Yesterday morning, on the last day of a large event, one of the event sponsors asked that we provide the participants with templates to capture and structure their work. We acquiesced.
What did we gain and what did we lose by using templates? We gained two things principally. First of all, the sponsor was pessimistic about the likelihood of achieving the event’s desired result and felt comforted by the thought that she and her colleagues would, at a minimum, fill in the templates with useful information. So we helped lower her blood pressure for a few hours.
The other benefit of using templates is the uniformity of output, which simplifies the design and production of an executive summary. If all the teams are working to the same template, building a deliverable is a cakewalk.
The downsides of using templates far outweighs these benefits. First of all, the uniformity of structure rarely corresponds to the variety of issues and ideas that emerge from genuinely creative work. Second, providing templates robs the participants of some of their sense of ownership over their outputs and thus of their event.
But the most damaging aspect of templates, I believe, is that they represent a pre-formulated question. As an event proceeds, our questioning should leave more and more room for interpretation. We strive for some sort of elegant ambiguity in our assignments early in an event, and as the work proceeds, our assignments become so short and open-ended as to offer barely any guide at all as to what is expected. We do this because the answers our participants provide are only a fraction as useful as the questions they have to ask themselves to arrive at those answers. The most creative aspect of their work – and thus the most difficult – is figuring out what the question is that they are trying to answer. When they stumble and go around in circles and lose their way, it isn’t because they don’t know the answer, it is almost always because they don’t know the question. And the search for a question is the most genuinely creative aspect of collaborative work.
At a practical level, what should I have told my event sponsor when she presented me with a template? Perhaps I should have said, “Great! We’ll give it to them 15 minutes before the end of the day and ask them to use it to summarize some of the work they’ve done. But only after they’ve done their work.”