How to run a transdisciplinary workshop

How to run a transdisciplinary workshop

By Sonia Graham (with Roger Cousens and Michael Williams)
on 2020-03-16
  • Research
  • Conference or workshop

Transdisciplinary projects that bring together researchers, policy makers, practitioners, industry and citizens, provide one avenue for holistically addressing complex real-world problems. But without clear guidelines on how to bring such a diverse group of people together it is difficult to build the working relationships needed to make transdisciplinary endeavours a success. We know that we need to pay attention to establishing trust, a shared language and a common goal, but how?

One way to begin a transdisciplinary project, grant or publication is through a facilitated workshop. In this blog I reflect on how specially designed workshops can get transdisciplinary initiatives started, based on my participation in an interdisciplinary workshop (2014 – Huesca, Spain) and leading three transdisciplinary workshops (2016 – Alberta, Canada; 2019 – Barcelona, Spain; 2020 – NSW, Australia). Each workshop provided much-needed debate and building of social relationships. In doing so, they generated new ideas about how to address “wicked” problems and pathways for taking them forward. In addition to my own insights, this blog has been reviewed and improved by Professor Roger Cousins, one of the founders of the Andina conference approach that I describe, and Michael Williams, the professional facilitator who has run the Andina conferences.

Workshops that seed transdisciplinarity

The interdisciplinary workshop that truly inspired me, with what it achieved during and afterwards, was the 2014 Andina workshop, the second of the “Andina” workshop series[1] held in the Spanish Pyrenees. Andina workshops are the antithesis of conventional conferences: NO more than 35 invited participants and NO PowerPoint presentations. Each workshop is run for one-week in an inspiring mountainous location and is uniquely crafted and facilitated to allow time for deep debate in the morning, reflection while walking in the afternoon, then further debate and social cohesion-building fun in the evenings. Every participant is responsible for running a part of the workshop.

What I valued about participating in the second Andina workshop is that it invited debate without being restricted by pre-defined outputs or power dynamic from presenters at the front of the room. It involved a great group of participants who, through carefully constructed and pre-planned agendas, shared, respectfully listened to, and built on the knowledge exchanged. After the workshop, participants worked together to produce two publications that scoped new research directions and outlined a roadmap for future transdisciplinary weed management. I have since taken these ideas into new transdisciplinary projects. So, it was not only what we discussed but also who we met that created new opportunities. These outcomes go beyond anything I’ve achieved at a conventional conference. The keys to success were the style of workshop, facilitation of the social dynamics, the respectful people involved across cultures, ages, genders, and the facilitated planning process.

The third Andina workshop held in the Canadian Rockies in 2016 provided an avenue for testing the ideas we developed on how to achieve transdisciplinary weed management, and gave me, an Early Career Researcher, the chance to lead such an initiative. The following are the insights I gleaned from running the 2016, third Andina workshop[2], a 2019 interdisciplinary workshop on climate in transition[3] and an Andina-inspired workshop in the alpine area of Kosciuszko National Park, NSW, Australia[4].

Six tips for running a transdisciplinary workshop

  • Get a committee together and start planning early – planning a transdisciplinary workshop requires a lot of time to ensure the overall workshop has a clear goal, that each session has a clear purpose, contributes to the overarching goal, and links logically from one session to the next. It involves much more thought and planning than a traditional meeting of oral presentations.

Each workshop had at least seven people on the organising committee. If the goal is trandisciplinarity, the committee needs to reflect this aim.  It needs representatives of the various types of participants who were invited, e.g. policy makers, practitioners, researchers from diverse disciplines, and the professional facilitator. Having seven people ensured that multiple perspectives are valued from the outset and that there is plenty of help available to prepare for the workshop.

For the week-long workshops, the multi-continent planning began two years ahead! For the two-day workshop, planning began six months before the workshop, but in that case, almost all the organisers were co-located in the same institute, which made it easier to hold planning meetings.

  • Get a professional facilitator – facilitators improve the success of a transdisciplinary workshop. The facilitators I’ve worked with have helped organising committees develop clear and achievable aims, and then develop a program that enables those aims to be achieved.

Professional facilitators have a wealth of knowledge about what activities are best suited to specific goals, managing the human dynamics, whether the aim is to facilitate debate about key ideas, such as in a World Café, or to build relationships. Most importantly, if you hire a facilitator, you need to include them in the workshop planning from the start and preferably in the outputs: their influence is worthy of co-authorship. They cannot do a good job if they are only paid for the day/s of the workshop.

During the workshop facilitators who are experienced, trusted and have topic-relevant knowledge are crucial for ensuring that everybody gets an equal chance to contribute, including the conference organisers, and that the program can be constantly aligned to the new ideas and interpersonal dynamics that unfold. 

  • Carefully choose your participants – it is important that the participants are open to, and respectful of, the ideas of all other participants. Participants who disregard other’s ideas, talk over the top of others, and push their own agenda will undermine the trusting environment needed for genuine debate. This requires the organising committee to make difficult choices in inviting participants as much for their knowledge as their respect for the knowledge sharing process.

Aim to have between 20 and 30 participants. This allows for enough diversity of knowledge to be represented without debates becoming too unwieldy.

Careful attention should also be paid to the diversity in the room, with respect to gender, age, background, etc.

  • Create a safe space – there are many things about a transdisciplinary workshop that can make people feel uncomfortable. These include the unique format, not knowing other people in the room, and being unfamiliar with vocabulary and key terms that others use – we have used an AFZ – an acronym free zone.

There are various strategies that can be used to help people feel safe and confident enough to contribute. This includes setting up pre-workshop activities so participants get to know one another and work together before the meeting. Emphasizing and re-emphasizing how valuable each person’s knowledge is, and then creating opportunities that enable them to share that knowledge.

  • Give everyone a job. It is important that everyone sees it as their meeting, not the committee’s meeting.  Allocating everyone a role, no matter how small, helps to give them ownership, encourages them to participate fully including prior to the workshop and gives them a greater desire/responsibility to see the outputs achieved.
  • Set reasonable expectations of what can be achieved – writing papers and grants and actioning other ideas can be time consuming. One of the interdisciplinary articles that we wrote after the third Andina workshop took 2.5 years to be published! So, it’s important to acknowledge early on that the workshop is only just the beginning of what can turn into long and fruitful working relationships.

The suggestions here are inspired by the Andina workshop format. I would love to hear your experiences of running transdisciplinary workshops. Do you have additional tips to share?

[1] Cousens, R. (2017) Do we argue enough in ecology? BES Bulletin, 48(1): 58-61.   

[2] Knowledge Nexus: Applying transdisciplinary and systems approaches for sustainable weed management -

[3] Climate in Transition:  An Interdisciplinary Interrogation of Global Environmental Change -

[4] The Australian Academy of Science 2020 Fenner Conference on the Environment -

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