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August 4, 2008

Socratic Conversation

A few years ago I used to spend a lot of time facilitating problem solving sessions for senior management groups. One of the best techniques I came across for doing this was what I termed Socratic conversation.

If you have ever seen the TV show “Hypothetical” it was a model for my own thinking. As an aficionado of teaching strategy through games I found this to be a brilliant mechanism to create an enjoyable and productive environment for learning.

After getting the gig to facilitate the problem solving session I used to immediately start the review and study sessions. Interviews, surveys, questionnaires and delving into some of the contextual information about the company so I could better understand their organization, the internal workings of the company, their perceptions and what they were expecting to achieve.

From this point I used to spend a lot of time generating a hypothetical scenario, one which bore an amazing resemblance to their present situation, but still hypothetical.

This whole process was very powerful for driving people through an issue, getting them to analyze it from a different perspective, and getting them closer to a permanent solution to the problem. I have also found that it didn’t matter if they were companies that generated millions or hundreds of millions in revenue each year.

The scenario consisted of the following basic elements:

A problem. This usually consisted of the initial issue, complicating factors, a rapidly approaching threat of some kind, and often some form of moral quandary also.
A range of scenes. Each scene had a few possible scenarios. Depending on how things had gone during the previous scene or session the scenario would change accordingly. The goal is to keep things moving and to make sure that every one gets to look at the problem from a range of different angles and viewpoints. Great care was taken to emphasize certain elements that would generate contrarian lines of thought.
A range of roles. Each role was reflective of a role in the organization, although I often invented one or two for dramatic effect.

A list of learning points. All of the above was focused on the learning points I was able to glean from my initial contacts with the organization and from my initial discussions with each of the people who would be involved.

With the scenario plotted and written, the learning points embedded, and the days “play” outlined; we were ready.

The day would be commenced with a general introduction, and then an outline of the scenario. We always tried to inject humor into this whenever possible and we made sure to put everyone in a role different from what they were currently doing.

The role reversal was a typical ploy to get people to understand another point of view initially. However, it ended up being a very useful tool for people to demonstrate how things could have been done better if a newer perspective was bought to a role. That was an intriguing learning point for me to see in action like that.

The day progressed through a series of questions directed at different roles depending on what was going on.

Again, humor is vital and was something that I tried to use a lot at every turn.

While the flow of the day was pretty much determined by how the questions were asked, and how the delegates responded to various stimuli, there were always some vital points that emerged. The last hour of the day was always a wrap of what was going on, with a focus on what we had learned and how we could apply it to whatever was going on.

Good fun stuff, hope it inspires you to take a different approach to some of your own engagements.

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