Thinking about workshops

Reflecting on ‘workshop life’

Santini Basra
Jan 8, 2020 · 6 min read

In my job (particularly in the first couple of years of Andthen) I seem to facilitate a lot of workshops. I struggle to count them, but I think I’ve facilitated or co-facilitated around 100 workshops, from small 4 person client workshops to large scale 50+ person stakeholder engagement workshops. I’ve also attended my fair share of workshops, observing and learning from others’ approaches.

Recently someone suggested I write a guide to running workshops — after plenty of ‘umming and ahhing,’ I decided that instead of writing a ‘guide’ (as I don’t think there is a ‘right way’ to run workshops), I would try and collect a series of reflections, learnings, and suggestions, and do my best to make them as practical as possible. I’ve organised these here in four sections — on workshop design, on workshop setup, on getting good results, and on working in sensitive environments.

On Workshop Design

In scenario building workshops we often design clear and structured tools, as participants aren’t usually used to scenario building and futures thinking. However in other contexts, a more open-ended approach can be preferable, usually soliciting a more diverse response to the workshop task.

The physicality of the workshop

Consider the physicality of the workshop you are designing — is it useful for it to be meticulously designed, or much more informal and stripped back? Stripped back workshops with little visible design give participants more room to be creative and take more ownership of the tasks you’re assigning. Visibly designed workshops tend to suit situations where what you need to achieve is very focussed and you need to reassure participants in an approach they aren’t familiar with.

This workshop had four distinct phases; Stimulus, 1st order, 2nd order and 3rd order consequences. We were able to revisit this diagram throughout the workshop to help participants understand how the parts of the workshop related to one another, and how far through the process they were.

The shape of the workshop

Before kicking off, it’s important for participants to understand the ‘shape’ of the workshop, and how it fits into a wider project. For instance, a workshop could be about making decisions and narrowing down, about pushing thinking further and further, or else it could be split into several distinct separate phases. Create some kind of visual metaphor or diagram which helps them understand what the workshop is about, how it is structured, and how far through it they are.

Don’t ‘drag and drop’

We’ve attended plenty of workshops where participants have been forced through ‘dragged and dropped’ activities that don’t completely make sense to their specific challenge — usually this is because the facilitation team are tight on time, and have recycled a previous workshop or cobbled it together out of some ill-fitting tools and activities. Tailoring each workshop goes a long way to making participants feel that their time is valued, and to creating rich and relevant outputs and outcomes.

On Workshop Setup

An example cheat sheet, which covered things like what to pack, what to say and when, likely sticking points, and key timings. Extremely helpful if there are multiple facilitators, or if you are likely to repeat aspects of the workshop!

Make a cheat sheet

Before every workshop, create a document for yourself and any other facilitators which gives a rundown of what’s going to happen, and what you need to do at every stage of the workshop. This might include things like what materials and stationary you need to pack, how long everything is meant to take, and tips for helping people if they are stuck.

Set the ground rules

At the beginning of the workshop, set some ground rules to get your participants in the right frame of mind. For instance, ‘done is better than perfect,’ ‘no idea is a bad idea,’ or ‘suspend your disbelief.’ These should give them a good sense of your expectations and priorities.

On our guiding slides, we make sure that there is a description of the task (which usually reiterates what you’ve said verbally), a clear indication of the time allowed, and ideally some kind of visual cue to help explain what you’re asking.

Use guiding slides

Having a set of slides which backs up what you’re saying goes a long way to helping get the most out of participants. When introducing a new task, put up a slide which reiterates what you’ve just said for participants to refer back to.

On Getting Good Results

Examples of cards which summarised the research from a particular project. These had a brief title on one side, and then went into more detail about the observations, sources, and other relevant data points on the back.

Think about inputs

What information do participants need to help them through your workshop, and what is the most friendly way to deliver those inputs. For instance, if you need participants to review a large body of research, can you break that research up into small chunks and present it to them through a deck of cards rather than a dense research presentation?

Design the experience for your clients

You may find yourself in situations where your client doesn’t have a clear role in a workshop — in these moments, it’s extremely important to design their experience. Do you want them to hear what’s said, do you want to upskill them in workshop facilitation, or do you simply want them to stay away? Your client is an important stakeholder in the workshop — think about their experience in a way that’s different from your participants and your own.

Design a better way to collect notes

Particularly in workshops that have a research component, you may find yourself needing to collect a large amount of data to synthesise. Treat this data collection as a design challenge — how might you collect what you need without needing to take notes on the conversations of every participant in the room?

On Working in Sensitive Environments

It’s all in the framing

One of the biggest factors to success in a workshop is to frame it properly. If participants know exactly why they are attending, what they are expected to do, and what their input will contribute towards before they even enter the room, it will go a very long way towards running a successful workshop.

Sub-facilitators are often a luxury, but where possible can be extremely helpful (especially if you brief them properly) to manage participants, take notes, and keep conversations on topic.

Make good use of sub-facilitators

When working with large groups, and particularly in sensitive environments or with diverse communities, it can be really helpful to work with sub-facilitators. They should be equally distributed around the room, and their goal should be to manage conversations, making sure no one individual is dominating a conversation.

Make sure facilitators are impartial

Where possible, try and make sure facilitators aren’t too personally involved in the subject matter being addressed. This helps them remain impartial and helps them listen to all parties without judgement, but makes it easier to keep the conversation moving.

Create room for individual issues

Often when working with sensitive issues, participants may arrive at a workshop with an agenda to share their point of view at the expense of failing to meaningfully engage with any planned group activities or discussions. It’s extremely important to create space for individuals to voice these issues, but it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t invade others’ workshop experience. Consider including an activity at the beginning which creates space to flush out these individual ‘burning issues.’

To Conclude

These learnings have had a big role in helping us develop an approach to running workshops at Andthen which we’re proud of, but really through all of our experiences, I realised that there was one final learning which may be the most important:

There’s a world beyond workshops

Workshops aren’t the be-all and end-all of innovation. They often become the go-to mechanism, so as a provocation to you — think about whether a ‘workshop’ is what you need, or whether there are other ways to address your challenge.

Andthen

We’re designers researching the future — what it could be, and what people want it to be.

Andthen

We’re designers that research. In particular, we research the future — what it could look like, and what people want it to like.

Santini Basra

Written by

Futures dork, who runs a team of designers that are researching the future at Andthen. Gets excited about inclusive visioning, and applied futures thinking.

Andthen

We’re designers that research. In particular, we research the future — what it could look like, and what people want it to like.