The Triopticon (previously called Ticotocon) is a formal workshop method that facilitates the interaction between different disciplines, participants, ideas and beliefs, encouraging the sharing of conflicting points of view and thus the analysis and synthesis of elements of disagreement between traditionally diverse fields in order to enhance understanding.
The Tricopticon process was designed to provide a fresh compromise between a formal conference and the more unstructured unconference. The method presents a more structured variation of the Ritual Dissent and Silent Listening methods, particularly adapted to events where there are subject matter experts presenting new ideas to practitioners and generalists who need to make sense of the content for their own environments and application. This method is designed to enable deeper listening, and promote synthesis.
From the practice to date, there are two distinctions which may help determine the preparation (expectation setting) for participants: between action orientation and peer learning; and innovation and conflict resolution.
The format of a Tricopticon provides guidelines for structuring learning between experts, and stimulating wider discussion on the floor. It ritualises a process of proposition by the subject matter experts, and opposition or ruminations from the floor, and a process of integration and summary. It embodies many of the principles of complex facilitation and in particular silent listening. The process builds on entangled trios where groups of three people from different backgrounds come together by purpose and well-crafted choregraphies in a ritualised exchange of knowledge and trans-disciplinary possibilities.
The Triopticon was developed for the following purposes:
- To bring together, observe and explore how different bodies of knowledge apply and interact in a particular field
- To create a safe space to communicate conflicting perspectives, linked to the aporetic turn.
- To deliver a richer alternative to a traditional conference setting experience.
- To work through conflicting beliefs.
- To provide novel opportunities for analysis and synthesis of areas of disagreement and/or conflict.
- To encourage a rich context which encourages new thinking and the exchange and combination of ideas
- To produce artefacts which can be used to inform further pieces of work.
The process is ideally run with a minimum of 15 active participants. The original model has been run over a period of four consecutive days, however, being adaptive and flexible is critical to the process, and variations are possible in a day or less.
The Triopticon technique has been developed to conform with the principles of design in anthro-complexity. Because the process is not outcomes-based, but provides a framework to journey together in a given direction and requires readiness to adapt and be flexible, there are a number of unknowns. The challenge and opportunity for many will likely be getting that commitment for flexibility and time up-front, before the event and during early engagement with the client.
Name and history
The method was created to occupy the space between certain conference and facilitation techniques, complementing the value in both. Keynote presentations, for example, attract passive audiences but generally do not explicitly lead to dialogue, while Open Space facilitation involves more participation, but may not provide mechanisms to move ideas forward.
The Triopticon was developed to bring together diverse experience and opinion, to generate dialogue and various forums for participatory discussion which involve all in differing ways at different stages in the process.
A Trichotomy is 'splitting into 3 parts', though the usage here can be seen more as the entanglement of three parts, hence it is linked to Entangled Trios.
A Panopticon is a structure where people (prisoners) were 'always being watched', derived from the Greek for "all seeing" - panoptes. The usage here is more akin to 'always in view', because all of the dialogue and interaction is designed to be 'out in the open'.
A variant of the Triopticon, lasting a shorter period and suitable for crisis management contexts, is currently under development in connection with the Field guide to managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis.
Triopticon is designed to disrupt patterns of interaction to which many are accustomed, in order to produce situations in which entrenched behaviours will explicitly not serve participants well. These constraints encourage new ways of being, limiting the ability to fall into unconscious habits and, ideally, promoting more productive behaviours, leading to outcomes such as deeper listening and more productive interaction.
In complex facilitation processes such as the Triopticon, the focus is to convene a space where a variety of perspectives can be presented and novelty emerges from the voices of those in the room. In this space the facilitator does not engage with the content through the process, but supports the space to enable the emergence. The ritualisation of conflict helps de-personalise conflict (or apparent conflict) resulting from the variety of perspectives and voices; and provides a safer space to discuss the variety of perspectives.
It should be noted that, for some, most attached to certain ways of being and perhaps expecting a more traditional experience (for which they may have well honed coping strategies in place), this may be particularly uncomfortable and disorientating. Strategies for dealing with such discomfort and any resultant agitation which significantly detracts from helpful processes should be in place. This is particularly important when working in and across communities of place: if participants have to live amongst each other, the impact of 'walking out' of the room will have far-reaching consequences.
The format brings participants together in ways which encourage assimilation of new information (Eagle presentations), analysis and evaluation (Raven group activities and presentations) and then a move to creative action (Beaver groups) in which new information is combined to create novelty. Application and synthesis of that produced within Beaver groups is then further explored in the final element of the process and beyond the boundaries of the event. This cycle is essentially moving participants around the upper levels of Bloom's Taxonomy and taking them through the elements of Kolb’s Learning Cycle (Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualisation, Active Experimentation). The diagram below shows a synthesis of these theories, using a modified version (flattened) of the original Bloom hierarchy.
Links to other Methods
The Triopticon is not designed to compete with techniques like Open Space, Oxford Style Debating, or other methods. They all have value but this technique has been developed to conform with the principles of design in anthro-complexity three principles of complex systems interventions: 1. Work at a coherent level of granularity, which generally means to work at a lower, or more finely grained, level of detail. 2. Distribute the cognition, when orientating a problem, issue or situation within a wider context. 3. Disintermediate the decision-maker and the activity.
Triopticon could be used in conjunction with Open Space, after the output from the Beaver Groups has been mapped.
One of the key Cognitive Edge methods used in the Triopticon is silent listening. Silent listening as a technique involves the presentation of ideas and content, and then listening to people discussing what you have said without the ability to clarify or explain. In this case, it involves Eagles presenting and then listening to resultant discussions without the ability to interject, clarify or explain. This changes the way people listen, and improves communication of ideas. Silent listening can radically reduce the bias introduced by first respondents in discussions that follow. The process also increases the range of information scanned during situational assessments. This encourages an improved capacity to listen and thus engage. Communication is thereby improved at group level.
Observation and reflection is key to the Triopticon process. It exemplifies the design principles of anthro-complexity.
Preparation and Design Phase
Participants need to understand that Triopticon is about bringing together multiple points of view. Participants need to be interested in emergence. It won't work if they think they know the answer already.
A key element of the pre-work will be assessing readiness for Triopticon and articulating the benefits of this approach, as well as in some way articulating its relationship (or not) with other better known methodologies.
Before an event, the convener:
- helps assess readiness of participants and prepare individuals for the process;
- develops any archetypes to be used for the event;
- supports identification of the "experts";
- builds an understanding of the local cultural and people dynamics context/specifics;
- acts part as an event manager (or works with an event manager) to prepare the physical space.
A support crew should be established to help with the event
Different groups of people need to be involved for a Triopticon, but not all roles are mandatory. The roles should be determined at the design stage based on the purpose of the Triopticon and the different groups of people involved. Consideration should be given to the skills and behaviours required for each of the choreographed roles and crew members.
These roles shift the power dynamics from participants' day-to-day roles and disrupt organisational hierarchy norms and titles. This shifting of the power dynamics is often "uncomfortable" at both an individual and collective level, but is a critical part of the process and helps make space for the variety of voices to be heard. Some work is required pre event and during the event to support participants' readiness and momentum/flow on the day; taking care not to over-orchestrate or influence the content and outcome. This will require some maturity in complex facilitation and will be a fine balance that considers carefully the specifics of the context and players.
Triopticon Participant Roles
This is the range of roles that are part of a Triopticon. All the core roles have to be present, but only some of the optional roles may be needed. For example, if you want to record the session then you should consider having some Owls.
The origin of the names comes from the first full session held in Western Canada where the facilitators picked up on First Nation symbols and the idea has stuck to date. As the model matures, over time and in the long term, there may be some merit in working towards developing local, context specific archetypes.
The Expert Role
In its standard form,Triopticon requires input from at least three experts across different but interconnected disciplines, within a given over-arching context or portfolio or topic. These experts are often undisputed authorities in their respective fields, around whom the experience is organised. Though the idea of who is an "expert" can be open to discussion and subject to that discussion will determine who is identified for this role and who chooses the expert (e.g. academic expert, practitioner expert, user-expert, cultural expert etc./ self-selection, peer selection, facilitator selection etc.). In the context of inter- and intra- community conflict, experts may also be experts in the history and habits of their own communities. In these settings, the method is valuable because it both validates this expertise and again disrupts norms.
- Eagles: 3 representatives of different backgrounds with deep expertise who soar high, diverse enough to offer contrasting viewpoints, but not conflicting in ways which would detract from the process. It may be noted that, having people with conflicting viewpoints could be interesting, but only if handling conflict is the purpose, but we are not describing that here.
The number of experts required is not fixed and can extend to 5 or 7. However, it should be noted that there are knock on effects in various areas, including the need for a greater number of active participants (5:25 or 7:35) and probably a substantial increase in the period of time required to run an event.
- Ravens: in the initial element of a Triopticon, participants act as Ravens, in set groups of 3. They are there to make sense of the ideas, "the canny ones". They can be considered realisation of an entangled trio.
- Beavers: beavers are formed in groups through a recombination of the Raven groups. Each Beaver group ideally consists of 1 member from each Raven group. So, with 5 Raven groups of 3 each, there would be 3 Beaver groups with 5 people in each. As numbers increase you might have parallel Beaver Groups, but this impacts on input for synthesis, as groups would not consist of participants from each original raven trio. In this element of the process, participants are the builders and makers.
In addition to the experts,Triopticon uses observers and agitators in specially developed/choreographed roles to disrupt norms; support cross- pollination of thinking; and, encourage non-linear development of, as well as entanglement of, activities.
- Owls: wisely hover and observe, acting as scribes and reporters. As such, their role is not be interact in any group process. They will have broad understanding go the context of the Triopticon as their appreciation of what they see supports central understanding of group activity. Two or three may be employed for a group of 20-30 participants (an owl per Beaver group).
- Coyotes: are disruptive jokers, akin to the court jesters of old, playfully offering thought provoking interjections and playing devil's advocate. This requires relevant knowledge, skills, to move between different groups and to encourage participants to challenge the ways of thinking and doing to which they have become accustomed. The Coyote is a trickster in mythology and this role legitimises asking awkward questions. To enable this, they may be dressed differently, accentuating their trickster role and giving them license to push the usual boundaries.
- Magpies: are known for their love of collecting sparkly things. They fly around the groups, gathering & building on ideas, cross pollinating between them and also working on these outside the core structure, for sharing with the wider group at appropriate times.
Triopticon Convenors and Facilitators
The Convener Role
A key role in establishing the value of the Triopticon with participants, and setting the tone, but distinct from traditional facilitators. In this process the event "facilitator" acts as a convener and host who enables and holds the space, giving access to the variety of voices and perspectives, supporting the process from the back of the room; and, never engaging with the content through the process.
During the event, the convener enables and supports:
- the process;
- silent listening;
- emergence of novelty;
- respect for the choreographed roles;
- a safe space for dialogue;
- use of time (based on energy levels and flow);
- self-recording against simple prompts that encourages flow, whilst managing the risk of premature convergence and/or information overload
- issues such as walk-outs or similar, acting as part peacemaker and part encourager; and,
- social interactions and informal networking - bringing participants together in community with scheduled breaks, often over shared food and drink.
The Triopticon convener role is best suited to those more mature in complex facilitation. The convener(s) needs to be able to be adaptive, responsive, source from learnt experience, authentic, think on their feet, able to read the room and work with peripheral vision. Importantly, in this process, the convener needs to be comfortable with "messy" within a framework, avoiding intervention and interaction with the content during the process, and sitting out of the spotlight.
Conveners need to enter with kindness and purpose for the disruption to power dynamics that Triopticon brings.
The process works optimally with multiple conveners working together, supported by a crew with specialist identified skills (e.g. technical video recording skills, catering and hospitality, event management etc.).
Additional Facilitator Roles
- Raven facilitator: in this role one would oversee and encourage the Raven and Beaver processes.
- Eagle facilitator: rather like the conductor of an orchestra, the Eagle facilitator encourages the piece to be played in harmony and to time (timings are not fixed and should be considered in context of what emerges, but there does need to be overall eye on progress). The Eagle facilitator ideally has a legitimate level of subject matter expertise, as they would then have the ability to be step into an Eagle role if required, in case of illness etc.
Key Elements and Artefacts
This section summarises key elements required for facilitating the Triopticon, and links to relevant artefacts to support both facilitators and participants in the process.
The number of experts, participants and giving the necessary time (based on energy on the day, momentum and people dynamics) and space are important criteria that will impact the time required.
The standard timescale for a Triopticon event involving 3 Eagles is around 4 days. If more Eagles are participating, significantly more time will be required to allow the full process to run.
As with any skilled implementation, actual timings should be sensitive to the group process and the schedule should not rule any transfer between elements.
Shorter timing options can be implemented, where a session can run over 1 day. Large group options may require significantly more time.
Numbers and Configuration
A starting pattern, working with 3 Eagles can be a group of 20 one Ravens (seven Raven groups of three, leading to three Beaver groups of seven). Keeping odd numbers is recommended, to prevent possible polarisation that can emerge with the use of even numbers. These numbers can be increased, while keeping the asymmetry of odd numbers.
It should be noted that the initial Act 1 (Raven) element of a Triopticon can be quite mentally draining with much new information to be taken in and absorbed. With more Eagles involved, not only does the amount and diversity of new information increase, but the more time elapses between an initial Eagle input and the beginning of the Beaver groups. This impact should be considered when making design decisions.
Adapting for Large Scale Events
Greater numbers can be accommodated by increasing the size of the individual Raven group numbers. For example, 48 ravens, would result in 16 Raven groups of 3. If you increase the Raven group size to 6 it will reduce the Beaver groups to 8, and if you increase the Raven groups to 12 results in only 4 Beaver groups.
Once Beaver groups get large, parallel running of multiple streams of activity is recommended. Here an additional act, prior to the Epilogue, is integrated to converge the ideas from these streams into a single output canvas. So, with this integration step, larger audiences of many hundreds of participants, can be accommodated.
Do's and Don'ts
Participant Guidance / Code of Conduct
All participants need to be briefed on the experience of participation, the natural tensions, the joys, the hesitations in Triopticon. For example:
- value in multiple points of view that conflict with each other, would normally be resolved by a dominant party - this takes more time, hard when people are tired
- trust that everyone is putting their ego aside, and able to represent everyone in the group when you get to speak - that this takes more time to be more descriptive
- role expectations are not to come up with an answer, but to stick to the boundaries of the role (the process enables insights to inform action to emerge)
- it is natural to want to reduce the information to actionable points; it is harder to hold the depth and breadth of information for longer
- self-recording against a set of simple prompts can help with this tension (see below)
Set of prompts for capturing patterns as they emerge
- what do you agree with, what do you disagree with?
- what fascinates you? what surprises you?
- what are the patterns?
- what are the contradictions?
- Eagles should be briefed before the event, to deliver to the timing and present as guided.
- In Act four when Eagles circulate between each Beaver group, encourage rotation of Eagles to minimise the risk that their presence might dominate group activity. This could be be timed, for example, an Eagle spends 15 minutes with each group and then moves to the next one with a break in between for the group to synthesise the input of the Eagle with their own thinking. Movement, however, should also be considered in context and an element of "going with the flow" considered.
- the experience may challenge one's ego: the impact is in contributing to novel, generative learning; in the moment it may feel vulnerable to hear how others understand and reframe your own knowledge and perspective.
- remind eagles that we are entering into this because not one of us has the single answer
- When not participating, Ravens should be listening silently
- Remind the Ravens that they are to represent their raven group, not their own personal views.
- Avoid premature convergence. Don’t try to merge the different disciplines or come to a consensus too quickly. It is better to spend time discussing the differences between disciplines in order to play on the tensions between them.
This method was developed for implementation in "real" spaces and, wherever possible, it is recommended that the benefits of such opportunities should be enjoyed. In addition to the interpersonal and sensory elements which cannot be realised in virtual environments, if an event is running over multiple days, the value of informal chats and gatherings outside sessions between all involved should not be underestimated.
That said, given recent restrictions in the ability to travel and share spaces, running a virtual Triopticon does have value. In addition to being pandemic friendly, it enables the participation of many for whom travel time and cost might otherwise prove prohibitive.