150 or 60 to 40: How I scaled up a workshop by cutting it down

The first worksheet we have participants work with asks them to provide six life experiences. That takes a lot of time — time we don’t have. Rather than have them share all six, I reduced it to two life experiences. This was just one of many ways in which we discovered how to do more with less. (Emi Kolawole)

When I think of experiential learning engagements I think of what it must be like to steer a cruise liner. The ship is comfortable and, while on board, passengers (i.e. workshop participants) should hardly be aware of the fact they are moving through rough, inhospitable seas even as they remain engaged in fun activities on the lido deck.

The prototype I ran using the two-experience model constrained to sticky notes. I now use this image in our slide presentation supporting the experience. (Emi Kolawole)

This is what it’s like to run a workshop d.school-style. It’s critical you keep in mind where you want your participants to go in terms of both their overall journey through the water and where they are onboard the cruise liner. You also need to know whether you’re in arctic or tropical seas and whether your passengers are enjoying shuffleboard or lounging in the pool. Time is also an important constraint, since you can’t sail on forever.

If you’ve ever done a d.school workshop, you know they can feel a bit rushed. We conduct them that way on purpose. The key is to feel the constraint of time, but learn to use it in your favor and get your creative energy flowing rather than have it paralyze you. Well-placed and well-managed time constraints aid creative energy and can be fun. That said, it’s important to allow enough time for individuals to share with one another and process what they learn.

In the case of ‘Designing for Worldview’, a workshop I have developed with Inclusion Ventures CEO and Founder Amy Lazarus, the full experience runs roughly two hours and thirty minutes in full. That time allows for full discussions of the life experiences that form one’s worldview, more time for participants to think and work with new concepts and more time for Amy and me to explain those concepts. It allows for a more complete introduction to design thinking and for Amy’s introduction to unconscious bias — both of which are critical to the overall experience.

We are learning, however, that two hours and thirty minutes is longer than most groups and organizations can give over to a single experience. Time is not in abundance, particularly for the people with whom we seek to work — busy professionals in areas such as media, technology and product design, among others. I discovered that, since the cruise trip would often need to be a short one, the activities on the boat would need to be just as engaging but even less than half as long.

That meant cutting out a lot — both to meet the needs of our upcoming audiences, but also to meet our own needs to remain flexible in presenting what we believe to be an important core concept: Everyone is creative; everyone has bias, and the universal trait of creativity can be used to address that of bias and improve people’s work and lives.

The process proved to be a difficult one in the beginning. How do you pare 150 minutes down into 60 or 45 minutes? The same editing mindset I apply to writing (primarily others’ and not my own, sadly) applied here. (If this is making you think of the Chicago hit “25 or 6 to 4”, feel free to hit “play” below.)

First, I cut down the experience while trying to retain the core of the activity. That meant starting with the worksheets. People would be called on to write down two life experiences and only explore one with a partner, rather than consider six experiences and explore two. That took about 20 minutes out of the timeline.

Everyone is creative; everyone has bias, and the universal trait of creativity can be used to address that of bias to improve people’s work and lives.

Then, I went after our prized ‘World Viewfinder’. There wasn’t enough time in either the 60-minute or the 40-minute timeframe to include it. As proud of it as we are, and as powerful as the journey through it stood to be (and has been) for people, it needed too much for people to fully experience it. It could still be used in longer workshops, but it would need to be translated into a faster, more flexible form factor.

That led me to the question of how participants used the underlying materials: sticky notes and pens. If the life experience worksheet was reduced to two sticky notes, and the ‘World Viewfinder’ only needed three — one to capture the people a partner might see more clearly, the second for ones they might see less clearly and the third for an idea of what their partner might do differently to be made more aware of their potential bias — then I could recreate the full experience with minimal explanation.

The sticky notes could rest on the table in whatever way participants wished to arrange them. The ideas and the conversations participants had were the real meat of the experience, not the worksheets. I had made the mistake of creating a precious prototype, and I had to let it go (at least in workshops where time was not in abundance).

The ‘World Viewfinder’ is the second worksheet in the series. It requires some time to go through, which, when the time is available, is a fruitful exercise. But, when the time is not available, it’s not the right fit for the overall experience. (Emi Kolawole)

The cutting continued as I edited down the introduction to our respective organizations, the d.school and Inclusion Ventures, and I eliminated the third and final prototyping worksheet, pushing people into the constraint of creating their prototype out of a single sticky note. If there happened to be low-resolution prototyping tools available, I could let them use those, but I would not make it a requirement. A sticky note is, in and of itself, a low-resolution prototyping material after all.

I now use this image in our slide presentation to show participants my own work to generate ideas around whom I, in this case, might see more or less clearly as a result of an experience. (Emi Kolawole)

The past couple of days have been a bit painful. Killing darlings and watching hours of past work slip into the rear-view mirror hurts. That’s the process though — that’s what design thinking is at the end of the day, at least to me. It’s a constant stream of work, whether you’re generating new ideas, creating quick prototypes and testing them or taking hours to process feedback. It takes time to pull everything together just as it does to engage in the equally important and difficult act of ripping it all apart to start over again and create a better product, service or experience for the people at the center of your design.

The third, and final, prototype worksheet, which I have eliminated in the shorter workshop versions and replaced with a phone screenshot to show the completed work (below). (Emi Kolawole)

In the end, I think the workshop is much stronger for our having taken it through this process. It is tighter and more focused on the individuals participating. Amy and I have more time to observe people’s reactions, answer questions get feedback and make needed changes. Our participants can focus on the cruise liner activities of learning new concepts, playing with new ideas, and tying threads together while they engage in the act of creating with simple, low-resolution tools. Meanwhile, we still get to take them through the difficult waters of addressing the sometimes deeply troubling universal trait of unconscious bias and the very inspiring one of universal creativity.

The magic of this editing process resulted in the workshop becoming lower resolution in its physical aspects and higher in terms of the overall experience. It has served as a valuable lesson for me, driving home a piece of wisdom I deeply value: Try minimal affordances first.*

I am heading out to Miami this weekend to run this new version of ‘Designing for Worldview’ with participants at Hacks/Hackers Connect. I am excited. I feel confident in the workshop experience (thanks to those who have been willing to test it with me here at the d.school), and I am excited for those we work with going forward.

* I heard this first from Experience Institute’s Victor Saad, who mentioned to me he heard it from d.school Global Director and Co-Founder George Kembel.

And, as promised, Chicago:

This post has been edited and originally appeared on my project portfolio: PARA∆IGM.