Ritual Dissent

Ritual Dissent is a workshop method designed to test and enhance proposals, stories, ideas or whatever by subjecting them to ritualised dissent (challenge) or assent (positive alternatives). In all cases it is a forced listening technique, not a dialogue or discourse. The basic approach involves a spokesperson presenting a series of ideas to a group who receives them in silence. The spokesperson then turns their chair, so that their back is to the audience and listens in silence while the group either attack (dissent) or provide alternative proposals (assent). The ritualisation of not facing the audience de-personalizes the process and the group setting (others will be subject to the same process) means that the attack or alternative are not personal, but supportive. Listening in silence without eye contact, increases listening. Overall plans that emerge from the process are more resilient than consensus based techniques. Ritual Dissent is meant to simulate the process of delivering new ideas to management or decision-makers, and to open up new thinking to necessary criticism and iterations. The process is meant to enforce listening, without disruption. The scenario replicates real-life proposal making especially with regards to new and non-conventional ideas – as more experimental approaches are commonly met with the most challenges from management.

Typical Uses

  • To refine a workshop created story at final (and if required) intermediary stages
  • With safe-to-fail proposals created in a strategy process utilising the Cynefin domain action forms such as that for the complex domain
  • As an ad hoc technique in any meeting or session to rest an idea.
  • As a compliment or alternative to S2 challenge or Red/Blue teaming in military environments.


The technique is normally used in a workshop with a minimum of three groups with at least three participants in each. Ideally the number of participants should be higher, but no higher than a dozen in normal use (see notes at end for variants), and the larger the number of groups; the more iterations and variety.
Each group should be seated at a round table (or a circle of chairs), and the tables should be distributed in the work area to allow plenty of space between them. If the tables are very close then there will be too much noise which will restrict the ability of the spokesperson to listen the the dissent/assent. The tables should be set up so it is easy (and very very self evident) to give an instruction to move to the next table in a clockwise or anti-clockwise fashion.
You may organise the group to maximise diversity of response, or have like minded people sitting together. The first provides variety of criticism, the second can produce the greatest shock where entraining thinking is at least a part of the problem. Often if a series of dissents are due to take place it can make sense to start off with group think, then start to flex the membership of each table.
The technique has been used successfully with groups in separate rooms opening off a central space, although this makes the facilitator’s job more difficult.
Each table should be provided with a clipboard and pen for the spokesperson. This is not vital, but spokespeople frequently forget to take pen and paper, and the clipboard smoothes the process somewhat.
The technique assumes that the participants are engaged in another process. The other process will create the think to be challenged which could be creating a business plan, populating the Cynefin Framework, socially constructing a story or whatever. This process should be underway before ritual dissent/assent is used. The flow of events starts after the group have been working for some time on the process/outcome which is to be improved by ritual dissent/assent. Cycling the ritual process several times withe multiple groups offers a significant improvement opportunity. Not only the spokesperson learns, but the group dissenting or assenting also learn from their comments.

Things You'll Need

  • Clipboards and pens, or any paper if it comes to it.
  • Masks (although this is not required).
  • A timer.
  • Attention gaining device such as brass symbols a bell or similar (or you can just shout).


http://cognitive-edge.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/ritual1-wpcf_300x214.png http://cognitive-edge.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/ritual2-wpcf_300x214.png


Task Comment
Each group is asked to appoint a spokesperson after they have been working for some time. The requirement is for the spokesperson to have “a resilient and robust personality and not bear a grudge”. A time deadline is set for them to be ready to present (minimum 5 minutes).
Three minutes before the deadline, you stop the work and explain exactly what is going to happen to the spokesperson.
Advise the spokesperson that they will have three minutes to present their idea. At this stage you pass out the clipboards and the masks (if used)

Make sure the group know that they can choose a spokesperson. Resist any temptation to make the process a surprise at this stage, to do so is a serious breech of ethics. You can extend to five minutes if needed, but generally keeping things tight is a good idea and you control the stop watch so you can allow some run over if needed.

At the end of the deadline ask the spokesperson from each group to stand up, but not to move.

It will take a bit of time to get everyone standing up, but do not allow them to move until one person is standing up in each group.

Tell the spokespeople to move to the next table in a clockwise/anti-clockwise/diagonal direction and take the vacant seat, but to wait for your instruction before saying or doing anything.

You need to maintain rigid control of the process at this point otherwise things go badly wrong.
If this is the second or subsequent iteration then ensure that each time a new group is used, clockwise if anti-clockwise before, clockwise +1 etc.

When everyone is sat down repeat the instruction. The spokesperson will present their idea for 3 minutes, at that time a time check will be announced by the facilitator. If the group are happy to listen for more time they may do so, but from this point onwards the spokesperson can be made to turn around or don the mask finished or not. They must present to silence (the group may not comment or interact with the spokesperson in any way) and then turn round or don the mask, using the clipboard to take notes on what hey hear. The group should then attack the ideas with full and complete vigor (dissent) or come up with a better idea or major improvement (assent).

Help people here by giving examples:

  • Think of the water cooler conversations that follow an executive presentation
  • Remember that time you came up with a great idea presented it to the board and had to sit in silence while your idea was taken apart

Make sure people realise that the idea is not to be fair, reasonable or supportive but to attack, or provide a better alternative (often more painful than being attacked). Ensure the spokesperson at no stage explains or seeks to clarify their idea. They must be silent.

Once complete the spokesperson must not talk with the group but leave to a central area, away from the groups that are working, until all the spokespeople are complete

This is important and addition to the original method. When spokespeople talk with the group they start to explain away the criticism and thereby compromise their learning.

Once all the spokespeople are in the central area or if enough time has elapsed, then you send the spokespeople back to their groups to talk about what they have learnt. They they get ready for the next iteration as the cycle can be repeated many times to increase learning, enable multiple perspectives to be taken into account and refine the final outcomes.

Do's and Dont's

  • If you have a large group size then send an observer with each spokesperson to take notes - they are not allowed to participate and must sit slightly apart from the group. If you are doing this then have two clipboards - the comparison of the spokesperson's and the observers comments can be interesting.
  • Keep a sense of humour when you enforce the no social interaction between spokesperson and audience rule. However you don't have to be nice about this.
  • Remember the ritual is key, without this it becomes personal.
  • Don't get involved with the content in any way, your views are not a part of this process.
  • If you have some dominant individuals then you can create a rule that the spokesperson has to change on each round, but generally this is best left to the group.
  • People can be told that they are roleplaying, but it calling it a game can be dangerous as that encourages winners and losers. Its more important that all participants engage in a "role". This can be set up with a statement along the following lines: Imagine you are going into a boardroom / town council / executive committee to present the ideas / solution that your group has come up with. You will enter the board room and present your ideas. The board members / council members / committee will not respond at all during your presentation. They will listen to what you have to say. And then, after you are done, you will ‘leave the room’ in a figurative manner by turning your chair around / putting on the mask on your table. You have three / five minutes to complete your presentation. The board members / council members / committee will then openly criticise and assess your ideas by attacking the idea (dissent) / coming up with improvements for the idea (assent). You are supposed to have ‘left the circle’ and will not be allowed to respond. You may take notes of what the members are saying, and bring the feedback back to your team.