They groaned when they saw the meeting invite, but when the workshop started! ...

9 little lessons that made my workshops way better

Workshops … they can be valuable melting pots of ideas and perspectives.

They can also feel slower than pond water, with a purpose and results that are about as clear.

But the more workshops I run, the more I realise how deeply I’ve underestimated their power for building shared understanding across teams and organisations.

In short, you want to run workshops. And you want to run good ones.

I’m still learning, but here are the most important things I’ve gleaned from running several multi-day design sprints and lots of 1-to-4 hour workshops.

1) Less talking, more making

Many people have abandoned writing specification documents, because specifications don’t work well for creating novel or complex things like digital products. Anyone who’s ever made anything knows that the end result is usually very different from the perfect idea we started with. How can we specify an end result when we can’t know what it is until we get there?

We learn as we make. So the answer is to make things.

At the risk of sounding like one of my primary school teachers: tongues away and pens out (and paper and Post-its too).

Don’t overthink it. Here are a few things you could make:

  1. making an app? Craft “screens” out of Post-it notes gummed onto A4 paper

  2. writing an article? Come up with 20 headlines as fast as you can

  3. deciding on priorities? Write them all out and sort them on the wall

  4. trying to define brand guidelines? Sift a set of diverse illustrations into “feels like us” and “doesn’t feel like us”.

Corissa Nunn and I once printed out 30 different cookie notification messages and got the team to physically sort them into those that “felt right” and those that didn’t. In less than an hour, that one exercise gave us more clarity on our brand than the previous 6 months of discussions.

Get out of the abstractions of talking and into the real of making.


2) Traditional brainstorming feels good — but works bad

The evidence is in. Standing around a whiteboard shouting out ideas, generates fewer ideas, leads to groupthink, and silences quiet folk who think differently. Yes, even if you follow the rules, wear coloured hats, or tell everyone “there are no stupid ideas”.

Instead, use parallel creation, where we all work on the same thing but without talking. It’s a simple process.

After you’ve gathered the materials, agreed what you’re going to make, and prepared everyone (coming up in step 3) …

  1. set a timer. 4–8 minutes works, depending on what you’re doing

  2. against the clock, focus on a short burst of silent creative work – everyone writes or sketches silently

  3. share what you’ve done to let ideas cross-pollinate

  4. repeat as time allows

It doesn’t matter whether you’re listing constraints, coming up with names, writing stories or sketching screens, these basic steps stay the same.



3) Don’t wring blood out of a stone, prime with research

It’s unreasonable to expect people to come up with fresh ideas from nothing. Austin Kleon tells us to Steal Like an Artist. James Altucher talks about idea sex. And Alexandra Watkins in Hello My Name Is Awesome recommends a brainstorming process that relies on digging around outside of your brain, not within.

The fastest way I’ve found is some sort of research or field trip before starting the making process. What have others already done? How could we mix and match those ideas? How could we respond or react?

As a team or as individuals, look at:

As you research …

  • Go as broad as you can. Look outside your field as well as within. Say you’re working on an insurance direct mail – as well as looking at other insurers, how have shoe manufacturers, dentists, and evening classes used direct mail?

  • Look for stuff you react to: what you hate as well as what you love

  • Think about what made you react. Dig under the surface.

  • Scribble notes as you think of them. Refer to these when you’re making.



4) Don’t rush in, cater to people who aren’t comfortable making

Not everybody is comfortable in the uncertain messiness of the creative process. Some people are terrified of putting pen to paper … there’s a risk they might do something “wrong”.

This is when you hear things like, “Oh I can’t draw” or “I’ll just let you creative types do it.” Or when people start bike-shedding – getting bogged down in comfortable technical details because the uncertainty is uncomfortable.

This is all of course nonsense but — weirdly — looming over them screaming, “DRAW, FOOL!” doesn’t seem to work.

The trick — as with any comfort zone issue — is to beckon people just a little out of their comfort zone and have it not be terrible. Have them draw something with low stakes and let them experience how the sky doesn’t fall in after all.

People can be nervous, people can find group activities stressful and people may find making activities childish.

– from Alastair Somerville’s Design Circles

This is where ice-breaker exercises help. People who are used to the creative process might feel they are a waste of time, but the ice-breakers aren’t for them. Don’t start with the “real” work because that’s stressful. Start with something unthreatening.

The “circles” exercise in this collection of ice-breakers is really good.

Even after your best efforts, some people won’t want to join in and that’s OK.



5) A good workshop has beginning, middle and end

The first chapter of Gamestorming reveals the secret to structuring a good workshop.

You need three chunks of time:

  1. Beginning: set up the “rules” and give everyone permission to “play”

  2. Middle: play the “game”, and make a mess

  3. End: wrap it all up so everyone feels there was a resolution — or at least progress.

It’s horribly easy to let the middle bit run on too long and rush the last bit. Then people leave the workshop feeling meh.

If you have to, trim the middle bit shorter so you can finish on a high.



6) Don’t wing it, do a dry run

Plan the activities and time-blocks out carefully beforehand and dry-run with someone to check it all makes sense.

You can’t know what the output of the workshop is going to be (or you wouldn’t be doing the workshop) but you need to know how to keep moving towards the finish line and what it’ll feel like when you get there. Everyone in the room is looking to you to guide them.

Be diligent about timings. If you’re not hot on clocks, appoint a time-keeper.

The only thing it’s safe to expect is that things won’t go how you expect. Don’t panic: just keep things moving. Nobody will realise that you don’t know what you’re doing — unless you tell them.



7) Don’t assume, take time to over-explain

Every time you explain the next activity, expect that someone in the room didn’t quite get what you meant (or missed what you said completely because was they were checking their phone).

So repeat the instructions and check that everyone’s crystal clear before you say, “go”.

It can help to describe the activity in a slightly different way the second time.

Bonus points: pause after 2 minutes of doing to check that everyone’s actually doing what you expected. Someone isn’t.



8) It’s not you showing off, it’s them doing the work

As a “creative type”, you probably feel pressure to come up with brilliant ideas, but your showing off will hurt, not help.

You want the team to make something together. That’s what will get them bought in. That’s what will lead to shared understanding and alignment. It doesn’t work if they sit around watching you make something.

Jared M. Spool uses the classic Stone Soup fable as a metaphor for these kinds of workshops. As a facilitator, we’re the traveller. We bring the stone, inspire everyone to align and make something by working together. We mustn’t just give them soup, but neither can we believe that the stone is actually magic.

Vitorio Miliano shared a story of facilitation in the Designer Hangout Slack group:

… they could do totally do it by themselves! But they don’t. I’ve had them realise that in workshops:

“Wait, isn’t this just us doing the work?”

“Yes.”

“But what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to hand this back to you when you’re done.”

Most of the time, the hard part isn’t the ideas, it’s getting the team bought in. So help your team get to the best results.

Think like a coach, not like a rock star.



9) Great facilitators don’t panic, they steal and adapt

Just as you don’t expect your workshop attendees to come up with new ideas out of nowhere, you don’t need to conjure workshop activities out of an empty hat.

There are lots of ideas for exercises in books like Build Better Products, Gamestorming and Sprint, and even more in articles:

You can take these exercises, try them out and adapt them for your needs and your teams.



How about you? Comment with your hard-won workshop advice!