Syntopical Readings

Posted on by Brandon Klein


The Syntopical Readings is a reading module that brings together an eclectic mix of material for the participants to read.

Years ago, the practice was to give each team a different mix of widely varied articles and books to read and synthesize. Now, the module is more focused, with each team reading about one piece of that eclectic mix.

Metaphors, case studies, and specialized business topics can all fit together in the Syntopical Readings module. It is a pretty big tent. But it is no longer about individual teams synthesizing readings across a broad spectrum of topics.

Sometimes the module is called Syntopical Readings, but all of the readings will be metaphors. Sometimes all of the readings will be specialized business topics. Sometimes they'll be a mix, with a case study or two thrown in.

As with other reading modules, Syntopical Readings is designed to help participants confront and consider solutions to the major issues they are facing. The Syntopical Readings module is also a major opportunity to expose participants to ideas and concepts that they may need in order to create effective solutions.

The module immerses each team in a stimulating body of knowledge from which new learning can be extracted. This is a fundamental principle of scanning: stepping back and looking about for fresh perspectives and rich insights.

First, the participants learn individually as they read. Next, they teach each other and engage in mutual discovery by discussing what they learned. It is only after they have completed these two rounds of work that they are asked to relate what they have learned to the challenge at hand.

They are now able to see and understand their challenge in new ways. By viewing their situation in light of what they have learned, they expand the boundaries of what is possible and begin to articulate the principles of what is desirable.

When you look at the examples of Syntopical Readings included on the Examples page (click here), you'll see that most of them are business-related (Alliance Partnerships, Balanced Scorecard, Change Management, Globalization, etc.). However, there is a sprinkling of more esoteric topics (e.g., Blur, The Death of Competition, The Innovator's Dilemma).

Examples of metaphors and case studies can be found in the sections of this site that deal with those modules.



This module consists of three phases of work in breakout teams, followed by a large-group report out in the Radiant Room.

During the Read phase, each team member works individually, reading as much as he or she can in the time allotted. By the end of Read, the team should have covered all or most of the material collectively.

In the second phase, team members share and discuss what they learned. This discussion is stimulated by a series of questions contained in the assignment, designed to draw out the central themes of the reading. In the third phase, they apply this learning to the central challenge of the DesignEvent.

Critical Success Factors

Issues List. The facilitator works to identify a list of issues based on his or her conversations with the sponsors. Sometimes the sponsors are involved in creating the list. The facilitator can also extract the issues from the scribing, documentation, and notes created during meetings with the sponsors.

Good Readings That Address The Relevant Issues. For a syntopical reading to work at your event, however, it must have more than a clear correlation with an issue. It must be a reading that will take the participants somewhere they need to go. There must also be adequate articles/books available to support the syntopical reading. The researcher works to pull these together and the facilitator reviews each set of material to evaluate whether it is adequate. If not, another syntopical reading can be substituted to address that issue, or a syntopical reading that addresses a different issue can be substituted. It is advisable to have a list of topics that exceeds the number of teams that will take part in the module.


Start Writing

The assignments for the Syntopical Readings module usually represent the biggest body of work for the writing team during the prep day. Why? Each syntopical reading assignment must be specifically tailored to its topic. Plus it's a three-part assignment, meaning that you have to write 30 pages worth of assignments if your event has 10 breakout teams.

The advice presented here assumes that you are writing your syntopical readings assignments from scratch. If you're not doing this, then you are adapting existing assignments.

If you're in the adaptive mode, it will still be helpful for you to read all of the advice here. However, there is also specific advice on adapting existing assignments at the bottom of this page.

As with many assignments, about half of the content relates to logistics instructions and advice on how to go about doing the work. Take a look at some syntopical reading assignment examples to see what the basic logistics instructions are. Pay just enough attention to drafting these to get them right, and then copy them to each syntopical reading assignment. That is the easy part.

The rest of the work relates to the introduction (if you're using one) in the Read assignment and the questions in the Dialogue and Apply assignments.

Introduction. The introduction paragraph that is often used in the Read assignments serves as an entree, or hook, into the syntopical reading topic. The notion behind this is that the participants may resist this assignment initially. The introduction raises their curiosity and eases them past this resistance and into the reading. At that point, they're hooked.

To write a good introduction, you need to understand the syntopical reading. In many ways, this introduction is like the jacket copy on the cover of a book. Take a look at the covers and jacket copy of the books for your syntopical reading. Steal willfully and with abandon. You may also want to scan through the readings a bit — in particular the first paragraphs of articles or the first chapters of books — to see what catches your eye. Doing so will not only help you to craft this introduction, it will orient you to the topic.

Dialogue questions. The questions in a syntopical reading shine light on some of the ground the team should cover in its work. In the dialogue assignment, these questions are aimed at evoking a response to the key themes of the syntopical reading. Four to seven questions is a good range to work within.

In order to ask specific questions like that, you need to have an understanding of the syntopical reading and how it relates to the relevant client issue. Usually, it is difficult to get that understanding unless you already have some experience with the syntopical reading and/or with the client. That is why it is very helpful to discuss the syntopical reading with the facilitator and/or with a knowledgeable engagement team member. However, do the best you can if those conversations haven't happened yet. It is better to get a draft of the assignment done, no matter how sketchy or vague. It can be improved in the next iteration.

Apply questions. Design these questions in such a way that they get participants to consider how they would apply their key learnings to their solution, project or company. The questions should also get them to address the implications of doing this, the difficulties involved, and the changes that the company would need to make to do so successfully. Four to seven questions is a good range to shoot for.

Once again, in order to generate good questions you must understand the syntopical reading, the learnings it is intended to drive, and the relevant issue the client is facing. This is where it is helpful for you to visualize the world of the syntopical reading (in particular its learnings) and the world of the client. As you relate one to the other, areas of concern or curiosity will hopefully emerge. Let these lead you to your questions. (Or else, in the pressure of the moment, make something up and trust the iterative process to get it right.)

Occasionally, you may find that there is one apply question that makes sense to ask in all of the syntopical readings. For example, perhaps the client has way too many initiatives underway to effectively implement the solution they are designing at the event. It might make sense to ask the following question in each syntopical reading: "What would we have to stop doing in order to apply the learnings from this syntopical reading?"

Adapting existing examples. 123 examples of syntopical reading assignments are provided here, listed by topic. This is by no means an exhaustive selection. You may or may not find an example that suits your needs. On the other hand, you are certain to find an example that you can adapt.

Treat the example as a starting point — a foundation upon which to build. Cut and paste the example into your assignment template for the event. Then change the simple things, such as the name of the client, the name of any project associated with the event, the time the team has to complete the assignment, etc. Doing these simple things up front will ensure that you don't overlook them.

Then look at the Read assignment and see whether it needs to be adapted. Is there an introduction paragraph? If so, does it need to be altered to better align with the relevant issue?

When it comes to the questions, if you have a good example it is likely that you can adapt the questions so that they apply to your assignment. It can also be helpful to look at the Take-A-Panel questions to see if any of them resonate with this syntopical reading topic and suggest questions for the Apply assignment. This will give you a good starter set, which you can then iterate.

If you took good notes during the sponsor walk-through, you may have found that the facilitator mentioned some of the key questions that get at the essence of each syntopical reading. If not, ask the facilitator to speak to this when you sit down with him or her after the sponsor walk-through (or before, if the walk-through is scheduled late in the day). If there is not time to talk through it with the facilitator, then you can review some of the readings and try to come up with a starter set of question, which the facilitator and sponsors can then iterate later.

Additional advice. Once again, review the readings if available. Glancing through the books and/or articles will enable you to recognize some of the key points. This can suggest questions that will get the participants to consider some of the relevant aspects of the syntopical reading. If the readings haven't been collected yet, however, don't let it stop you from doing what you can until you have a chance to look at them.


Team Approach

There are two main challenges with the Syntopical Readings module. The first is collecting a robust set of readings for each of the topics. It is best to get as much of this done before the event. To do this, the facilitator must identify a straw set of topics and work with the researcher to provide some definition for each. Then somebody needs to ascertain whether the books are available in the center. This should be done early enough so that an order can be placed to obtain the books that are not available.

It is difficult to pull together all of the readings during the prep day. There is a lot going on, and often the researcher is preoccupied with collecting material for case studies or a trade show. Lots of times it is someone other than the researcher or writing team who does it. Actually, more than one person usually gets involved.

The earlier these readings can be pulled together, the better. Especially, seeing as the writing team will find it harder to draft questions for the assignments if there is no material to review.

Speaking of the writing team, their task — writing all of the assignments — is the other major challenge with the Syntopical Readings module. It's a lot of work. It's best to have some pre-writing of the syntopical readings done before the event. This provides a baseline upon which the writers can build, and it enables them to expend their effort on those sections of the assignments where value can be added. It also allows them to focus on creating any new or unfamiliar syntopical readings.

Before the event. The pre-event facilitation team (facilitator, AR, PF) can identify a preliminary list of issues in advance of the event. Collaborate with the engagement and/or sponsor teams in this effort. The issues are then used to help identify syntopical reading topics. Identify several more topics than needed.

Make sure that the engagement and sponsor teams understand that this is only a preliminary list. It may change and will inevitable get narrowed down at the event.

Distribute this list to the researcher as soon as feasible, so that he or she can identify and perhaps pull together a preliminary set of readings before the event. You may also want to distribute the list to the event krew. That way, whoever ends up working on the syntopical reading assignments will have had a chance to consider the topics.

It is sometimes even possible for the facilitator to get together with the researcher and review the preliminary sets of readings before the event. But this is an exception and not the rule.

Another best practice before the event is to do some pre-writing of the syntopical readings. The least you can do is set up a syntopical reading template that contains all of the logistical instructions.

But go at least one step further. Copy this template into a separate file for each of the syntopical readings. This simple step will enable the team to split up and begin parallel processing on the work much earlier on the prep day. Trust me, the prep day is very hectic and full of interruptions. If the writing lead or AR tries to set up the assignment template and files on the prep day, the team will fall behind because the writers will be unable to get to work as quickly. OR, they will get to work before the template and files are ready, and the team will end up doing re-work in order to make all of the files and formatting consistent.

If you want to go another step further with your pre-writing (and I usually do), find good examples for some of the syntopical readings and adapt them based on what you know about the client and the central theme of the event.

NOTE: do pre-writing for all of the Day One assignments, and any of the Day Two assignments (if you can).

At the event. Preparing for the Syntopical Readings module is one of the responsibilities of the researcher and the writing team on the prep day.

The sponsor walk-through eats up a major block of time during the day. At the same time, it is the best way that members of the facilitation team can get plugged into the event. As many members of the krew as possible should sit in on the walk-through. Certainly, the writing team should take notes. If they have their files set up, they can even be working on assignments in the back of the room while they listen. The same goes for the researcher if possible, though this may not be realistic.

Once the syntopical readings have been collected, the facilitator needs to look through them. The earlier this can be done, the better. If the readings for a particular syntopical reading are inadequate, then a book run needs to be made or the topic may need to be changed.

After the walk-through, the writing team has to corner the facilitator and get him or her to talk through the design and provide definition around all of the assignments, including the syntopical readings. Each facilitator has his or her own ideas and preferences when it comes to specific assignments. The facilitator will also appreciate your input. Remember, if you're unclear about something, then it will probably be unclear to the participants. Ask questions. Repeat back what you think was said. Then get to work.

The writing team may want to look over examples of syntopical reading assignments to get some ideas for how they will write the assignment. However, it is key that anyone working on the syntopical reading assignments work from the same template and that the assignments be handled consistently.

If you want to review examples, go to the Syntopical Reading Examples page by clicking on the appropriate button at the top of this column or on this link.

As you work on an assignment, review the readings if available. Glancing through the books and/or articles will enable you to recognize some of the key points. This can suggest questions that will get the participants to consider some of the relevant aspects of the syntopical reading. Be careful, though. Your questions should not lead them to answers. You should be facilitating them to draw their own conclusions.

Also, pay attention to the language you are using. It is one of your most powerful facilitation tools. What effect will your language have in moving them toward a successful outcome — in this module AND in the overall event?

Remember, the key to writing team success is rapid iteration. The more iterations, the better. If the readings haven't been collected yet, don't let it stop you from doing what you can until you have a chance to look at them. That is why pre-writing helps. It gives you one or more additional cycles of iterations.

A final note about pre-writing. If you have political, moral, or other objections to pre-writing, then don't do it. The writing at the event can be accomplished without pre-writing. Nevertheless, I will keep you in my prayers.