IAF Methods

Underlying Contradictions Workshop

by for . Last edit was over 3 years ago
120 - 240 6 - 40

This is usually the second workshop in a strategic planning process developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs. It uses the elements of the Vision as its starting place and the Strategic Directions Workshop uses the products from this workshop as a beginning point.

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To articulate the blocks to realizing the practical vision and to experience the recognition of the dysfunctional aspects of an organization.


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  • Large wall size sticky wall or
  • Whiteboard or plain wall surface.
  • 5x8 cards and a means to stick them to the wall
  • Markers



Setting: Participants should be able to see each other and the front wall.  Space for small groups of 2-3 to generate ideas.

Number of participants: 6-50

Types of participants: A cross section of the whole organization or community is best.

Ideal conditions: Commitment to the process on the part of the participants.

Pre-Work Required: This process assumes that a Vision workshop has been done. The Vision Chart or a list of vision elements should be put up so that everyone can see them.

Facilitator personality fit: The facilitator has to be pretty logical and capable of leaps of intuition


Setting the Context

(10 Minutes)


1. Outline process and timeline

Rehearse the vision, obstacles and strategic directions process and say how much time will be available to do this workshop.

2. Explain product /outcome

What we come up with at the end of this workshop will not be a lack of something, somebody’s fault, or abstract ideas, but concrete social manifestations that are both obstacles and doorways to the future. (Give examples) We are looking for root issues blocking our vision.

3. Highlight focus question

“What is blocking us from realizing our vision?”



(20 minutes)

Image: rock in the middle of a road

1. Brainstorm individually

Each person list or sketch at least 5 or 6 blocks that keep us from moving on our vision. Try to cover all aspects of the vision.

2. Select your best idea

Each person choose the __# most important blocks on your list.

3. Brainstorm as a small group -- 2-3 people

Choose ___# of your most important blocks, eliminating overlap but honouring diversity. Write each on a card (3-4 words) in big letters. (35-60 are needed from the whole group)  Make sure every person in the small group has at least one idea on a card.

Each group spreads their cards out in front of them so they can see them.


(approximately 60 minutes)

Bring the whole group back together facing a blank wall.

Image: dandelion -- we will cluster cards like the leaves of the dandelion to reveal some deep root issues that keep then alive.


 • A few from each group -- they pick random ones

Get approximately 15 - 20 cards on the wall.


Develop 5-7 clusters by similar root cause. These can be in clumps across the wall instead of in columns.  Start with 4-5 pairs of cards that each seem to have a similar root cause, then add the rest of the cards on the wall, making new clusters or adding cards to clusters where they add insight.


Put symbols on clusters. Everyone mark their remaining cards with the symbol of the cluster where they go, leaving the ones that don't obviously fit blank.   Have people pass in remaining cards. First put up those that don’t fit, asking the group where they are most needed to see a deeper underlying obstacle or contradiction. Some new clusters may emerge or the understanding of the underlying contradiction in a cluster may broaden.

Put all the rest of the cards in clusters, so that everything is on the wall. 


Image: dragon (There is a story about a dragon blocking the road between two villages that serve each other, and no one can get rid of it until someone climbs a tree and notices that the real contradiction is that the dragon is eating food from a garbage dump that is nearby.  Once it is identified, the dump is moved and the dragon moves. The dump is neither good or bad in itself, but it is sustaining the problem.)


Begin with largest cluster.

O - Read cards out loud.

R - What are key words on the cards?

I - What are clues to the underlying obstacle. Ask what is going on that causes or sustains these blocks. (You may list on flip chart.)

D - Name the underlying obstacle with a short phrase, e.g., block, how it blocks, what it blocks. Write on a card and put it next to the cluster. Test: Is it real—does it exist? Do we participate in it? Can we do something about it?


Resolve Conversation:

O -Read title cards out loud.

R -Which do you experience as heaviest… lightest?

I -Choose one. If we deal with it, which elements of the vision will it release? What will be the impact of dealing with the obstacles?

D -What is one thing you can do to deal with any one of these obstacles?


Next we will focus on strategic directions to deal with these blocks.


Follow-Up Required: Usually the Strategic Directions Workshop and Implementation Planning follow this workshop.

Usual or Expected Outcomes: A set of contradictions or blocks preventing the vision from existing now.

Potential pitfalls: This can be a pretty painful workshop as people have to look at where things are not going well.

How success is evaluated: Ownership of the underlying obstacles or contradictions. A set of contradictions that motivate people to deal with them.

Examples of successes and failures: There are hundreds of examples in every part of the world. Companies, NGO's, communities and other organizations have successfully used this workshop


Source: The Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA)

Derived from: This was based on work done by the Institute of Cultural Affairs using of a number of resources including Mao Tse Tung's "On Contradiction"

History of Development: The process was first developed as part of the 1971 Global Research Assembly of the ICA. Over the next 3 years it was developed in three directions. It became a part of the Strategic Planning Process LENS. It was used with the Planning Consultation of Human Development Projects in about 30 countries. It was also developed as a part of the Town Meeting process which were held in about 5,000 communities.  It is now also used for organizational strategic planning. The procedures here were developed by ICA Associates, Inc. in Canada. 

Recognizable components: It uses the structure of context, brainstorm, clustering, naming and reflection, the elements of the ToP Consensus Workshop Method. 

References: Staples, Bill, Transformational Strategy, iUniverse, 2013

Comments (1) ( 4.5  avg / 2 ratings)

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  • This workshop can be a turning point for an organization, and make it possible for its strategies to be effective at removing the blocks that hold their vision back.

    over 3 years ago