Designing a Productive Workshop

Workshops are often one of two things:

1) A waste of everyone’s time.

2) Vastly productive and surprisingly insightful.

Workshops can be especially powerful tools for building cross-disciplinary alignment, generating new ideas, surfacing assumptions and jumpstarting efforts around a shared goal.

I’m outlining here a general framework to help you create #2: a workshop that’s productive, insightful and outcome-oriented! This framework is generalized for any sort of workshop design, from design thinking to content planning.

But first, a quick clarifier: Let’s not confuse workshops with meetings. Workshops are carefully designed to extract specific yet often latent knowledge, build consensus across teams and get us from Point A to Point B. Meetings are for status updates, CYAs and general chatter.

While there’s no perfect formula for leading a productive workshop, there are tactical methods that I’ve learned work best. Let's start by breaking down activities into four main categories:

  1. Define your goals

  2. Design the day

  3. Facilitate the conversation

  4. Distill what you learn

Step 1: Define Your Goals

If you start workshop prep by drafting an agenda, stop and pause. First, ensure you have a clear understanding of what you want to learn during the workshop and what you aim to achieve. Define your Learn Goals.

  • When you pack up at the end of the workshop, what information/insights MUST be in your pocket to move forward?

  • What questions MUST be answered?

  • How do you want participants to FEEL when they leave?

Workshops can often go off script (and this is totally ok), but you can never lose sight of what you’re there to achieve.

Document the most critical things you need to learn/acquire from the workshop. Ensure you’ve shared these goals with workshop participants so they understand why they’re in the room, and what you will accomplish together.

Step 2: Design Your Day

With your goals defined, start designing how you want the day to unfold by sketching a storyboard. Just like you’d storyboard a video or animation, sketch it out in chunks. Think through what makes sense from the perspective of a student in the classroom, or an audience watching a movie. Ask yourself:

  • What do we need to learn first as a building block for the next topic/session?

  • In a perfect world, how would I like the conversation to unfold?

  • Does anything need to be addressed/discussed first to get everyone on the same page?

With a high-level storyboard for the day, you can then begin specifying discussion topics, group exercises and individual activities. The final touch is adding time constraints around each, which then becomes your draft agenda.

Keep these considerations in mind as you’re finalizing the agenda:

  • Allocate time to “set the frame” for the day: an important primer of what participants can expect

  • Create a mix of small and large group activities

  • For individual exercises, be sure to account for discussion time afterward

  • Be mindful of cognitive load, and build in breaks

While workshops are meant to be conversational (not a presentation!), oftentimes a PowerPoint/Keynote presentation can help serve as a visual guide for participants. These simple slides may contain things like workshop goals and other wayfinding information for participants.

Finally, don’t forget the details of the workshop experience…the little (yet oh-so-important) things like handouts, post-its, dongles, sketch paper, etc.

Step 3: Facilitate the Conversation

The most important and challenging part of any workshop is facilitating the discussion, especially among participants with disparate points of view. As the facilitator, you are a sherpa of information, a translator and a conductor all at once.

There are no rules or standardized processes for workshop facilitation. Improv skills are important traits for a facilitator, something that’s honed with practice.

If you demonstrate confidence, focus on the critical “Learn Goals,” speak with clarity/volume, and show that you aren’t afraid to “look dumb” by throwing out untested questions/ideas/assumptions, you will succeed. Remember, your role as the facilitator is to get other people talking about the right things.

I’ll publish a separate post solely dedicated to the art of facilitation, but for now, here are some quick tips:

  • Always set up the “why” before introducing a new activity/topic

  • Don’t hesitate to pose questions back to participants (e.g. “What was the catalyst for that idea?”)

  • Have participants write responses individually and then share back to the larger group; this allows all voices to be heard

  • Create on-the-fly Whiteboard visuals/notes to help distill verbal information

  • Be ready to pivot the conversation!

  • If you feel the conversation stagnating or going in an unproductive direction, call for a 15-minute break to regroup

  • Put tangential topics in a list (i.e. the “Parking Lot”) for later to move the conversation forward

Step 4: Distill What You've Learned

Once you’ve caught your breath (facilitating is tiring!), capture a laundry list of the important things you learned, heard and observed during the workshop.

Now look for key themes. What are the key takeaways? What data from the workshop supports those key takeaways?

Refer back to your originally stated Learn Goals and ask yourself, “What do these takeaways mean to the team, project, or engagement? What now?”

Underneath each takeaway, capture immediate next steps and assign ownership of them. You can deliver your distillation summary to participants through a variety of formats (PowerPoint, a one pager, Slack channel), depending on the depth of the workshop and your communication preferences.

The most important element of distillation is taking what you accomplished during the workshop and translating that into next steps that will drive the project or engagement forward.