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Top tips for meaningful workshops

DesignMap DesignMap 4 min read

Here are the five key learnings from our extensive experience in the field workshop facilitation, ensuring excellent engagement and meaningful outputs. It’s all about planning, focus, preparation, trust and most of all, energy.

Workshop facilitation is an important skill in any designer’s toolkit. At DesignMap, we often facilitate workshops at the beginning of the design lifecycle. We use them to define and build consensus on product strategy, generate personas, go through rapid product iteration sprints and more. Normally our participants are small groups of 5-10 clients with a shared understanding of the product space and common goals. In this case, the only thing we knew about our participants was that they were interested in digital health technology.

Sounds challenging, right? But with challenge comes opportunity. Here’s our top 5 tips for how to plan and facilitate an excellent workshop.

1. There’s no such thing as over-planning

Every single activity of this workshop was planned and timed down to the minute. Some activities were allocated 10 minutes, other activities were allocated only 2 minutes. Several activities had contingency plans – our best guess for what might not work as originally expected and a Plan B in case that happened. And we brought 2 large timers to keep us on schedule throughout the session. A few days before the event, we did a complete run-through of the workshop at the DesignMap offices. This ensured that Audrey (our lead facilitator) and all the other DesignMap facilitators had a shared understanding of the workshop schedule.

A detailed plan with time estimates for each section helps the workshop run smoothly.

2. Establish common ground – quickly!

How could we get a group of 40 strangers to quickly begin working together as a design team? The first step was to establish rapport. Even though we only had 2 hours for the workshop, we dedicated the first 10 minutes to each person introducing themselves to the entire group. This was a critical step to get everybody in the mood of participating, to better understand the backgrounds of individuals, and to establish a common sense of identity in the room.

The workshop design challenge was ‘How can artificial intelligence help elderly people remember to take their medicine?’. We choose this topic because it was a good balance of general (everybody can relate to healthcare for the elderly) and specific: artificial intelligence would be a specific lens that would limit the range of solutions we could consider.

Handouts about Artificial Intelligence ensured a shared understanding of what AI is.

3. Have some cakes baked

One of the most important values typically derived from workshops are unexpected, new ideas generated by the group in real-time based on the workshop activities. However, in this environment, because we prioritized giving participants a taste for the full design thinking process, it made sense to occasionally seed the group with pre-packaged ideas. We used the cooking show metaphor: You know, where the chef pops some raw batter into one oven, but then… voila! Through the magic of television, the cake is magically and instantly finished! So we baked some cakes. For example, in the lightening demo section of the day we handed out paper slips with the names of companies on them. Instead of thinking of and researching a related company (in just 5 minutes!), participants could research one of the companies we suggested instead.

Similarly, while we asked the group to create a journey map from scratch, we also had a back-up, pre-fabricated journey map ready to use just in case. If we ran out of time and needed to cut an activity, we wanted to still benefit from having a journey map without having to make one in real time.

Pre-printed ideas for companies to research helped us get through the lightening demo quickly.

4. Trust the group, trust the process…and make sure you have a dynamic facilitator

Have you ever had that dream where you stand up in front of a crowd, say something, and everybody looks at you like you’re crazy? Worrying about the workshop bombing is a common concern. But our workshop schedule was jam-packed with activities so that there was no time for participants to get bored. If they didn’t like an activity, 5 minutes later we had moved on to the next activity. Moreover, we ask everybody to put their devices away for the duration of the workshop. Removing distractions is a great way to encourage people to be present.

However, the glue that holds the workshop together is the lead facilitator. Our workshop was run by Audrey Crane, a partner at DesignMap who is an expert at generating positive group energy and thinking on her feet.

Audrey Crane leading a design thinking workshop at Health 2.0.

5. Keep building energy and momentum until the end

The point of a workshop is to create a great outcome. Even in a small conference workshop, we prioritized bringing people’s ideas to life. At the end of the two-hour session, each workshop participant got to share their idea in front of the group in an art museum style share-out. We had one ‘Decider’ pick a winning concept. After that, four DesignMap designers created a real prototype from the winning concept and that prototype was revealed at our booth at the end of the day. These two important milestones helped bring everybody together and create a shared sense of accomplishment for the day.

Crowd of office workers standing around a person speaking to them

A crowd gathers to see the final prototype revealed at the end of the conference!

While you can never predict exactly what will happen in a workshop, having a detailed plan helped us feel confident before the workshop even began. Building rapport amongst our group and picking a relatable topic helped make participants feel comfortable participating. But having some pre-packaged tricks up our sleeves ensured we were ready for success no matter what happened. And because we had confidence in the process – and a great facilitator – all workshop attendees were able to get a taste for the design thinking process in just 2 short hours and see their ideas come to life at the end of the day.

So, to sum up: You can’t over-plan; Establish Common Ground; Have some things prepared earlier; Trust the group; and most importantly—Energy, energy, energy. Follow these five tips and you’ll be well on your way to facilitating an excellent and meaningful workshops.