Ritual dissent

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List of methods / Facilitation

This describes a workshop approach. It can also be run asynchronously in a virtual environment

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 dons a mask, or 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 ritual of donning the mask or turning the chair de-personalizes the process and the group setting (others will be subject to the same process) means that the attack or alternative is not personal, but supportive. Listening in silence without eye contact, increases listening quality. 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

See also Using Ritual Dissent

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

Preparation

INSERT PICTURE OF PROCESS HERE

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 to the dissent/assent. The tables should be set up so it is easy (and 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 is due to take place it can make sense to start off with groupthink, 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 thing 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 has been working for some time on the process/outcome which is to be improved by ritual dissent/assent. Cycling the ritual process several times with multiple groups offers a significant improvement opportunity. Not only the spokesperson learns, but the group dissenting or assenting also learns from their comments.

Things You'll Need

  • Clipboards and pens, or any paper if it comes to it.
  • Masks (ideally but may not be advised for the first running of the technique with a group).
  • A timer.
  • Attention gaining device such as brass cymbals, a bell or similar (or you can just shout).

Tips & advice

The use of silent listening with the group prior to running ritual dissent can make the process easier.

Workflow

What you do Advice
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 Make sure the group knows that they can choose a spokesperson. Resist any temptation to make the process a surprise at this stage, to do so is a serious breach of ethics. You can extend to five minutes if needed, but generally keeping things tight is a good idea and you control the stopwatch so you can allow some run over if needed. It is important to state that the spokesperson should not have a high level of personal commitment to the proposal.
Your briefing should make people aware of different cultural sensitivities, especially where there are gender or similar issues. In some cases it is possible that people may take an attack on the idea personally. Ad hominem approaches should never be used and this should be made clear.
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 is 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, whether they are 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 they 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 an important 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 then 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

  1. 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 observer's comments can be interesting.
  2. 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.
  3. Remember the ritual is key, without this it becomes personal.
  4. Don't get involved with the content in any way, your views are not a part of this process.
  5. 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.
  6. People can be told that they are roleplaying, but calling it a game can be dangerous as that encourages winners and losers. It's 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 / donning 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.

Use in a virtual environment

Currently, this is deprecated as it is not possible to ritualize the 'depersonalization'of the spokesperson. Consideration is being given to the use of avatars or similar or an alternative and if interested please contact Cognitive Edge directly to discuss.

Supporting theory

Ritualisation and Game-Playing environments possess the propensity for ritualised public expressions of dissent to reaffirm and sustain, or change the existing social order. In particular, ‘rituals of status reversal’ bear a striking resemblance to protest actions and demonstrations of the present day. During such ritualised incidences of dissent, hierarchies are temporarily inverted and normal codes of behaviour suspended.

Victor Turner’s 1969 thesis emphasised the role played by what he termed the ‘liminal’ in social rituals. For Turner, ‘liminality’ referred to all social occasions and interactions that lie at the threshold ‘betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial’ (Turner, 1969: 95). These zones of liminality disrupt structures of authority, and help to bring about communitas – a temporary state where everyone is seen as equal.

The social rituals associated with the liminal state, therefore, possess the propensity for ritualised public expressions of dissent to reaffirm and sustain, or change the existing social order. In particular, his description of what he calls, ‘rituals of status reversal’ bears a striking resemblance to protest actions and demonstrations of the present day. During such ritualised incidences of dissent, hierarchies are temporarily inverted and normal codes of behaviour suspended. ‘The stronger are made weaker; the weak act as though they were strong’, often engaging in mimicry, masking and public castigation of structural superiors (ibid.: 168).

These rituals he claims, are characterised by a few dominant principles:

Liminality – The liminal is defined as the ‘in between’ state set temporarily apart from the normal pace of everyday life. Its social purpose is not to actually overthrow existing hierarchies but to therapeutically engage in role-play, to act out revolutionary emotions as a form of catharsis, providing a ‘discharge of all the ill-feeling that has accumulated’ (Turner, 1969: 179). Norms and laws are temporarily suspended as common people are ceded control of public spaces – In our daily lives we usually fail to appreciate the importance of structured narrative in communication until someone breaks the unwritten codes that render that communication coherent. Ritualising dissent breaks those structured codes and allows for critique to arise from a temporarily level playing field. Role reversal: ritualised reversal of traditionally hierarchical roles – Although this is not a necessary aspect of ritual dissent, this is a useful way to disrupt the direction and flow of information, critical assessment and decision-making. This allows for hierarchy to take a backseat to allow for a “game-playing” dissent to take place, without threatening the social order. Turner’s thesis was concerned with ritualised dissent as a mode of discharging discontent by playing out dissent in a controlled and symbolic manner. Within ritual dissent as an activity, discontent or criticism toward new thinking is also voiced out and provides the basis for further iterations and fine-grained thinking to take place.

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 criticism that is leveled at the proposed idea is “ritualised” by having the person metaphorically leave the room or don a mask to indicate their absence. This enables the criticism to be depersonalised while forcing people to listen and accept the criticism on their ideas, without being able to issue a rebuttal.

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.

To quote Dave Snowden on the topic, ritual dissent is “designed to prevent complacency or entrainment; the bland tyranny of premature consensus” (blogpost 21.07.2010) :

“Any idea needs to be challenged, vigorously and early, not to destroy it but to make it more resilient. Techniques like Ritual Dissent can make this easier, but there is nothing wrong with good old-fashioned criticism provided it is done with respect… facilitators who prevent dissent or enforce a regime of positive stories are not doing anyone any favours. They are sacrificing sense-making for senselessness.”

As Kurtz and Snowden (2003) discussed in their paper on new dynamics of strategy, the increasingly complex world heightens the importance of focusing on “sense-making” rather than adherence to traditional logic. The nature of complexity implies that we need to move away from ‘best practice’ approaches, to focus on arbitrating between different perspectives to come up with blended approaches (Snowden, 2003). Ritual dissent provides a good avenue for this arbitration – with mixed grouping between different groups and hierarchies of people facilitating cross-silo interaction, which encourages innovation (2004).

Related concepts

References

C.F. Kurtz & D.J. Snowden, 2003, “The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world” in IBM Systems Journal 42 (3): 462 to 483

D.J. Snowden, 2004, “Facilitating innovation within the organisation” in Finance & Management, Sept. 2004: 5 to 7

D.J. Snowden, 2003, “Managing for Serendipity; or why we should lay off ‘best practice’ in KM” in ARK Knowledge Management 6 (8) (reproduced by The Cynefin® Centre in 2005, under Creative Commons License)

D.J. Snowden, 21.07.2010, blogpost

Turner, V., 1969, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Chicago: Aldine Publication Co.