Ritual Dissent

Test and enhance proposals, stories or ideas by subjecting them to challenges or positive alternatives.

Ritual Dissent cover image

Ritual dissent is a workshop technique designed to overcome taboos against publicly critiquing ideas so the presenter can hear candid, useful feedback. It was developed it by Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge.

The basic approach involves a spokesperson presenting a series of ideas, a concept or a proposal to a group who receives the information in silence. The spokesperson then turns their chair, so that their back is to the audience (symbolizing leaving the room) and listens in silence while the group either attacks (dissent) or provides alternative proposals (assent). The technique works best with dissenting groups of up to 12 people so that conversations are manageable.

It 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. This type of ‘forced listening technique‘ helps generate robust proposals and ideas that will live in the real world.

The intention of the technique is to separate character judgements from the merits of the ideas presented. It 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. By disassociating the feedback given from the presenter, there is less opportunity to feel criticized or judged by the audience. It focuses the dissent on the idea itself and not the person presenting. It also removes any body language from the discussion.

The ritual dissent cycle can be repeated, specially if larger groups are broken down into smaller groups and multiple presentations occur simultaneously. Ritual dissent and ritual ascent can be interchanged, so that the audience either is focusing on identifying issues or benefits in each cycle. During the ascent cycle, the group can only suggest helpful improvements.

How to prepare the setting:

The technique is normally used in a workshop with a minimum of three groups with at least three participants in each group. Ideally the number of participants should be higher, but no higher than a dozen. The larger the number of groups, the more iterations and variety will result.

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 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. 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 a pen and paper, and the clipboard eases the process somewhat.

How to facilitate:

  1. Appoint a spokesman for presentation. It is advisable that the person have “a resilient and robust personality and not bear a grudge”.
  2. Invite a critical audience. Preferably the audience will consist of more external/outsiders than within the working group to offer different perspectives on the issue.
  3. Short presentation of the ideas, proposal, concept or similar content that are to be challenged by the group. The spokesman presents to the silent audience which offer no comments yet. It is suggested to limit the presentation to 3 minutes.
  4. The challenge: The spokesman is given a clipboard for taking notes and turns around. The group should then attack the ideas with full and complete vigor. The spokesman listens in silence and takes note.
  5. Conclusions: The spokesman takes some time to reflect on what he or she has heard. He or she then turns around to face the group again and tells the group what he or she has learned.

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 this ritual process several times with multiple groups offers a significant opportunity for improvement of the initial idea presented. Through this process not only the spokesperson learns, but the group dissenting or assenting also learns from their comments.

Created on Oct 22, 2020 11:06,
last edited on Oct 22, 2020 11:05