Analyst’s corner
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Analyst’s corner

Nine simple yet effective tweaks to transform workshops into better change

“What a workshop — a refreshing change from the usual waste of time! They listened so well that I can see how my opinion is going to influence the change for my team.”

Jane keeps an ear out for comments about business readiness. Leaders from each operational team aren’t shy to provide their feedback! Their opinions are useful for Jane to tweak her change approach. While some of the input has an emotional component, Jane listens out for a rational argument. She seeks to understand the source of an operational leader’s venting. Careful note-taking creates useful data for discussion by her team later on. Jane separates leader feedback into three categories, or ‘buckets’:

  1. What is working;
  2. What isn’t;
  3. What leaders (and their employees) would like to see.

These categories tie to her change goal and ‘success criteria’ for each team involved. She also keeps an ear out for three things. Terminology, assumptions, and narrative around current and future state benefits/features. Jane takes her notes in-session and shares them with participants to ensure accurate reflections. Even when running workshops for groups of people, her notes display on the projector behind her. She adds to her notes mid-session. Her audiences don’t seem to mind!

In one workshop, she invited three dozen participants. While she had her presentation on-screen, she used a simple Notepad application on her system to record participant notes. Her idea was to present a few concepts, then launch into the workshop component. The use of Notepad transformed a monologue into a dialogue. She also found that she could lead the conversation with all participants rather than break participants into groups. By the end of her workshop, she had useful, structured notes. Andrew, the Business Analyst on her project team, also took notes during the workshop, albeit with a technical focus.

Not all stakeholders are equal (in Jane’s book). So she considers the perceptions of influential stakeholders with more weight. Jane also pays close attention to change-related behaviours she can measure. For example, readership statistics for her communications, how many people viewed her explainer video, accessed her project’s site, attended training or used the new system.

As her project passes go-live, Jane monitors helpdesk call frequency and topics related to her project.

Workshop readiness tweaks

Market researchers, User Experience (UX) professionals and Business Analysts (BAs). Each is a sister discipline to organisational change management. Each discipline may have useful insights for change professionals. These insights include how to get the most from workshops (for both participants and workshop leaders). They may also have a rigorous way to capture and analyse workshop ‘data’.

Market researchers are well-versed in translating participant feedback into useful insights. Their statistical training extends to survey design and analysis. Their qualitative research specialisation is useful. It enables ‘qual researchers’ to link comments to themes. They summarise themes and draft valuable reports for their client.

UX professionals show their capacity to walk in their user’s shoes. They transform user feedback into cleverly designed user interfaces and service experiences.

Business Analysts are experts in eliciting and capturing user requirements. They discern between technical and business requirements. BAs act as the interface between ‘the business’ and technical build teams.

But how does this relate to change professionals?

“Lean Change Management moves the slider for managing change from using plan-driven approaches to feedback-driven approaches” — Jason Little, Lean Change Management ¹

How strong are you in this area? Transforming what others think about the future state into a sharper, informed change plan and deliverables.

So there are three different skills that all change professionals should have a decent grasp of:

  • Eliciting “intelligence” about your change, be it through artful questions on a survey or in person;
  • Capturing/organising this “intelligence” as raw data ready for transformation;
  • Transforming raw data.

I have facilitated hundreds of workshops over at least a fifteen-year timeframe. Workshops (for me) include change-related forums, training sessions, introducing user acceptance testing, webinars, system demonstrations, and recruitment drives for change champions.

By making mistakes, and honing my “workshop” skills, I started to identify three components to each workshop:

  • Before: what I can put in place in the lead-up to the workshop (beyond foundational elements like invitations);
  • During: tweaks on my workshop delivery;
  • After: my chance to build relationships with participants after the workshop, and transform what I learned into action.

The matrix in the image below forms a checklist of suggestions at each stage of workshop delivery.

Source: Allan Owens,

Nine ‘tweaks’: participant intel into change effectiveness

Let’s follow the nine ‘tweaks’ (well, nine categories of ‘tweaks’) in the above image. Above all, how are you getting the most out of each participant’s time? Will they leave your workshop believing their time was well-spent? Suppose you were to invite colleagues across the organisation to the same workshop. Would your participant believe their time is also well-spent?

One: Workshops can quickly focus on requirements-gathering or complaints. OK, so there may be a little of both in the most well-run change-related workshops. But… have you a clear scope for your workshop? Have you defined what it is and isn’t? What ‘answers’ do your change plan and deliverables need? Therein lie your questions — which then becomes your workshop agenda. Carefully consider whom you want to invite. I prefer to ask the employees doing the actual work or directly using the future state. Their manager in the room may stifle open conversation.

Also, what tools do you need to answer your questions? Is a workshop essential? You have access to a range of research options. For example, Micah Bowers UX Research Methods and the Path to User Empathy ² illustrates may user research methods available. Matt Adams provides 38 different ways to find answers from stakeholders ³. Between these two information sources alone, you have a powerful arsenal of ‘business research’ techniques. These techniques don’t need arcane statistical knowledge or lengthy training either. The image below shows a range of change-related research methods. The dichotomy I used doesn’t always show that a workshop is the best tool to find the information you need.

Source: Allan Owens,

Two: When planning your workshop, think about your outcome: how would you like to transform what you learn from participants into better change? One powerful insight has stuck with me. Early in a project’s lifecycle, all we have to provide stakeholders is a concept. Concepts are too broad and nebulous for many stakeholders. The ambiguity or misunderstandings cause undue stress. Where did this insight strike me? Sitting in so… many… system requirements gathering sessions. Asking stakeholders about what a future state should look like, fueled mostly by imagination? No wonder a future state is so hard for many stakeholders to agree on.

“Watching a demo is fundamentally different from actually using the product.” — Jakob Nielsen ⁴

But offer tangible aspects of the future state? For example, system walkthroughs seem to quell participant anxiety. Let’s translate this insight into our change-related workshop delivery. Can you give your workshop participants a future state ‘proof of concept’ to explore or ‘play’ with?

Three: Before running your first workshop, stop. Plan how you will transform stakeholder data into better change planning and deliverables. You will need to ‘code’ each stakeholder comment with a theme. Themes help break down volumes of data into something manageable. Also, will others in your team take notes during your workshop? If so, what is their focus? Can you cross-examine each other’s notes after each workshop?

Four: Many change professionals will likely turn their noses up at this. “Hang on, if I’m facilitating a session, you expect me also to take notes… in session?”

Yep. It can be done. Start your workshop with a brief presentation. Then shift from monologue to dialogue mode ⁵. I use Notepad, a wonderfully daggy yet practical application on my computer. I ‘unpresent’ PowerPoint, and have Notepad on screen on top of PowerPoint. I ask everyone if they are happy if I note their comments and cover what I will do with these notes after the session. As I take brief notes, my stakeholders see what I’m adding. I want them to see what is being noted and seek their clarification. My participants and I are starting to co-create. The following points need empathy and mindfulness. Mindfulness of nuances in a participant’s tone, words and ‘unspoken meaning’. When someone speaks, do they apply weight to some words? What words do they use to describe business processes, your new way of working, and other key elements about your change? Can you probe into the weighted words and terminology? Check your understanding at appropriate intervals.

Five: Yes, timings are important — especially your monologue at the start. If you have many colleagues presenting, ensure they stick to their times. During workshop dialogue, seek to keep your topic discussions on time. Timing and other obvious workshop hygiene points are well-covered. Yet an important principle I use in my workshops: Participants should be speaking around 80% of the time (during the dialogue part of your workshop).

Anything less than 80%, and it does make me doubt: are you getting the most out of your participants’ time? Yes, they turned up to learn about the future state. Participants may seek your project team’s clarification on specific points. But they are there to provide their views and listen to peer opinions. Are your participants walking out of your workshop feeling heard?

Six: In many counselling clinics, counsellors show their client a drawing of a model. A model of the client’s issue which brought them to therapy. When clients see an accurate model of their presenting issue, they may get a shock… in a good way! This overview of their issue shows how parts act as a ‘system’ which feeds and maintains their problem. This realisation can be part of the catalyst for a client wanting to change.

In short, a spotlight on their ‘system’ causing them distress leads to insight, which may lead to change. So don’t be afraid to reflect your audience’s thoughts, feelings and likely behaviours. Try it on a whiteboard or screen. Post-it notes or PowerPoint boxes and arrows can do the trick. You may find my article on ‘psychoanalysing organisational change’ helpful. This article contains many templates or approaches for change professionals. These approaches are different ways to elicit stakeholder thoughts and feelings about your future state.

But tread carefully when examining participants’ future state beliefs. Certain beliefs and sayings become dogma. It’s risky to challenge fondly-held beliefs. Can you discern between evidence/fact and these strongly-held beliefs? You don’t have to overturn people’s strongly-held convictions. Instead, how do you work with these beliefs in shaping your change?

Seven to nine: You have spent a short, intense time with participants. It takes tonnes of energy to run a workshop, manage topic timings and crystallise conversations into a series of neat points. Yet, you’ve done it. Participants respected your calm, reassuring demeanour when robust discussions took place. You accurately reflected participant sentiment about the future state.

Participants believe their time was well-spent and felt heard. What next? In your experience, how many workshop participants receive follow-up emails? Some? OK. How many see the progress made on in-session feedback? A smaller percentage?

But how do workshop facilitators turn incredible amounts of input into a neat group of action items and other points to progress? They link each feedback point to a theme. There may be two to twelve themes — a manageable number. Check out my video on ‘melding creativity and analytics’. This one-minute video may help you think about themes or ‘buckets’ to manage complexity.


Workshops are one of many ways to elicit feedback, learn and energise your stakeholders. But how do you avoid a dull, draining experience for your stakeholders? Research techniques from professionals in allied disciplines are now at your fingertips. Not to mention nine ‘tweaks’ to get the most out of any attempt to elicit participant information. You may already have the right approaches in place and run an excellent workshop. Are you taking the next steps and providing participants with a sense of progress? How has participant feedback informed your project’s risks/issues register… and better change?

Your call to action

How are you facilitating your workshops — with panache and respect for every stakeholder’s time and opinion? Is your workshop post-game strong? Are you adroitly translating fact/opinion/self-report on thoughts/feelings/behaviours into commercially-useful outcomes? Or not?

Striving to become a better change leader? Allied disciplines like public relations, management consulting, and marketing research have much to teach change professionals. As do ways of thinking like systems thinking, behavioural economics, political activism and design thinking.

Learn how these allied disciplines can build your change toolkit. My book — The Change Manager’s Companion — is available now. You can also check out my online course on Change Management.

Reference List

1. Little J. Lean Change Management: Innovative Practices for Managing Organizational Change. Happy Melly Express; 2014.

2. Bowers M. UX Research Methods and the Path to User Empathy.

3. Adams M. 38 Inspiring detailed Requirements Gathering Techniques, Tools. Business Analyst Guru. Published 2015.

4. Nielsen J. Focus Groups in UX Research: Article by Jakob Nielsen. Nielsen Norman Group. Published 1997.

5. Frahm J. So just what is change communication? — Conversations of Change. Published 2010.



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