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Six Principles for Planning and Facilitating a Workshop

There are hundreds of methods for planning workshop activities. In fact, one of my favorite resources is Vijay Kumar’s 101 Design Methods. By combining these methods, designers can create engaging workshops that bring people together to solve problems in just a couple of hours or over a few days.

Regardless of how long the workshop or the mix of activities, these are some principles I’ve adopted to help create an engaging experience for anyone who participates.

1. Determine the Goal of Bringing Everyone Together

A workshop without a purpose is a chaotic way of finding a needle in a haystack. Your purpose and objectives should serve as the trailhead for the activities you plan, the timing of the agenda, and the way the workshop is facilitated.

Defining the purpose is often the most time-consuming part of planning a workshop—and for good reason. If the goal isn’t essential to the project and everyone who would participate, perhaps a series of meetings would do the trick.

2. Invite People Who Are Essential to Achieve the Purpose

Creating a workshop invitation list can be a tricky balance of including enough people to get good participation while keeping the group small enough to move the work forward. The more people you have in the workshop, the less engagement you’ll get from each person, and the less valuable the outcomes will be.

For smaller teams, I like to empower the group to design the solutions. With larger groups, choose a more presentation-style format and activities that are designed for practice over meaningful outcomes.

3. Hack the Methods or Design Your Own

Methods are a great start, but don’t be afraid to hack them for the purpose of your workshop. Customizing the methods for your group acknowledges the uniqueness of the team you’re working with and the problem the organization has.

As a facilitator, this way of planning–altering the activity or crafting your own–enables you to speak to the why behind the activity. It can also help you adapt on-the-fly if you find that you need to change course during the workshop.

4. Scrutinize the Order of Activities

The best workshops are a journey for the participants, with each activity building on the last. Before running the event, walk through it by yourself a few times to put yourself in the participants’ shoes.

Does the order of the workshop make sense? Are the deliverables meaningful? Is the workshop at a level appropriate for the attendees?

5. Provide Thorough Context for Each Activity

When facilitating on the day of the event, spend a fair amount of time providing context at the start of each activity. Make it clear:

  • WHY the work is important to the overall purpose
  • WHAT we’re driving to accomplish (i.e. a finished framework or canvas)
  • HOW we’ll get there through the steps of the activity

This setup is critical to make sure the group doesn’t waste any precious time going down the wrong path.

6. Synthesize Workshop Outcomes

Capturing the outcomes of the workshop for the group is a critical step and should happen as soon as possible. Team members will want to share the outcomes with other stakeholders. Providing documentation helps to ensure one story is shared consistently.

It’s important to synthesize the work carefully. Some activities can be captured as they were written during the workshop. Others may benefit from a layer of interpretation or insights to summarize the completed work. Be explicit in either scenario.

Keep in mind that deliverables rarely get shared in their entirety. The entire workshop outcomes may add up to a 20-page PDF document, and it’s not uncommon for a single page to be printed and land on an executive’s desk. Make it clear on every page that it comes from a larger body of work.

These steps help me keep workshops on track and produce meaningful results. What tips have you found for running successful workshops?