8 Steps to running a successful Design Thinking workshop

Hands on Design Thinking workshops are increasingly gaining in popularity as a new way to teach professionals how to problem solve. Workshops run from 2 hours to 1 week and typically begin by understanding a real problem and the customer’s needs, generating a large number of ideas, building lo-fidelity prototypes of ideas, and testing ideas with customers.

Design challenges may vary from imagining the next generation of a new medical device to reimagining the corporate strategy in a time of technological change. Despite the proliferation of these workshops, there is little information about how to run one successfully. So how do you do it?

Over the last 19 years, I have led hundreds design thinking workshops with children to c-suite executives and across all industries such as consumer products, e-commerce, healthcare, software, entertainment, finance, and more. Regardless of the participants’ age or the industry, I have learned to consider the following 8 points:

1.Set objectives: Beyond generating new products and services for your organization, there are many reasons one might lead a design thinking workshop including strengthening beliefs about creative ability, supporting a sense of progress, reframing failure as an opportunity for learning (Gerber & Carroll, 2011), and/or gaining insights and buyin from customers and consumers. Once decided, clearly state outcomes at the start of the workshop and review the objectives again at the end.

2. Pre-scope the problem: Successful workshops based on real world problems depend on well scoped projects that are specific enough to be tackled and exciting enough to motivate participation. For example, trying to redesign human resources at an organization is exciting but not specific whereas as trying to redesign the hiring experiences for new female graduates in tech is both specific and exciting.

3. Prepare materials: Using approachable and common materials lowers the barrier for all participants “to build.” Gather everyday material around the office as well as craft material used by children. As a start, consider pulling together the following: stack of colored construction paper; stack of white copy paper; scissors (1 pair per 3–4 people); scotch tape (1 role per 3–4 people); stapler (1 per 10 people); yarn (1 skein per 50 people); popsicle sticks; one roll of tinfoil; plastic bowls/plastic cups; colored markers; box of crayons (1 box of 12 per 3–4 people); pipe cleaners; playdough (1 3oz. container per person).

4. Prepare space: Allow space for moving around the room — especially during the building and sharing stages. Place all material on a shared table, equally accessible to all participants. Encourage participants to use the room and furniture itself as “materials for building.” Play energetic music while welcoming participants to the workshop and while building. Personally, I like to play pop music from the 80s and 90s.

5. Warm Up: Start with a warm up exercise to allow people time to transition from the previous task into the workshop. You may consider starting with telling the story of your name or perhaps by playing ball with the team.

6. Establish Time constraints: Set the expectation that the workshop will feel rushed and that participants will move ahead without having all of the answers. There’s a trade-off between time spent on developing solutions and sharing outcomes.

7. End with reflection: A design thinking workshop can go from an interesting activity to a interesting and meaningful activity with a thoughtful reflection. Aim to draw design principles for the solutions and the process in the reflection.

8. Document: Without distracting from the participants, take photos of the ideas generated and activity throughout. Sharing these photos after the workshop reminds participants of their ideas generated and their ability to use design thinking in their day to day work.

Of course, running a great workshop also demands domain expertise in design and teaching which comes with practice, practice, practice, but these 8 steps will start you off on the right track.