The Thinkathon

Facilitated thinking powered by nibbly snacks

Doug Belshaw
Solidarity for Slackers


Let’s face it: most traditional brainstorming sessions within organisations are pretty useless. Whether it’s because of power politics or groupthink, new actionable ideas are as rare as rocking horse poo. We focus on what’s safe instead of what’s necessary or useful. One way to avoid these situations turning into a complete waste of time is to try a twist, like the Note and Vote process favoured by Google Ventures.

An even better option is to try a ‘Thinkathon’ which is an approach pioneered by wapisasa. It’s ‘facilitated thinking’ and summed up well by Bryan Mathers’ drawing at the top of this post.

I’ve run a couple of Thinkathons with Bryan over the last few months and experienced first-hand just how powerful they can be. In fact, earlier this month I realised that I needed a ‘mini’ Thinkathon to focus on the future of Dynamic Skillset, my consultancy business!

The Process

Ordinarily, Thinkathons last from 10am until about 4pm, with a break for lunch. The facilitators will have done some preparation beforehand, then on the day they meet with three or four people from the organisation who has requested the Thinkathon. Afterwards, the facilitators package up what was captured during the day into actionable next steps.

But what exactly happens during the Thinkathon itself? Well, a lot of ‘grazing’ for a start! To keep energy levels up, the facilitators bring along nibbly snacks such as M&Ms, grapes, peanuts — anything easily eaten while thinking and talking. The group define a number of problems and areas of focus, then the facilitators ask hard questions, capturing the outputs both visually and in text form.

The specifics are unique to each Thinkathon. Some go very wide. Others go very deep. Some do a bit of both. What always happens is that the facilitators help people in the room see the problem behind the problem. Once that’s been established then they move onto the next problem, or work through some steps towards a solution.

What often happens is that you start off in one place, move to another, head off at tangents and down rabbit holes, and then back to where you started from. However, just like the hero in Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, you return back to a familiar situation but with new eyes! The journey, with all of its twists and turns, has changed the way you see the problem. If not solved, you’ve certainly got new tools to approach it.

The Dynamic Skillset (mini) Thinkathon

The Thinkathon I requested from Bryan was slightly different to the usual full-day approach. For a start, because I’m a one-man band at the moment, it was only me representing Dynamic Skillset. Also, because Bryan and I work together so often, we already had a lot of the ‘spade work’ done in terms of background and planning. To provide some much-needed objectivity I invited Eylan Ezekiel to join us. His deep knowledge of education and expertise around business development was invaluable.

Ravensbourne College, London

We met up at Ravensbourne College, which is not only where wapisasa is based, but also the home of the annual Mozilla Festival. It’s a wonderful venue for anything creative! We set aside an afternoon for the mini Thinkathon: three hours from 1pm to 4pm last Wednesday. Creativity isn’t just sticking colourful post-it notes on walls — an important part of it involves discipline and process. That’s why we zoomed in and out of ideas, continually moving forward while our ideas morphed and evolved.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about what we discussed, as I want to respect the fact that it impacts people who have yet to make firm decisions. What I can share is that Bryan and Eylan expertly helped me to turn an emerging vision into tangible and actionable next steps. This will make Dynamic Skillset sustainable, open, and (even more) collaborative. It’s ramping things up and taking them to the next level.

We talked about going beyond ‘getting your ducks in a row’ to ‘having self-organising ducks’. We dived into the origin of the work that I’ve done so far. We explored the possible structures for the business going forward. As happens with every Thinkathon I’ve been involved in, I was mentally exhausted by the time we’d finished!


I’d highly recommend some facilitated thinking by way of a Thinkathon. Whether your problem seems like a minor irritation or a Gordian Knot, it’s always useful to set time aside to work with people who can bring some fresh perspectives!

Bryan Mathers in full flow

Note: Bryan is available for hire to do visual thinkery with you and your organisation. You may also be interested in product ideation and/or business development in the education space — in which case Eylan Ezekiel is your man. Both come highly recommended from me.

Finally, just a reminder that I’m currently helping clients mainly around identifying, developing, and credentialing digital skills. I’m also a dab hand at digital strategy. If I can help, then get in touch!