Dave Snowden

In the Tricotocon …

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Over the years I’ve developed a range of facilitation and workshop techniques based on the underlying principles anthro-complexity. Ritual dissent is probably one of the best known but we also have large group facilitation based on Cynefin, Silent listening and a few others. More recently I agreed to take part in an open discussion with Harrison Owen, the creator of Open Space on this – that will be an open online event on 9th January 2018. That came out of discussions with some Open Space practitioners where I challenged the universality they were claiming for the process. I’m also for the record slightly dubious about use of the term at Agile events where the technique seems to have been reduced to a series of constrained sprints. Overall I take a horses for courses approach here; Open Space is good for building engagement and consensus but I’m less sure it will work consistently/coherently with more intractable problems where, to take one example, the Law of Two Feet may reduce the capacity of the group to identity and work with outlier solutions. More on that in January, but for the moment I want to outline a new approach, provisionally called the Tricotocon, which I have been working on since the recent Cynefin retreat. I spent some time talking about it over brunch in San Diego and agreed to post here today. Expect this idea to pick up shortly linked to new work on a complexity based approach to design thinking where we may have a joint programme with Stanford and others.

Now I try and use neologisms sparingly, for example I talk about sense-making not sensemaking, but there are times when it works. In this case I am combining two words: trichotomy and the Panopticon. I was originally thinking about triopticon, but when I checked the domain name was taken (accounting services to opticians in South Africa) and casting around for options I realised that the philosophical use of trichotomy was ideal; it links with Hegel’s idea of synthesis and Wes key to Aquinas and Pierce amongst others. We have Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion namely ethos, pathos and logos, Bacon’s three faculties of the mind with memory, reason and imagination; Kierkegaard’s three stages or the Aesthetic, Ethical & Religious and oh so many others with the exclusion of Popper’s three worlds which I have never liked. And of course we use triads in SenseMaker and I’m developing a triad concept for Agile (building on pair programming) and much else. Threes are important to humans.

The second word Pantopticon was coined by Bentham in the Eighteenth Century to describe a type of building in which everything can be observed. Designed for hospitals and prisons the latter use is notorious (as anyone who has visited the one in Port Arthur will know). I also realise that with the famous and ethically challenged Stanford Prison Experiments there may be some issues with the partners here! The aspect of this I am picking up is the idea of observation, and to a degree silence. The silent listening technique means that you present and then listen to people discussing what you have said without the ability to clarify or explain; net result you listen better and improve communication, at a group level we radically reduce first respondent bias and increase the range of information scanned during situational assessment. So the idea of observation and reflection is important here.

The other motivation here was to start to rethink the conference format which is pretty tired. Keynotes and track speakers, the odd token highly constrained Open Space is one format then we get the pendulum swing to the un-conference. While one can privilege the expert, the other can be the tyranny of the mundane. I do a lot of conferences and around a year ago, Jabe, Simon and I had a session at a conference which was one of the most enjoyable, so that was also on my mind. A conversation, ideally an argument (no one who has any real knowledge should be scared of an argument) between experts an stimulate wider discussion on the floor. I also used to debate a lot and the ritualised process of proposition and opposition with the floor and summing up was always educational as well as entertaining.

So what is a Tricotocon?

Ideally I would do this in a theatre in the round, but talking yesterday morning it could be done in any open space, or we could create and assemble a temporary space easily using stage effects of lighting. But the structure of the event is to have three people (the Faculty) of equal subject matter status and expertise sit facing each other in the centre of the performance area. They are then circled by a group who have knowledge but not deep expertise: the journey(wo)men. I need to experiment with the numbers here but my gut feel is five to seven. Then around them, ideally in banked seats are the audience. I’m working on names for each of the circles but haven’t got then fully sorted yet.

The sequence of events is then as follows:

  1. The Faculty discuss the subject as if they were in the common room of a University, or sitting around the fire over a glass of wine. The people chosen should different in views to the degree necessary for the distinctions to be interesting, but not the point of antagonistic exchange.  This lasts for say forty minutes.
  2. Following this they are silent, turning around to face the group.  In a performance environment either the stage would descend to the lights would dim on them and move to Journey(wo)men.  These then discuss what they have heard not as faculty but in three areas (i) identifying implications (ii) expressing concerns and (iii) opening up questions.  This lasts for an equivalent period.
  3. Finally the audience are invited to comment and ask questions.  In a larger workshop they might first break into smaller groups facilitated by the middle ring with access to the Faculty on request (the faculty roam).  

The idea is to prevent the single guru, and the middle tear act as interpreters and facilitators.

If anyone is interesting in using this at a conference let me know! In the meantime I’m going to further develop it, with partners.

  • Marco Valente

    hey Dave,
    I am very curious to try it out. I have been playing with ideas borrowed from both complexity theories literature (cynefin, + other CAS) and from readings on Collective Intelligence and the intention is to create an offering of a few engagement formats inspired by such background literature. Keen to try it out! marco at plecter [dot] com

    • Dave Snowden

      It’s open

  • Bruce Waltuck

    This is quite close to several of the Liberating Structures methods. In particular, elements of the User Experience Fishbowl; Wise Crowds; and Troika Consulting. My friends, Keith McCandless and Henri Lipmanowicz, who created Liberating Structures, are also complexity guys. The Min Specs and design elements in the LibStructs seem to very closely align with your thinking here.

    • Dave Snowden

      Yes to a degree but not really. The assumptions are very different

  • tectl

    Its an interesting proposal… would consider it to be further amplified if you were able to show on elevated monitors the facial dynamics of those who the audience can only see the back of a head of.

    • Dave Snowden

      I’m thinking of use if SenseMaker in the audience to measure that and also to gather observations and questions

  • Stefan Bergheim

    Great format! It seems to include elements of Dynamic Facilitation and fishbowl as well, but certainly goes far beyond thise.

  • Ben Kelly

    Interesting format. Has similarities to fishbowl/bear pit techniques. I like the addition of onion layers of familiarity with the topic. It seems to have advantages such as immediate dissemination of imperfectly interpreted information between layers and the ability for novelty to be immediately seized upon and thrown about.

    I wonder about the physical logistics. Acoustics would factor in and once the second circle came into play, the direction that each of the ‘faculty’ was facing would tend to bias who answered what. You’d also have the potential for the loudest voices to dominate, so perhaps some sort of light-touch facilitation or ground rules for who has the conch would be warranted. Would be good to see it in action, so I’ll hold off inventing more problems to be solved until they actually arise :)

  • Michael Hill

    I like the idea, and I’m keen to try it. I’m not sure others around me will be so keen but I’ll float it by them as ‘another idea’ for one area where the ‘group’ (minus two – I’ve converted one) keeps looking for the magic slides that will work with the audience. I’m in the small group that doesn’t think this problem will be solved by better slides. I think this could be better for bringing the apprentices and journeys toward the ‘experts’.

  • Rolf F. Katzenberger

    “to prevent the single guru” is describing a pain you want to get rid of. What are you striving for, *instead*, by having a faculty of three? What’s your idea here?

    • davesnowden

      It’s not remotely a pain. Sometimes it’s a valid approach

      Prof Dave Snowden
      Cynefin Centre & Cognitive Edge

      • Rolf F. Katzenberger

        I see. Thanks for the clarification.

  • James

    What appears in my imagination fairly quickly is its use in eg a university, such as your course/proposed? Course at Bangor. Having first semester/year subjects such as philosophy and i don’t know perhaps Biology, and then in the second year applying this thinking and these approaches and understandings to real business cases… Well, this model and process would seem to be a natural fit, and accelerate the learnings and understandings. perhaps also in the partnerships you develop, eg Soth Africa?

    • Dave Snowden

      That, but also the new retreats being planned for next year