10 Rules for a Santa Barbara Charrette (Part One: the First 5)

Building maximum engagement into your workshop

Some years ago I organized a workshop to brainstorm how ocean scientists could find new research and communication capabilities through the use of social networking and social media. With funding from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, a team based at UC Santa Barbara was looking to create the next generation of internet-facilitated science. We called the project DigitalOcean. But first we needed to gather as many ideas as we could from thought leaders in a wide range of domains. We needed to have confidence that our plans were well scoped and in the forefront of emerging opportunities.

Participants came from across the US to help the DigitalOcean (DO) team envision this new suite of tools for ocean science. To support the discussion, I looked at a wide range of meeting types, and focused, finally, on an open meeting-style workshop, with a clear set of rules. For an entire day, thirty participants, split into groups of 6-7, discussed a range of issues and provided the DO team with a broad picture of how to move ahead.

I chose the term “charrette” to describe the event in part because of my experience in architecture charrettes at UC Los Angeles, and in part because of design outcomes we desired matched the intensely reflective process that a charrette produces.

In subsequent years, I’ve used the Santa Barbara Charrette model a number of times, and each time I’ve received the same feedback. It goes something like this: “I’ve just worked harder and I’ve also had more fun than I have ever experienced before at any workshop.” At the end, people actually complain of “brain fatigue,” a condition we help cure with beer.

If you are interested in doing your own Santa Barbara Charrette, you follow these 10 rules (The first 5 are here, the next will be in the next blog):

RULE 1: Pick a place that’s right in town and give them dinner/lunch

Before the charrette starts, make sure you feed to participants. Pick a downtown hotel near cafes and bars. Never do this at an airport hotel. If your charrette starts after lunch, feed them a good lunch first. If your charrette starts in the morning, feed them dinner the previous night. But do not try to gather them for breakfast before the charrette. People have a variety of breakfast desires. Have a table with coffee and snacks in the room.

 RULE 2: The ideas need to travel at the speed of conversation. No more than 35/36 people. Small groups all day.

The charrette planning should focus on getting a wide spread of expertise in the room, but no more than about 35 people (7 tables of five, or 5 tables of 7, or 6 tables of 6). The whole day will be used to promote critical conversations at these tables. As soon as the conversation lags at a table, give it something new to do (e.g., another question [see #4 below]).

RULE 3: Open with a blue sky session, get the creative juices going.

Start the conversations with a real “blue-sky” design problem. Let everyone add their fantasy to the solution of a problem. Give them paper and markers, scissors and glue. Give them props and tape. This is the only session where there is a brief report out. Let the groups compete for the most fantastic solution. Have them map their ideas on big Post-its and then stick these on the walls of the room. This beginning session is designed to help the group achieve an open conversational mode of interaction.

RULE 4: Give them real questions to answer, and let them add to these.

After the blue-sky exercise, each table is given a question to tackle (not necessarily the same question, although most tables might end up answering every question). In the weeks before the charrette, spend real time coming up with 10-12 key questions. Map out how the answers to these add up to a larger picture. Rank these questions as “central” or “if time allows”.  Create some colored sheets of paper that say “Hot Topic” on them. Give each table a few and encourage people to create their own question. Give these questions to OTHER TABLES. Never let someone answer their own question. Some questions will be better answered by tables with specific expertise, others by tables of mixed expertise (see below). This rule was provided by Susan Colitan, Vice President of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. The better the questions the more knowledge you will extract from the workshop!

RULE 5:  Break up groups 2-3 times over the course of the day and vote with your feet.

Give each member a name tag (first NAME on both sides). This tag should also tell them which table at which to sit (designated by color, number, animal, etc.). You might want to start by mixing up the expertise at each table. For example the COLOR designated tables might include a technical expert, a managerial expert, some content domain specialists, and others. After a couple hours, have everyone switch to the NUMBER table, which might be grouped by expertise. Later, they might switch to an ANIMAL table, etc. At the end of the day have a final question back at the original table. At any time anyone can move to a different table. This is called “voting with your feet.” Announce this at the beginning and also every time your swap out table designations.

The next 5 rules will be found here: Last 5 rules for a Santa Barbara Charrette.

One thought on “10 Rules for a Santa Barbara Charrette (Part One: the First 5)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.