Workshops can be a lot of fun, potentially. Just about every client project we take on at Topp includes at least one workshop, and some of the most productive, challenging and ultimately satisfying experiences I’ve had in my creative career have occurred there. A workshop can also be complete train wreck, and I’ll admit having experienced one or two of those as well.
The difference largely comes down to planning, preparation, and setting expectations. A workshop is a design challenge, just like a great UI or a genre-busting new product is. And like any design challenge, reaching a successful outcome takes smart standard practices as well as the creativity and flexibility to fit those practices to the people you’re working with.
As the team at Topp grows, it’s become clear that we need to codify some of the things that separate the great workshops from the train wrecks, especially since our backgrounds and skillsets are so diverse. So over the past couple of years we’ve put serious effort into the identifying the traits that the good ones share, and turning those into insights.
Here are seven that we’ve found especially valuable:
1 — Set context before you do anything else.
It can be tempting to immediately start planning out activities and shopping for Post-its , but much of the hard work of facilitation starts even before that. To get the most out of a workshop, there are a few questions you need to ask:
- Who will be in in the room? Do they know each other already, or is getting-to-know-you part of the reason everyone’s there?
- What’s the purpose of the workshop? Are you building common understanding around a new project, or clarifying your position on a complex issue? Perhaps you need to generate new ideas, or evangelize a new technology or technique. Understanding this purpose — and communicating it to participants — is crucial. People like surprises, but not about the reason why they’re in your workshop.
- What outcomes are you expecting? This could be a collection of concepts or design directions, or a document outlining a plan of action. It could also be a shared emotion or understanding: enthusiasm about an initiative, for example, or a greater sense of trust. It’s important to develop these expectations alongside your clients and partners, and describe them explicitly to attendees once they’re set.
2 — Give it more time than you think.
For a short workshop of roughly one to three days, expect that the workshop itself will be less than 20% of your total time investment — our rule of thumb is to plan on 4.5 hours of planning and follow-up for every hour of workshop. In our experience, it breaks down like this:
This might seem like a lot of time spent not working with clients and stakeholders, but if you think of the workshop itself as the center of the process, rather than the endpoint or the entire thing, it makes a lot more sense. We’ll talk more about summarising and developing insights in a later post.
3 — Flow doesn’t happen on accident.
This might sound obvious, but flow often gets lost in the shuffle. When you’re planning out the different activities that are going to happen over the course of the day, makes sure they make sense as a whole, and not just as a series of independent exercises. One should lead naturally into the next: an icebreaker activity, for example, could leave you with a set of written notes that can be incorporated into a subsequent brainstorm exercise.
Linking activities in this way gives a sense of continuity and intention, which makes participants feel well taken care of. When workshops go off the rails, it’s often because they feel so disjointed that people lose faith.
4 — Generate artefacts.
“An artefact is a negotiation,” explains Kevin McDonald, a partner at argodesign — and that’s what makes them so useful. A workshop isn’t a presentation, which is defined by one-way communication. It’s an opportunity for exchange, and the best way to get people exchanging ideas and learning each others’ perspectives is to get them making things together.
This can be something intangible, like a service design map, or something very concrete, like a sketch model of a remote control. Ideally, your artefacts should serve some purpose for the client after the workshop is over, but even “frivolous” artefacts have value: they expose different points of view, focus discussion, and get people working in the same direction.
5 — Listen like the workshop depends on it.
If you’re the facilitator, you’re often the only one in the room who’s not actively producing or collaborating. So your job, when you’re not setting up for the next activity, is to listen.
Listen closely to the conversations people are having — not just what they’re saying but how they’re saying it.
- If several participants get frustrated or excited over a particular topic, make note of that.
- Try to identify who wields influence, and who has the most knowledge on particular topics (not always the same person).
- Let the insights you gain from listening shape how you lead subsequent activities.
This also means it’s usually worth identifying who made a particular comment, by jotting their initials down on the Post-it where it was captured. If certain initials show up frequently in particular clusters (during summary), you’ve identified a good candidate to own that initiative — just be sensitive to power dynamics, to make sure this doesn’t come across as nosy or judgemental.
6 — Good documentation takes good planning.
The experience of being in a workshop is a big part of its value, but a well-structured document of what happened makes it twice as useful. If you don’t plan for recording, summary and analysis (and set aside enough time to do it properly), you’re leaving valuable insights on the table.
- Before the workshop, help yourself and the participants by creating a format for writing out concepts or observations; for example, a simple form that includes space for a concept name, a sketch, and writing prompts like “the problem this addresses is…”, “this is innovative because…” etc. It also pays to have your tasks and questions prepared. They’re rarely as clear to others as they are to you, and inventing descriptions on the fly can lead to confusion.
- During the workshop, take copious notes (see “Listening”, above), and take lots of pictures. We’ll talk in more detail about good photography techniques for workshop documentation in a later post.
- After the workshop, set aside a long, uninterrupted block of time for sorting through its outcomes: artefacts, Post-its, and your own photographs and notes. Do this as quickly after the workshop as possible (the next day is great), so you can augment those documents with your own, fresh impressions. This is a strong argument for having two facilitators — it turns the review process into a conversation, helping you distinguish between what’s truly significant, and what’s just interesting to you.
7 — Learn to let go.
If you put a lot of people in a room together and ask them to come up with new ideas, you’re going to get a lot of new ideas, and some of them are going to be defy expectations. As a facilitator you need to be OK with that, and fight the urge to suppress or gloss over ideas that don’t “fit”.
This might sound at odds with the idea of setting context (see above), but it’s not: estimating outcomes is necessary for initial alignment, but that doesn’t mean every team needs to end up where you expected. An intentional departure from the plan, in fact, can be a powerful lesson, or unearth a useful insight or new direction for future work. But while the outcome of a creative workshop can sometimes be unpredictable, the process by which you get there shouldn’t.