Ritual Dissent, Facilitation that Goes Beyond Comfortable Consensus

Ritual Dissent: “We do that here. It’s just that the dissent happens once people have gone back to their desks and they destroy the idea” Anon.

Just for the record, what I’m talking about here is: Dissent as a strongly held difference of opinion and Ritual as a set of fixed actions that are part of a ceremony, often with deep meaning.

So, anyone experienced this? A solution / plan / idea is carefully crafted in a ‘collaborative’ workshop / meeting / engagement session, then it fails to fly when it is implemented. The reasons appear to be:

  1. Some people aren’t really committed and you get the ‘dissent at the desk’ phenomenon described by Anon above.
  2. It collapses under the pressures of real life. The solution / plan / idea hasn’t really been tested. It sounded great in the workshop, but it’s not what is needed in the real world. It’s unworkable.

Say hello to Ritual Dissent. This is one of Dave Snowden’s creations and I love it. I love it because it helps overcome exactly the problems I have mentioned above, AND, it has a number of other positives. Here are my top 7 reasons to love Ritual Dissent:

  1. Robustness. It lets you robustly test an idea / plan / solution – in a ‘safe to fail’ environment (nobody gets harmed).
  2. Diversity. You can involve a lot of people, with different viewpoints – always helpful.
  3. Better Listening. It requires people to actively listen. Always helpful if you’ve been elevated to a position where you’ve forgotten how to listen properly.
  4. Better Feedback. It allows people to give honest and direct feedback, overcoming the tendency to bush over what we really think.
  5. Equality of Opinion. It helps overcome power imbalances. Too often the opinion of the highest paid person carries too much weight (HiPPO Effect). Its the quality of the idea and the feedback that matters here.
  6. Value for Money. It’s a rapid and action focussed process which plays to my preferences. If you’re going to put a group of expensive people in a room, squeeze them to extract value. Focus doing things that have a better chance of working in the real world. That’s Value for Money in my book.
  7. Managing Emotions. There are no hurt feelings. Don’t under estimate the hassle that hurt feelings can bring. Best to avoid creating them.

So how does it work? I’ve posted the drawing above which hopefully helps.

  • You need a task to focus on; the development of an idea, a plan , solution or proposal.
  • Small Groups (A, B, C etc) will work on their proposal.
  • Each group appoints a Messenger. Someone who is both robust and resilient (if they are a bit ‘thick skinned’, all the better).
  • After some working on the proposal, Messenger A takes it to Group B to present it.
  • The Messenger presents the proposal to silence. There this no feedback, although questions to establish clarity can be asked.
  • The Messenger then performs the Ritual. They stand up, turn their chair to the group and sit with their back to them.
  • The Group then gives their feedback. This is brutally honest feedback that points out the flaws, errors and problems with the proposal. The ability to give honest feedback is helped by the fact you aren’t being ‘eyeballed’ or receiving any non verbal communication (body language) from the messenger.
  • The Messenger just listens. Actively listens. It’s amazing how good you can get at listening if other things like looking at body language are taken away from you.
  • The Messenger can take notes of what they have heard.
  • Once the feedback is over, the Messenger return to their group to share what they have heard and use it to improve or re-work the proposal.
  • Once the proposal has been improved, the process starts again.
  • You can go through a number of cycles of receiving feedback, involving different Groups if available. This adds to the diversity of views.
  • At the end, the feedback can be switched to Assent rather than Dissent. Basically the Group say only positive things about the proposal. Its nice to finish on a positive (provided it is actually positive).

Things to watch out for. I’ve run ritual dissent many times and there are a few things to be aware of. There’s the usual stuff about clearly explaining things which is always a challenge. More often than not its the people with the most qualifications, biggest salaries and swankiest job titles that need most explanation. The other big issue can come around culture. If this is an organisation where people like confusion and bureaucracy, and don’t really like accountability and responsibility you might struggle. The Ritual Dissent method takes you to a place where accountability and responsibility are more visible than you sometimes get in a mushy comfortable consensus. Some people don’t want that.

Resources. I did mention earlier that the Ritual Dissent Method was created by Dave Snowden. You can find out more about the method at:

The Cognitive Edge website for the full method statement: https://cognitive-edge.com/methods/ritual-dissent/

A podcast I recorded with Dave Snowden on the Wales Audit Office, Good Practice Exchange website: https://goodpracticeexchange.wales/2019/01/22/episode-4/

I’ve written some previous post on Ritual Dissent, which on reflection look a bit rubbish, it was a long time ago.

Ritual Dissent – getting better proposals and dealing with saboteurs

Ideas need to be brutally tested before you implement them”….. or try some Ritual Dissent?

One final positive. Ritual Dissent is good fun. It’s amazing how many smiles you see and even a bit of laughter. I think this might have something to do with just how liberating it can be. If you get a chance to talk to Dave Snowden, ask him to tell the story of when it was done in a top end school…

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. The Ritual Dissent Method helps avoid the ‘dissent back at the desk’ which happens in many places.
  2. It encourages honest and robust feedback by focusing on the idea, not the person sharing it.
  3. It allows for things to be tested in a ‘safe to fail’ space so that they have a change of surviving in the real world.
Ritual Dissent, great for overcoming HiPPO Effect

About WhatsthePONT

I'm currently in the middle of a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. Looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

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