When talking about the benefits of collaboration in a scenario workshop it’s easy to get excited by the prospects of what might be generated through collective effort. How could there possibly be a downside, you ask? Well there is; disempowerment.
Facilitators need to be aware that not everybody is a fan of collaboration; in particular, leaders who dislike feeling disempowered. Sure, in the lead up to a scenario workshop these same people will appear full of enthusiasm for the proposed process; “I’m a great believer in collaboration” they say, “It’ll be great to get the team working together.” But beware; what these leaders truly believe in is autocratic democracy: “Collaboration is fine, as long as we all head in my direction.”
In my experience I’ve come across two outstanding candidates.
In the first, many years ago now, the senior executive had only just started with the client and was no doubt keen to establish his leadership and intellectual credentials. Unfortunately, he really struggled with aspects of the scenario building process on the final day of a three-day workshop. Increasingly frustrated, he paced about the back of his group like a caged lion, muttering his obvious dislike for the process.
Then came his attempted coup de grace. With under an hour to go, he thoughtfully reminded his colleagues they needed to complete their weekly office footy tips before 5pm. Of course this meant that each person had to return to their nearby desk to submit their tips.
Seriously, if you weren’t facilitating, you might have stood back and applauded his ingenuity in attempting to disrupt the process.
On another, more recent occasion, the agitator was a respected community leader. Again, the cause of her frustration was the perceived complexity of creating scenarios. And again, her annoyance materialised as contempt for the process. Although more subtle, it seemed her repetitive enquiries of, “Are we still in the future?” were intended more to belittle the process than to actually seek any kind of clarity.
On the surface at least, what’s the similarity with these two cases? Leaders reacting poorly to disempowerment – “It’s all their fault!” Or so I thought.
Upon reflection, there’s another similarity that’s perhaps closer to the truth. Their actions were not borne from some preordained desire to derail the process. In fact, in the first instance above, the participant went on to become an enthusiastic contributor later in the day. Rather, their actions were borne from frustration with the process.
And herein lie some valuable lessons for scenario facilitation.
Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.
- Albert Einstein
On one level, as it is for all workshops, the learning is about being prepared for the different personality and learning types you’re likely to engage. On another, more specific level, the learning is in recognising that creating future scenarios does not come naturally to many people. It’s bloody hard to think of things that don’t physically exist; to imagine changes that might occur. For most participants, it’s likely to be the first time they’ve ever undertaken such an activity.
I don’t believe any participant attends a workshop with the dark goal of destabilising the process. Sure, some may want to bend the process to their will, but most (if not all) are there to contribute and learn, grateful to get away from their day-to-day operations. And here’s the challenge for scenario facilitation; acknowledging the complexity of the future, whilst meeting the needs of participants.
The onus then is on workshop design and facilitation. Clarity of purpose and direction; process logic and flow; simplicity of content delivery; these features of all successful workshops are especially important for scenario building.
And whilst the disempowering aspect of collaboration will always be a hurdle to watch for, is the challenge really any greater than dealing with the participant who constantly checks emails, or engages others in unrelated conversations?
Ultimately, responsibility for success of scenario workshops falls upon the process designer and facilitator.