What Facilitation Without Agenda Really Means and How to Make It Work with Nadja Petranovskaja
A workshop with no agenda may sound to some like a bad dream but, in fact, it can produce unparalleled outcomes and outputs, opening new levels of potential and possibility for groups to work without a top-down directive.
Learning to let go of traditional structure is never easy, but like most difficult decisions, there is something worthwhile on the other side.
But how exactly do we run workshops without agendas? What do they look like? What are the processes that stand in place of the agenda?
Myriam turned to Nadja Petranovskaja to find out – and with good reason. Nadja has been promoting the idea of NoAgenda for many years and has seen the transformative effects of it clearly in her own workshops. Nadja has worked with some of the largest corporations in the world to adopt New Work strategies and is the creator of the fabulous WonderCards – the project that raised 112% of its target funding on Kickstarter.
Truly, Nadja is a facilitator at the top of her game. Her conversation with Myriam was as enlightening as you might expect.
No agenda does not mean no purpose
One of the first things Nadja was at pains to explain in her conversation with Myriam is that “no agenda doesn’t mean that we meet and just ‘do something’”.
“No agenda means there is no upfront time schedule” that is in place before the meeting begins.
After all, is it really fair for one stakeholder to set the direction for the entire group? Even if they know what they want to achieve, the group will have different ways of reaching that point. You can travel from the Netherlands to Germany by plane, train, bicycle, or motor vehicle, but you will take very different routes and times to end up in the same place.
“No agenda doesn’t mean there is no structure, but we create a structure together. There’s a cocreation process within the group,” Nadja added.
This process of cocreation is essential to build a sense of responsibility and ownership in the group.
“They need this initial uncertainty because in something that is not structured by someone else, they cannot complain or blame someone else. They have to work from the very first second and this makes them responsible from the very first second. From the first second, they are in charge.”
Understanding why the concept of an agenda can be unfair, unequitable, and unproductive is the starting point from which we can formulate a new concept for meetings – one that relies on the group co-designing the agenda in the moment, tapping into the needs and preferences of everyone in the room.
How do you run a workshop with no agenda?
Once the workshop begins and everyone is in the room together, “we have the energy, the knowledge of who is who and why it’s important that we met. We create the agenda together.”
To really get to the heart of the group’s “why”, Nadja likes to have the participants imagine that they are at the end of the workshop and describe their “user story” – their “personal learning” from the workshop.
Nadja will write up all of these user stories and place them on the wall, “and then they have all the work to be done today visualised, so everyone sees what the others want to learn.”
“Even if the topic is huge,” notes Nadja, “it’s connected to so many things. They recognise that they have connections and that’s the magic point.”
“When they start, everything is going through me as the facilitator. They start this co-creation because they create the first connections to each other.”
Two people who have worked in the same company for 20 years might have never met each other, but in the space of a few minutes will find that they have essential knowledge they can share with each other to aid their progress towards their goals.
“They feel empowered and motivated” to achieve their goals because they have already named and visualised their ideal outputs and outcomes.
What is essential to make a no agenda workshop work?
A no agenda workshop is not a quick fix, a novelty to try when you are unsure, or a magical cure. It is a powerful and intentional process which, despite its conceptualisation, requires a lot of thought and attention.
So, if you are interested in running a workshop with no agenda, Nadja recommends:
- Understanding that you are “not important” – that you are a catalyst, but you are not part of the process
- Not trying to do too much – “make the group work – it is their topic… If I’m relaxed, I think everything is working well”
- Making progress fun – Nadja recommends using a Kanban board for everyone’s “user story”/“learning path”. Whenever someone moves a goal to the ‘done’ section of the board, celebrate it – have people applaud! “They will recognise how fun it is to get things done.”
There are, of course, many more facets to an effective workshop without an agenda, but those were some of the essential elements Nadja highlighted in conversation with Myriam.
Naturally, there are many similarities and recognisable features between no agenda workshops and traditional workshops. Many of the exercises, check ins and check outs, and other tools facilitators have at their disposal are just as effective (and sometimes more so) in this environment.
A podcast with no agenda
Myriam will happily admit she had an agenda for Nadja’s interview on the Workshops Work podcast! There was a great freedom and openness to their conversation, though, and it is as hard as ever to truly capture the entirety of the conversation in writing.
To really dig into the process of running a no agenda workshop, to learn what Nadja has found to be effective and ineffective, and for discussion on plenty of other topics outside of agendas, you really must listen to the full episode.
You can listen to the show on your favourite podcast player, searching for “Workshops Work” or stream the episodes on www.workshops.work.
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