Shaping Trios Workshop Playbook

A fast and easy workshop format to gather diverse perspectives and pull an actionable plan out of an ambiguous opportunity

Collaboration is hard.

Too often, it descends into one of two failure modes:

  • endless theoretical debates

  • “classic” brainstorming … you know, the “shout out wacky ideas!” thing

Both often feel effective – at least for some people. They look like the kinds of things people do to collaborate.

The problem is that neither is actually very effective – either for making decisions or for generating ideas.

I’ve been experimenting with more effective formats for a good while <more years than I’d like to count, tbh> and wanted to share one of my favourites today: Shaping Trios. It’s a powerful workshop, but also fast, flexible and easy to run.

I kept finding myself sharing my Twitter thread with people, but this email should be easier to read.

When to use Shaping Trios

  • When you want a team to pull an actionable plan out of an ambiguous opportunity

  • When you need a simple 1-hour workshop instead of hours of debates and rabbit holes

  • When everyone’s fed up with endless Zoom meetings but you still need people to get together and figure out what we’re actually going to do next

  • When you want to uncover and explore your team’s diverse range of perspectives on a given opportunity or challenge

Ingredients

  • 1 hour

  • 6-18 people

  • One just-ambiguous-enough Opportunity-Appetite prompt

  • Print or digital copies of the “Pitch Outline” below to work from

  • Writing materials: paper, whiteboards or online collaboration tool where the trios can sketch out their pitches to share

  • A timer to keep things fast and fair

1 hour

This is enough for quick pitches. It’s a deliberate choice to keep things a little uncomfortably time-constrained, but you can go longer if you want.

6-18 People

Grab everyone who'll work on the thing, and then sprinkle in stakeholders, colleagues from other teams, subject matter experts, passers-by ... (it’s good to include folk who aren’t already pickled in your perspective.)

You need everyone for the whole time – try to avoid having people drop in half way through.

You’re going to divide the wider group into 3-6 trios.

This means 9, 12, 15 or 18 people is ideal, but we don’t live in an ideal world. You can flex by making “trios” of 2 or 4 if you need.

Ideally, you want each trio to include different perspectives:

  • one who “gets” the technology

  • one who “gets” finance/business

  • one who “gets” the user/customer/human

E.g. developer, product manager & designer

E.g. QA, analyst & salesperson

E.g. tech support, accounts & receptionist

Can’t get all the perspectives in every trio? No worries – be flexible. But if that’s because you don’t want to include certain team members, or because certain team members don’t want to join ... why not?

One just-ambiguous-enough Opportunity-Appetite prompt

Frame the opportunity you want the team to tackle and the appetite you have for tackling it.

The opportunity should be ambiguous but bounded. It should be based on some evidence, but the answer or solution shouldn’t be blindingly obvious.

The appetite is how much time & energy you want to spend. A week? A sprint? A month?

(An appetite over about 2 or 3 months is probably too big for this workshop. Can you break the opportunity down into smaller chunks?)

Example Opportunity-Appetite prompts:

“Our search functionality is messed up in <demo all the ways>. We want to spend no more than 1 week making it better.”

“Here’s a customer quote about a struggle they have. We want to help them make progress with that over our next 6-week cycle.”

You need to prepare one of these before running the session.

Copies of the pitch outline

Simply share the following list of headings. Each trio needs a digital or paper copy to work from:


Pitch outline

In breakout groups, your trio is going to put together a lightweight “pitch” – how you think we can tackle the opportunity within the appetite we have. Discuss each of the questions among your trio and note down your thoughts. One of you will present back to the wider group.

  1. Reframe the opportunity/problem/challenge. What’s really going on here?

  2. Your trio’s idea for how we can make progress within the level of appetite. What should we do about point 1?

  3. Illustrate your idea – sketch a screen, diagram, whatever you like

  4. What roles do we need to do this work?

  5. What positive indicators might tell us your idea’s working?

  6. What negative indicators might tell us your idea’s not working?

  7. What’s the very next step we can take?


Writing materials

In person, use paper or whiteboards and find some wall space to make a gallery of the trios’ work.

Online, use a shared space where you can create a digital gallery (Miro, Figma, etc.)

Timer

Everything’s time-boxed, with deliberately not quite enough time available. Try very hard to stick to it.

How to facilitate Shaping Trios

5-10 mins:

  • chit chat and waiting for stragglers

  • share the plan for the session

  • share the Opportunity-Appetite prompt

  • break out into trios

15 mins:

  • trios craft their pitches

15-20 mins:

  • get everyone back to the main group

  • before the first trio starts their pitch, invite the group to look out for:

    • what’s similar?

    • what’s different?

    • what’s surprising or interesting?

    • where do people seem a bit confused or lost?

  • each trio takes 3-5 minutes to pitch (flex based on how many you need to fit in)
    Use your timer for these steps! High rabbit hole risk here!

    • 2-3 minutes to present

    • 1-2 minutes for Q&A and reactions.

5-10 mins:

  • summarise what the range of pitches suggested (more on this in the next section)

  • agree the next step

  • thank everyone and wrap-up

What the pitches suggest, and what you do about it

During the pitches you all get to see a range of perspectives the wider group has taken, and everyone is looking for what’s similar, different, surprising and confused.

There are 3 typical outcomes (and sometimes mixtures of these):

  1. the pitches are all basically the same idea

  2. the pitches are different but each is internally coherent

  3. the pitches aren’t really very coherent

1. The pitches are all basically the same idea

This is a signal that you can probably crack on with that idea.

Do this next: build. Once you iron out any minor variations in the details, then bingo! You’ve reached alignment in record time.

Beware: this might also suggest that the prompt wasn’t ambiguous enough, or that you accidentally primed everyone with an idea.

2. The pitches are all different but each is internally coherent

This is a signal that you’re dealing with a complex opportunity where there are several good ways you could approach it. Although you may want a simple plan, this signal is telling you that you can’t have one. Not yet anyway – you need to learn some more first.

Do this next: probe/experiment to learn. There are lots of ways to approach this. It’s beyond the scope of this article to go into depth, and you probably have some of your own ideas, but here are some quick “starters for ten”:

  • Where there are aspects that are similar across every pitch: start working on those and leave room to change the rest of the plans as you keep learning.

  • Where the ideas differ wildly: tease out the underlying assumptions where trios had different ideas. Use targeted customer research or technical spikes to challenge those assumptions.

  • Construct parallel probes to test all the ideas quickly.

3. The pitches aren’t very coherent

This is a signal that the opportunity is just too ambiguous at the moment. All is not lost though. I’ve found that the pitching process quickly brings people’s biggest questions and confusions to the surface and makes them clearer. It’s no longer vague uncertainty – we have some clear questions and can make swift progress.

Do this next: opportunity-space research. Use the questions and confusions to form your research questions. After you’ve cleared up the confusion, try this workshop again.

Go forth and shape in trios

Please give this workshop a go, or share it with someone who might be able to use it.

I’m confident you and your teams will find the experience insightful and energising.

If you try it, I’d love to hear about your experience. How did it go? What did you learn? What was surprising? How did you adapt it?

Tom x