenda.” If it looks like we might not get through the whole agenda in the time we’ve scheduled, we often hurry at the end to make some kind of “progress” on everything. We see time together as a scarce resource. But what if participation wasn’t limited to a single workshop? What if participation was a strategy rather than an episode?

What’s strong tea like?

People get excited when they encounter the metaphorical equivalent of real participatory tea:

  • The invitation touches questions that really matter to people across the community or system.
  • The mix of people gives the effort true legitimacy.
  • Participation, group configuration, space, and time allocation are configured to orchestrate voices, power, and expertise.
  • Participation is a process, not an event: the gathering is not an isolated one-off event, but part of an extended, coherently structured effort to move forward together.
  • Participation matters: I’m not simply “providing input,” I am a peer in shaping next steps and outcomes.

But how?

We certainly can improve our workshops. There are plenty of wonderful methods for what happens in the room when people are together. This is a big part of our practice at Fit Associates, and an important kit of tools for team that’s tackling a big challenge.

We can learn new methods. But how do we orchestrate those methods over time? How do we think and plan strategically about participation? How do we communicate these plans to one another, compare approaches, collaborate on possibilities, directions, and decisions?

We can learn to design for participation.

  • We can learn to convene in a way that gathers people to something they see as a legitimate effort to do something that matters.
  • We can learn to make “containers” — activities and places in which the thing that needs to happen has a decent chance of happening. Where people can make the shift from “a bunch of individuals” to a group that’s engaged in a common purpose.
  • We can learn to put gatherings together in a sequence over time, to maintain momentum and build to a collective effort.
  • We can learn what to do between gatherings to stitch individual episodes into a coherent creative weave.

But this stuff can be too abstract. We need a way to see it.

We need a way to talk about this stuff. So before I write more about the practical, detailed answer to the “How?” question, I’ll offer a nice little sketching language that comes from a seasoned participation orchestrator named Sam Kaner.

And that is the topic for Part 2: Simple sketches make your participation strategy clear.

Marc Rettig is a principal of Fit Associates, where he and his colleagues spend pretty much all their time on work that somehow relates to long-term creative participation.



Marc Rettig

Fit Associates, SVA Design for Social Innovation, Okay Then