Throughout my career I have been doing lots of workshops. I really enjoy facilitating them. At their best they can be really valuable tool to come up with new ideas and also to get client more engaged to the process.
Conducting a great workshop is not an easy task. Every one of us has been in sloppily conducted workshops, which are as enjoyable as water torture. Just coming back from a great workshop in London, I thought I would share some of my tips I have learned during the years:
10 Tips for An Effective Workshop
1. Plan & prepare well
- It should go without saying, but it is really important to define what is the goal for the workshop and craft the day through the lens of what you want to achieve.
- Groups make or break the workshop. One person who “knows it all” and remembers all the cases when something has not worked can poison even the best of the groups. Orchestrate the groups well and gently sideline the bullies if they start to be detrimental for the workshop process.
- Have an extensive list of exercises before the workshop. Good workshop facilitators have an extensive cookbook of tried & true crow-pleasers and also more experimental pieces. Do not try to predict too much of what works though. Every group is different and the exercise you thought would bomb might be the most helpful of the day and the usually engaging exercise might fail miserably. If some exercise does not generate ideas, just move faster to the next one (see also point 6).
2. Define clear responsibilities
- Nothing is worse than loosely orchestrated and chaotic workshop. Therefore it is crucial to define clear roles and responsibilities:
- Who is facilitating?
- Who is leading?
- Who is doing the background info?
- Who is preparing the stimulus?
- Who is taking notes?
- Who is doing the memos?
- Who is leading each group?
3. Stay on time & agenda
- One of the most important things for facilitator is to be the fun-spoiling stopwatch Nazi. Because when your schedule starts derailing, it starts derailing bad. Good healthy discussion is for good, but instantly when it starts to go around in circles you have to move to the next exercise. Everyone has to have an opportunity to talk, but not everyone needs to talk in every possible exercise.
- Exercises should left participants feeling hungry to come up with more ideas. Time constraint is one of the most effective methods to force ideas to come out. If you give too much time to polish, people will fall into safe territory.
4. Collect all ideas
- Post-its are your best friends. They are easy to move and they nicely fit one idea. They have different colors, which can mark the different ideas from different groups. Instruct the usage of the post-its right from the beginning so that all the thoughts are captured.
- One of the key roles of the facilitator is to develop a laidback and open feeling to the workshop. It does not hurt if you are able to make people laugh. You need to establish vibe, where ideas are flowing freely and no one is shooting them down too early.
5. Plot the drama
- Good workshop follows the arch of drama. It starts from the chaos and despair and steadily goes towards more clarity. This should be reflected in the exercises as well.
- Usually participants need a while to get warmed up and eventually will start to lose of steam towards end of the day. Therefore it is good to end the exercise with compiling exercises and idea voting, which does not require as much idea firepower. Brain is muscle as well.
- Remember that workshop is not a lecture. If you need to go through certain presentations, have them throughout the day so that it does not start to feel too cumbersome.
6. Be strict, but flexible
- Sometimes one exercise starts to show so much promise that it makes sense to stop and start concentrating on it. Experienced facilitator is able to change things on the fly so that participants do not even notice. The rule of the thumb still is that until lunch you should be more or less on time or you are screwed.
- Therefore it makes sense to share loose agenda, but not necessarily detailed list of exercises you want to do. This allows you to switch things seamlessly and improvise based on the overall flow of the workshop.
- When explaining the exercises to the group, be clear and concise. Explain the role of the task, what people need to do and how much they have time to perform the exercise.
7. Document well
- Even the most enjoyable of the workshops is totally useless if it is not well documented. Quite seldom you come up with readymade ideas, but you have shitloads of great starts. The real work starts after the workshop, when you need to synthetize, compile and find synergies from the workshop ideas. The documentation should be done as soon as possible after the workshop. So sorry, no sleep for the planners.
- Bonus tip: As part of preparation, assign people with the best handwriting to write down the ideas. This makes your job way easier on documentation phase. Case-in-point: quite often I cannot even comprehend my own handwriting after couple of days.
8. Different exercises
- You need a good combination of individual, pair & group exercises. I personally want to start always with individual ideation on post-it notes. This ensures that there are enough of ideas when the exercises go forward. It is also refreshing for majority of the people to be alone with their creativity and blank sheet of paper. Either it let’s them loose or show their limits.
- Loose creative gangbang and brainstorming does not benefit anyone, so give numeric demands for the number of ideas for the groups as well. Do not be afraid to switch the groups if for some reason your pre-planned group dynamics are dysfunctional. Everyone should feel free to express his or her ideas in workshop.
9. Stay hydrated & energized
- You need to have enough breaks, so that people are not constantly watching the mobile phones during the exercises. When you have enough breaks you can start punishing and publicly shaming people who use mobile when they should be present.
- Also ensure that there is enough food for all the people. Nothing is more horrible than room full of cranky participants with low blood sugar. Although I try to avoid eating sugar (especially on weekdays), having candy around actually helps people to ideate.
10. Have fun
- Participants will immediately sense, if you are not experienced workshop facilitator. So don´t stress and try to create a good vibe. If you maintain or have created a good chemistry after the workshop with all the participants, half of the battle has been already won.
- Workshops are great way to get to know how your clients think, which will be beneficial later on. Have open mind and prepare to have a blast.
For those conducting workshops and looking for new stimulus for exercises, I have found Hyper Island toolbox really useful. Also these cards are good for branding workshops (and the NSFW versions are good for blowing off steam).