5 Learnings from 5 Years Running Workshops

Dominic Wong
Nov 22, 2018 · 7 min read

At Invoke, workshops are our foundation. They are the starting point of our work building digital products with companies — no matter what size or stage they’re at.

We’ve been running them for five years with companies like Boeing, Arc’teryx, Grant Thornton, Luvo, Finning, Vancouver Club, Toyota, and more. The learnings they’ve helped us generate have gone on to shape the direction of the products we build with our clients.

Trying our hand at the Google Ventures Design Sprint model four years ago.

What do workshops at Invoke look like?

Workshops bring everyone on a product team together to participate in activities and exercises that uncover expert knowledge, inspiration, and access the collective intelligence of the group. We use a variety of workshops to kickstart different phases within projects. Every time we run a workshop, it is individually geared to the organization we’re working with, but they fall under these core types.

Discovery + Onboarding: These workshops help us understand a new customer segment, an applicable technological innovation, a change in the competitive landscape, or any other foundational understanding that may initiate the project.

Business Model + Value Prop Canvas: Designing a business model and its value propositions are crucial to defining any product. Our Business Model, Lean and Value Proposition Canvases are ideal for cataloguing concepts, and assessing how they will be operationalized, positioned, and brought to market.

Persona + User Journey: While nothing replaces talking to users, we use personas and user journeys to establish a preliminary vision that can be validated through research. These workshops uncover the user needs and behaviours that personas are based on and map their experience with the product to create a user journey.

Hypothesis: Hypothesis generation and validation are core to our approach to product strategy. These sessions prioritize hypotheses against business and customer goals, giving us the ideas with the highest potential to conceptualize and test.

Event-Storming: These workshops map out a product’s supporting technological ecosystem. We run activities that identify key events, actions, data, and external systems to provide a coherent view of requirements for what has to be built.

Design Sprint: We identify key pain points in the user journey and reimagine them as new and improved experiences using rapid ideation, storyboarding, critiques, decision making, and user interview preparation.

Many sources influenced the development of our workshop process: IDEO’s design kit, Hyper Island’s toolbox, a multitude of service design methods, and Jake Knapp — who ran and popularized design sprints at Google/GV. Naturally, when DesignBetter.co announced a design sprint workshop in Seattle with Jake Knapp, we jumped at the chance.

Having facilitated design sprint workshops before, this was a chance to participate, learn and glean insights from the nuances of how Jake ran a design sprint. After the workshop (and meeting Jake), a time of reflection got us thinking about how we’ve improved all of our workshops over the last five years.

An Event-Storming workshop with the Vancouver Club

How we’ve learned to run better workshops

Every new workshop is a chance to learn and refine, but here are five methods we’ve used at Invoke to plan workshops that run smoothly and deliver more insights.

1. Get everyone participating with preparation work.

The prototypical Design Sprint is five days long, but it can be challenging to have the resources to pull this off. Getting stakeholders for five days is difficult, and even if you do, they have other things to check in on and manage throughout the week. We suggest shorter timelines — and Jake himself noted that many companies are now running four-day design sprints.

To stay productive in a short timeline, it is helpful to have workshop participants do preparation work. When people have something small to do, it gives them concrete ideas to bring to the table. This sets expectations and gets everyone accustomed to sharing — driving further collaboration throughout the workshop.

Suggestion: Ask participants to review some competitors and best-in-class experiences before coming to a workshop. This gives the team a common language and helps them identify areas of value, whitespace in the industry, and other points that align to their business.

2. Go slower, and focus on what matters.

In the past, we have sometimes tried to do too much. When a room is full of smart and influential stakeholders that are focused on the product, it’s tempting to pack in activities that cover as much ground as possible.

However, more isn’t always better. The more you pack in, the more drained everyone is for the last activity of the day — which can often be a vital piece that connects everything together. Taking your time and working through at a more relaxed pace not only keeps the room happy and energized, it gives you time to sit with your thoughts.

Suggestion: Provide moments for planned reflection throughout the day. The conversations and subconscious thoughts that bubble up in reflection give you the answers to questions that you hadn’t even thought of asking.

3. Set a goal. Refer back to the goal. Revise the goal.

One issue with design sprints and workshops is that people don’t know what comes next. Counter this by setting a goal for the product at the beginning of the workshop. With a clearly stated goal, we can not only work towards it during the workshop, but also have a north star that guides us from concept through to build.

Equally important is revisiting the goal whether at the end of a workshop, a week of research, or user testing. If something new is discovered, revise the goal based on these learnings, get buy-in from the team, and then get back to work.

Suggestion: Use an activity that helps you construct a one-sentence goal statement. Ensure it answers the question “what impact do we want our product to have?” Discuss this together when you come up with it, and revisit it again at the end of your workshop.

4. Get technical and make a plan.

During our early workshops, we found that people often have a hard time connecting the results of a design workshop to technical requirements. That’s why we take our goals a step further and dive into not just what the product will accomplish, but how it will come to life.

Address this by involving the tech team in workshops. Include dependencies and requirements in the user journey, add flags for feasibility, and get started creating user stories and epics. These plans turn abstract ideas into concrete ones, making the team ready to create a detailed plan, prioritize features, and immediately start iterating on the product.

Suggestion: Start tracking dependencies and creating a backlog during your workshop. This gives you tangible lists that both leadership and development can look at to understand how the product will be brought to life.

5. Take the time to ideate as an individual before sharing and reflecting.

Group brainstorms have a tendency to influence an entire room in one direction. We can prevent this by bringing individual ideating and reflection to the process. Jake Knapp refers to this idea as “working individually, but together.”

In the past, we had everyone do activities together. It looks like collaboration, but it results in disorientation, people feeling unheard, and simply takes up more time. When we brief everyone together, allow them to do the activity on their own, then bring the results together to share, discuss, and decide we eliminate many sources of bias and groupthink.

Suggestion: When sketching a potential feature or interface, we often have participants make sketches individually, and then bring them back to the group. You can gain further insights by sending everyone off to do the sketches again. When they come back, you can see the elements from the first round of sketches that resonated with the group, and its overall evolution.

What has helped you?

Do you run workshops in your digital product work? Speaking with other workshop runners during our time with Jake Knapp was informative, and hearing more from the experience of people across industries can only help us all improve and get better.

As for these learnings, they’ve helped our workshops become even more impactful and beneficial. We extend many or these philosophies to our daily work. We say that our office is a workshop, not a showroom — we show each other and our clients the rough drafts, harness our collective ideas, and collaborate to find solutions that make products that are smart, useful, and feel like magic.

If you’re interested in seeing what a workshop can do for your organization, give us a shout.

At Invoke, we partner with world-class brands and startups to create the next generation of digital products. Learn more about what we do at our website or by following us on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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