How To Design Great Workshops

Added on by Benson Garner.

As a tiny globally distributed company we use a lot of tools to collaborate, but sometimes it just makes a lot more sense to get together in person. In our last post we described how the entire Strategyzer team gathered for a company retreat in Tunisia to work on alignment. This post outlines the guidelines we used to design a productive workshop.

workshop environment

To produce the best possible results in the shortest amount of time we applied four guiding principles to designing the in-person work at our company retreat.  

1) Clearly define the workshop objective

This is the starting point for any good workshop design.  Answer these two questions and you have a good foundation to create a successful workshop:

  • What is the job you are trying to get done? In our case we were trying to increase the organizational alignment across the company and help people understand each other’s jobs and workflows.
     
  • What output or result do you want to achieve? We hoped the workshop would immediately increase strategic and operational alignment or at the very least give us a list of issues to address in the future.
     
workshop design

2) Use carefully selected methods and workshop exercises that contribute to the objective and to achieve the desired outputs and results

At Strategyzer we are firm believers in the use of simple and practical business tools and sound methodologies. Make sure you perform these two activities during the design and execution of a workshop:

Luke Hohmann’s Speed Boat exercise from Innovation Games.

  • Co-create outputs: At Strategyzer we make sure a workshop exercise leverages the collective intelligence of our entire team for idea generation, problem/solution exploration, and decision-making.


3) Avoid blah blah blah (aka “verbal diarrhea” with no result) at all cost

People have a tendency to talk too much when you give them the space to do so. This can lead to a very unproductive workshop. Therefore we apply the following guiding principles in addition to carefully selecting workshop exercises:

  • Make it visual: In our experience visual tools and exercises lead to more tangible and more strategic conversations. We use visual methodologies and exercises like our Business Model Canvas as much as we can. We use markers to draw pictures and keywords on sticky notes helping us make things visible and tangible. The more visual, the clearer, the better the conversation.
  • Use Stattys (aka sticky notes on steroids) and markers in your exercises: Stattys help us keep our ideas movable, and flexible. As a rule of thumb, every idea or element needs to go on a single Statty so we can prioritize, make groups, or present one sticky note at a time.
     
  • Use short work bursts and apply strict time keeping: We move from plenary to break-out sessions in quick work bursts to keep things dynamic. People always spend more time talking than really necessary to accomplish a goal. Hence, we run relatively short sessions with time constraints that help keep the conversations moving at an appropriate speed to achieve the goal at hand.
  •  Use quick and effective feedback mechanisms: We use specific feedback methods to avoid losing time and energy in endless arguments that are rarely the most effective way to advance towards a better outcome. At times we use de Bono’s Thinking Hats to collect feedback very quickly or we use dotmocracy as a visual voting activity to gauge the overall interest of the group in moving forward on certain ideas or in a specific direction.
de Bono's Thinking Hats in action.

de Bono's Thinking Hats in action.

  •  Focus on one topic and finish it before moving to the next: People often talk about many things at the same time at the expense of clarity and logic (e.g. mixing conversations on strategy, implementation, technology, etc.). By designing the right exercises, we aim to untangle conversations to focus on one topic or issue before we move to the next.
     
  • Present your ideas to other in the most visual way possible: This can be as simple as presenting the work that we did to others, layering our Stattys onto a wall, whiteboard, or a flipchart, one at a time as we walk people through it. This helps to avoid what we like to call “cognitive murder” and keeps people focused only on each element as they are discussed.
Dotmocracy

4) Explore alternatives before making a decision

We use prototyping as a mean to explore alternatives in our business design work, but we also treat the outputs of our group work and conversations as prototypes (at varying levels of fidelity). Doing so removes the permanence factor of the typical decision-making process and encourages more creative ideas and contributions of every team member involved.

  • Don't fall in love with your first idea: Prototypes allow us to explore possible alternative directions before deciding on anything concretely. By definition, prototypes are quick, cheap, rough study models to learn about the desirability, the feasibility, and the viability of various ideas and concepts.
     
  •  Evolve your ideas together: At Strategyzer, we strive to listen first and then help others to evolve their ideas into something better rather than simply passing judgment on why an idea is bad or won’t work. When you look at things as prototypes rather than final decisions or outcomes you are more likely to help evolve them.

We've found that by following these guidelines we are able to work through very difficult challenges more quickly while keeping the team more engaged and on task. This allows the company to benefit from everybody’s best work and the collective intelligence of the team.

What guiding principles have you found helpful for facilitating your in person group work?