Written by: Kirsten Williams; Edited By: Denisse Albornoz

Pretend a tornado ripped through the room, leaving it soooo messy. What happens when you ask a group of young researchers to fix it as they want?

The first step in taking ownership of the research process, is to learn how to co-create a common working space.

Our experience using this technique:

The Messy Room - Research TechniqueWe used this technique during our first day of a training course on Participatory Action Research (PAR) in Colombia. We watched participants nervously enter the space in its disastrous state. A look of confusion crossed their faces while we giggled – equally nervous to see if it would work out. Once they all settled uncomfortably on the floor, we asked them the first question: so, how are you all feeling? Seeing them sufficiently awkward, we asked them to recreate the space in the way they want. We put a song on and they started reorganizing.

For us, it was an important way to get participants involved in co-creating space, as a first act of taking ownership in the research process.

Research and Development:

What are we trying to understand about the community?
We are observing the kinds of spaces that make participants feel most comfortable. We are observing how they are able to find a collective vision around creating a space, how they work together, and how they interact. This also gives us a sense of how a group understands power dynamics within the process we are about to start (do they set up the room so that we sit on the floor, or do they set it up in a traditional ‘teacher-student’ classroom style?).
Why is it important for the community’s development?
It’s important to give people ownership of the space they’re in. If people walk into a pre-arranged space, they walk into a space that is not theirs. We want to change the tone, and put them in the steering seat from the get go.
At what stage(s) of the research cycle is this method used?
You introduce this technique at the very beginning since you’re setting up the space for the process to start.

Benefits and Challenges

What are the benefits of using this technique?
This exercise encourages people to play with and take ownership of the space. It gets people to start working together in the first few minutes of a workshop and it’s a lot of fun! For the facilitators it’s also the opportunity to get a read on the vibe of the group (are they shy? Playful?)
What are the challenges of using this technique?
You have to be ok with awkwardness.

The Messy Room - Research Technique

Here is a photo of Gioel coping with participants stepping in and acting awkward.


What do I need?
Take whatever is in the room and throw it all over. Make the room absurdly messy.
How long does it take?
10 minutes (or as long as people take to enter the space)
  1. Make the room really messy (before people arrive to the workshop)
  2. Watch participants walk into the room and say nothing, act as if everything is normal.
  3. When everybody has arrived, tell participants: as you can see, this room is really messy! Do you mind re-arranging it in the way you’d like to work in it today? Give them 5 to 10 minutes.
  4. Put on a fun playlist!
  5. When they are done, ask them about the experience.
    • How was it to organize the room?
    • Why do you think we do this? (Comment on the importance of space)


How to adapt the technique
If used in a training on participatory research/facilitation it can be used to stress that space does matter in workshop settings.
You can do two rounds of this exercise: one with and one without music to talk about the power of music in getting people energized.
Tips and Traps :
You can ask participants to do this exercise various times within a workshop as an icebreaker and to change the vibe of the room. Put good music on while they are re-arranging the room. Put a song you know participants like and gets them going.

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