ThinkTank, a day-and-half model

I recently attended a “thinktank” that went from evening of one day to lunchtime a day and a half later. After looking back at what happened (and didn’t), I prepared this blog post to suggest a way that participants’ interests and energies could be engaged over the day and a half of a ThinkTank on topic X. (It is not important for this exercise to identify what the topic was of the ThinkTank I attended.) The instructions are given for arrangements with the additional goal of making it possible to host such ThinkTanks without major funding and without burning out the organizers.


Tangible goals

  1. For participants to gain new insights about Topic X [fill in the topic]
  2. For participants to learn and practice Tools and processes that facilitate substantive knowledge sharing, inquiry, critique, and discussion. In particular, to learn about the 4Rs approach: “A well-facilitated collaborative process keeps us listening actively to each other, fostering mutual Respect that allows Risks to be taken, elicits more insights than any one person came in with (Revelation), and engages us in carrying out and carrying on the plans we develop (Re-engagement). What we come out with is [see #1 above] very likely to be larger and more durable than what any one person came in with; the more so, the more voices that are brought out by the process” (

Experiential goals (how the process will affect our way of being)

  1. As participants, our experience of gaining insights about Topic X excites each of us about extending conversations about the topic beyond the ThinkTank (in time and in who participates).
  2. Our experience of engagement in the tools and processes using the 4Rs approach excites us to seek out and pursue other engagements in a similar manner, in particular, to “connect quickly with others who are almost ready… to foster participatory processes and, through the experience such processes provide their participants, contribute to enhancing the capacity of others to do likewise.” (Taylor 2005, Unruly Complexity, p. 225).

Initial Preparation by organizers (say, 8 people), with some tasks for participants

  1. Create website (to convey information below) and Initiate a listserv (which will be visible only to participants).
  2. If y is the desired size of the ThinkTank, invite y/2 people with each of them asked to identify one additional invitee from a group that might not be covered well by the original invitee list (e.g., students, under-represented minorities in the field of Topic X, people who might be ready to get involved in the topic but had not before then).
  3. Each participant submits in advance a paragraph or two describing a project related to Topic X that they want to advance with the help and stimulation of the ThinkTank (e.g., through connections made, new ideas encountered, feedback on the project formulation).
  4. Set sliding scale registration where the minimum level covers meals and refreshments, while the maximum (payable by those with institutional support) allows for organizers to offer subsidies for travel and/or accommodation for those who have limited resources.
  5. Arrange for up to 1/4 of participants to prepare written paper, visual aids, or audio run-through for 20-minute presentations on Topic X, which they won’t actually give at the ThinkTank. (If visual aids, encourage them to insert text slides to help explain the logic and flow.) Make available via the website (and remind registrants to read/view/listen this in advance).

Information on website

Goals (see above)

Presentations (on a password-protected page) for downloading and reading before the ThinkTank.

Please bring your own water bottle, notebook, and, if you have one, a web-connected smart phone or laptop.

Note that at registration you will be asked:

* to identify two of the pre-circulated presentations that you are most interested to discuss, plus a backup option

* to specify one thing that you want help thinking about (e.g., how to get the word out about events at such and such community space, how to build an audience for my next book on …,).

Address for listserv

Advance preparation by participants

Read the pre-circulated presentations.

Just-before-the-thinktank Preparation by organizers

  1. Copy 2-sided instructions handout for each participant, along with Connections and Extensions sheets and Plus-Delta sheets (8.5” x 2.75” for use in Sessions 1and 4, respectively)
  2. Have listserv ready on internet-connected laptops at registration for participants to subscribe to (if they choose).
  3. Familiarize yourselves with the session arrangements and divide up session coordinator and general organizer tasks for each session.
  4. Provide minimal refreshments (large water bottles for participants to decant into their own; snacks (carrots, nuts, crackers, fruit) that can be taken away in bags at any time. Set out a donation box for monetary contributions.

[Optional.  Evening before thinktank  Keynote talk, preceded by icebreaker bingo,]

Day 1 morning

Layout of space

Circles of 8 chairs (for session 1). Each of the circles has a number that remains put and is visible even when the chairs are moved.

Food & refreshment table set out from the wall (for access from all sides) (perhaps next to registration table).

Board, a little away from the food table, for posting PostIts from session 1.

Board, a little away from the food table, for posting cards for session 4.


Two Check-in coordinators ask participants to:

  1. sign up to a listserv if you are open to follow-up emails from other participants;
  2. provide your name on a sign up sheet for two of the pre-circulated presentations that you are most interested to discuss, plus a backup option. (Authors indicate only one and a backup);
  3. print one thing on a 4×6 card (or PostIt) that you want help thinking about (e.g., “how to get the word out about events at such and such community space, how to build an audience for my next book on …). (These cards form the basis for Session 4);
  4. take a copy of the instructions handout and the sheets for Connecting & Extending and for Plus-Delta responses;
  5. go to a circle with an organizer (filling up one circle before starting the next).

Session 1, Getting Here & Exposing Diverse Points of Potential Interaction

This activity emphasizes Respect—for yourself and others—from the outset, making it more comfortable for you to Risk talking about your personal journey. You may gain insights—Revelations—from what you hear yourself include in your stories.

A circle gets going as soon as it has filled:

  • Welcome from circle coordinator (=one of the organizers or a volunteer arranged by the organizer)
  • Initial 7-minute activity (guided freewriting on hopes for the ThinkTank)
  • 30-second introductions (= name & hopes for the workshop)
  • Autobiographical Introductions: “How I came to be someone who would end up at a ThinkTank on this topic” –equal time for everyone (=5 minutes or less if the group starts late).
  • Gives participants an opportunity to introduce themselves in narrative depth, their current and emerging work, and learn more about each other
  • Coordinator goes first to model
  • Everyone notes, for each introduction, a point of connection with the speaker and a point in which they might extend what is said (which can be taken in many directions, e.g., suggest something for the speaker to read, adopt or adapt something to their own work, look further into something). After the first four introductions stop to draw connections and discuss with a neighbor what is emerging.
  • Last 5 minutes: Decide as a group and print on large PostIts one common thread and one tension among the participants.       Print these on large PostIts (Blue for commonality and Red for tension). Coordinator collects these and posts them on the board for Session 1.
  • Each person passes C and E sheets to each other person

(The handout has the instructions above plus instructions,, & space for guided freewriting.)

Rest of the morning

Time for work on your Projects (including digest C&E sheets, reflect, write, pursue internet inquiries)

Session 2 Coordinator arranges groups of the author + 6-10 people ready to discuss a given pre-circulated presentation with the author, then allocates the groups to one or the other of the two parts of the Session 2, trying to make sure that an author is not in a group that meets at the same time as their presentation is to be discussed. Names of who are in these groups are posted. The Coordinator circulates among the authors to explain their role in each group (see below).

Day 1 Afternoon

Session 2, Digging down deep & Exposing More Points of Potential Interaction

Respect continues to be emphasized—everyone, not only for the published author, is an agent in shaping what can emerge from a reading. The Respect-full experience in Session 1 prepares the way for the Risk involved for the primary discussants speaking in front of the gathering as a whole. They may gain insights—Revelations—from what they hear themselves say. The listeners may too as you chew on what you share with the various speakers and how you differ from them.

There are two 60-minute parts to this Session, separated by a 10-minute break. In each part, the author meets with 6-10 people ready to discuss their pre-circulated presentation. The groups have been posted on the board.

Once the group is seated, the author introduces the format:

“The author can take a few minutes, not to summarize their presentation, but to add context or framing that may not have been obvious or updates since the presentation was submitted.

Then each person has 4 minutes (no more, no less) [or 5 if the group is small] to describe how the pre-circulated reading intersects with or stimulates their own thinking. It is more important for groups members to express this, than for them to refer to particulars of the pre-circulated presentation.

The author stays quiet until all others have had their turn, but then has 5-10 minutes to describe how the group has stimulated their thinking.

If there is time remaining, free-form discussion can happen.”

After end of session, before dispersing to work on projects

Coordinator for Session 3 explains that

“Each ‘I want help thinking about’ topic group meets for 18 minutes in the evening, so that each of you participates in three topic groups, one after the other. One of these is the group that you identified when you registered as wanting help on.

Now you have to write your name on two small PostIts and stick them to a ‘one thing I want help thinking about’ topic in two of the three columns—NOT the column in which your own ‘one thing I want help thinking about’ topic is posted. After you do this, record on your handout the number (and thus location) of your groups for each of the three columns.”

Rest of the afternoon

Time for work on your Projects (including preparing 5-minute work-in-progress presentation,

Organizers will help participants understand and complete the task of signing up for “I want help thinking about” topic groups, then add their own PostIts to topics that have no other participant or only one.

Participants also encouraged to peruse the PostIts from Session 1 (Blue for commonality and Red for tension). 

Day 1 Evening


Session 3, “I want help thinking about” (a variant of

Respect and Risk continue to be emphasized in asking everyone to take initiative in asking for help. You can hope to gain insights—Revelations—from what you hear yourselves ask for and from how you respond to queries and suggestions from others. At the same time, the other topic-group members can gain insights from hearing how they respond to the request for help.

Coordinator for Session 3 reminds everyone that “Each ‘I want help thinking about’ topic group meets for 18 minutes. After participants have moved to the numbered locations, the originator of the topic explains what help they seek and the group takes it from there. Feel free to move chairs from a position that has some to spare.” (Some numbers may be the meeting place for 2 or more groups, so the originators of the topics have to separate their participants from each other.)

Session 3 Coordinator gives 3-minute warning for a group to wind up. At each switch from one column’s topics to the next, the Coordinator helps anyone who needs it to identify their next group and find their way to it.

Rest of evening or early morning

Complete preparation of 5-minute work-in-progress presentation (


Day 2 Morning

Before session

Coordinator for Session 4 gets visual aids from participants and transfers them to laptop linked to projector.

Session 4, Work-in-progress presentations

Each participant has 5 minutes to get started, present and get spoken feedback

Every other participant provides Plus-delta feedback ( on the presentation

Break, 10 minutes

Organizers create an inner circle of 12 chairs with gaps for easy entry and exit of sitters, but otherwise as close as possible. Organizers ask for help to move the rest of the chairs surrounding that circle. Seats in the circle are then occupied by organizers (except the Session 5 Coordinator) and volunteers if any seats remain. Pens are distributed to any participant who doesn’t have one.

Session 5, Dialogue Hour (, with modification for large group,

Respect, Risk, and Revelation are emphasized in the listening—not only to others but also to oneself (even if silently)—that happens in a Dialogue Process. By the end of the Dialogue Hour and Closing Circle, participants should be clear about at least some issues that have (Re)engaged you through the experience of the ThinkTank.

Session 5 Coordinator explains that the topic of the Dialogue Hour is “Review the ThinkTank insights and experience. Share our thinking about how each of us can extend the insights and experience.” The Hour involves 5 phases, as described on the instructions handout (see below). Asks everyone to read the instructions for the first, freewriting phase and then start. Anyone needing more explanation should quietly attract the Coordinator’s attention.

  1. 5 minutes Freewriting to begin to consider the topic of the session.
  2. Check-in: Short account to a neighbor of one’s concern or question about the topic of the session.
  3. Dialogue process, i.e., listening with structured turn taking, that begins with each of the inner circle saying one thing that is on top for them as the dialogue starts. Then, through inquiry more than advocacy (i.e., rehearsal of previously formulated ideas), including inquiry of one’s own thinking, themes usually emerge. So that what participants say builds on what has been said by previous speakers (as against rehearsing a position established well before the session). The session 5 Coordinator circulates, giving a card to anyone (including those in the inner circle of 12) who raises their finger (as in an auction) to indicate that they would like a turn. When the turn comes up for a person out of the circle, a member of the inner circle who does not have a card gracefully relinquishes their seat to that person, who can remain in the circle after speaking until asked to relinquish their seat.
  4. 10 minutes before the session ends each participant spends a few minutes writing to gather and share thoughts that have emerged as they are meaningful for them (using a printed or online form like Session 5 Coordinator explains that it’ll reduce work if people can use the online form on their laptops or smartphones to gather thoughts.
  5. Last 5 minutes: In groups of 3-4, each participant shares something they plan to address/get done/think more about based on the session. (Having this aired in the group–having it witnessed–makes it more likely to happen.)

(The handout has instructions for Sessions 2-5, including guidelines for dialogue and prompts or web address for gathering thoughts in phase 4 of Session 5. Handout also repeats at the bottom the Learning and Experiential goals .)

Closing Circle

Each participant has up to 15 seconds to state one highlight or appreciation or suggestion or thing they are taking away from the ThinkTank to do more work with. One person starts then passes the (figurative or literal) mic to a neighbor.  (Session 5 coordinator audio-records the closing.)

Follow up by organizers

  1. Get help to tidy up the space.
  2. Send out initial listserv email with guidelines, instructions about unsubscribing, encouragement to share.
  3. Transcribe the PostIts from Session 1 (commonalities and tensions); post to listserv.
  4. Transcribe & collate gathered thoughts from Session 5, phase 4; post to listserv.
  5. Transcribe audio-recording of closing; post to listserv.
  6. Post any revised paragraphs or presentations (see below) that participants indicate can be viewed publicly

Follow up by participants

  1. Peruse what is posted on the listserv (see above)
  2. Submit a revised paragraph or two describing the state of their project related to Topic X after the help and stimulation of the ThinkTank (e.g., through connections made, new ideas encountered, feedback on the project formulation).  Indicate whether it can be shared on the publicly visible website for the ThinkTank.
  3. Participants who prepared a presentation indicate whether it can be shared on the publicly visible website for the ThinkTank.



About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

2 Responses to ThinkTank, a day-and-half model

  1. Barbara Huscher Cohen says:

    As always, Peter, you spell it out beautifully. I will use this model.

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