I don’t get to do very many DesignShop events these days. A typical DesignShop event, as invented and practiced by MG Taylor Corporation, involves bringing together 30 to 80 client participants for three long days (10 hours, 12 hours, and 10 hours) of facilitated collaborative work. DesignShop events are impactful, transformational, exhilarating, and often supremely strenuous experiences. They are also an enormous, lump-sum investment of time and money for a client. That may be just one reason that our practice has evolved away from DesignShop style events. Our clients are often hard pressed to find a full day of time to bring together a small group of their leaders, let alone three days of time to sequester 30 to 80 of their best and brightest.
For whatever reason, our clients tend toward events other than three-day DesignShops—often shorter, and sometimes with fewer people—and we have evolved our practice accordingly. But there certainly are times when I miss some of the experiences and methods that the expansive container of the full DesignShop affords.
For example, a common feature of the DesignShop event when I delivered them was the long, luxurious reading exercise. These reading exercises took a number of forms. Sometimes we had the participants read topics outside the area of the challenge they had come to solve. Sure, they might be there to design a five-year strategy or improve their supply chain, but we would make them read about hive insects, home economics, Navy Seals, or the Mars Pathfinder. Taking Einstein at his word that, “No problem can be solved with the same level of consciousness that created it,” we used this type of reading to help change our participants’ consciousness. We asked them to explore unfamiliar terrain in order to gain fresh perspectives, useful insights, and clarity about what they truly needed to do in order to accomplish their goals.
Other times we would have them read case studies that more directly related to their challenge and put the most current leading practices in front of them. And sometimes we would provide a mix of both.
Regardless of the specific types of readings, the execution of these reading exercises was consistent. First you had to develop a robust set of readings for your participants. Sometimes that involved weeks of research and lots of time spent in bookstores or on Amazon.com. Then during the session, you would have teams of participants (eight to 12 people) immerse themselves in a topic area for 45 to 60 minutes. After the reading, the small teams would spend at least 30 minutes sharing among themselves what each individual learned from their reading. Then the team might spend 45 minutes extracting learning from the material they all read and, as a group, applying that to the challenge they came to face. Their goal: generate some clarity and useful insights. And then each team would share back their insights and the application of what they learned. Depending on the size of the group, this report back could take 45 minutes or more. In some cases this added up to a three-hour chunk of the DesignShop.
I’ve already touched on some of the more obvious benefits of full reading exercises, i.e., conveying information (including possibly exposing “…participants to ideas and concepts that they may need in order to create effective solutions.”), expanding the participant’s frame of reference, and providing potentially new and useful insights. Some of the other benefits include the following:
- A full reading exercise is a time gift. After some initial discomfort with the concept of spending valuable time reading about tide pools or the like, participants usually settle in and really enjoy the time. There is a physiological response to taking some deliberate time to just read. Kurt Vonnegut wrote about observing his father coming home from work and reading a short story in The Saturday Evening Post, “His pulse and breathing slow down. His troubles drop away, and so on.”
- Doing the reading exercise live, with a group of colleagues, is an opportunity for a shared experience. Learning together and potentially creating a new, shared language for thinking and communicating about the challenge at hand is a unifying experience for the participant group.
- The small group dialogue about the material is invaluable to the group dynamic and the later generation of creative ideas. Indeed, that is often where those ideas begin to germinate. The very act of sharing what one has read is an act of learning and assimilating information. As Jeff Hurt writes in his blog: “Here’s the law: the person doing the most talking during an education session is the one doing the most learning. …”
“We need to create more learning opportunities where … audience talks to each other. We talk in pairs or small groups so we can understand. We talk so we can remember. We talk so we can process.”
Full-blown reading exercises are rich and rewarding activities in group work, often reverberating for the duration of an event and beyond the end of it. Unfortunately, they are a big investment in time. When you are confronted with a one-day collaborative work session, it is difficult to justify spending more than 2/3 of your time in a reading exercise. But sometimes, you really want some of the benefits of a good read. What to do?
Enter the Really Rapid Read
The Really Rapid Read is a way to inject your collaborative work session with many of the benefits of a full reading exercise but in only a fraction of the time. It takes just 45 minutes of session time, start to finish, and much less pre-work than a full reading exercise. Here’s how to do it.
Step 1: Select your readings
The power and value of this exercise relies greatly on the quality of the readings. Ideally, you will have two different readings (articles, book chapters, etc.). Each reading should be the right length and level of complexity that the average participant can read and digest it in 15 minutes. The real focus of this exercise is to change the “level of consciousness” of your participants and jumpstart their ability to gain new insights about their challenge. As such, these readings should be germane to the work they’ve come to do. They do not have to agree. They can be in opposition to one another. That can certainly generate a great conversation.
Note: You don’t need precisely two different, self-contained readings, e.g., a complete HBR article. You can create reading packets from multiple sources. You may also want to use more than two readings, which is fine. A good rule of thumb is that you must have more than one, and you should have fewer than five readings.
Step 2: Distribute the readings to your participants.
Each participant gets one of the readings (or reading packets). If you have two readings (A and B), you can distribute them alternately to your participants, i.e., A, B, A, B, etc. If you are using more than two readings, distribute them so they are more or less evenly distributed around the room.
Step 3: Read (15 Minutes)
Give your participants 15 minutes to read. Enough said.
Step 4: Teach (15 Minutes)
Instruct your participants to pair up with someone who read a different article than they did. Give them 15 minutes (7.5 minutes per person) to teach their partner what they learned from their reading.
Step 5: Debrief (15 minutes)
Bring the full group’s attention back together and facilitate a debrief conversation about what they learned from their reading. This is a relatively quick conversation. Your main objective should be to surface any learning, insights, or themes that are applicable to challenge they have gathered to face.
If you are lucky enough to work with scribes (aka graphic recorders, visual recorders, graphic facilitators, etc.), this conversation is a prime opportunity for scribing. Publicly capture the themes and concepts that emerge, and then feed them back into the rest of the session.