A simple framework for facilitating workshops

As a planner I get asked to facilitate quite a few workshops so I thought I’d share some handy tips on how I approach them. There are whole books devoted to the subject so one blog post will hardly do it justice but I’m hoping you might find some value in what I’ve learned over the years.

Outlined below is a simple framework I’ve developed which I believe distills the key elements which goes into running a productive workshop.

Defining objectives

Stating the bleeding obvious here but without setting clear objectives from the outset one will never have a productive workshop. So it’s essential to spend time defining exactly what you want to get out of the workshop and then making sure this gets agreed with the client sponsor.

Perhaps less apparent is the need to set realistic objectives.  I’m sure we’ve all sat in workshops where some agenda items have had to get scrapped because the facilitator has run out of time. So set realistic objectives rather than try to be overly ambitious!

Developing a workshop theme

Not everyone will subscribe to this idea but I think it really helps to devise a theme for the workshop. If it’s directly linked to the subject area of the workshop it can help to frame the problem and galvanise everyone around a common purpose. But equally, you can theme a workshop around something more frivolous. For example, I did a client workshop earlier this week around a Halloween theme. You may think this may have detracted from the importance of the meeting but in fact it helped to lighten proceedings, get people in a positive frame of mind from the outset and helped to hang disparate agenda items together.

Establishing workshop inputs

The mantra ‘the more you put into something, the more you get out of it’  certainly rings true when it comes to workshops. So preparation is key. It’s also worth setting homework or pre-tasks to get participants familiarising themselves with the problem in advance of the workshop. This is also the time to invite other participants to come equipped with presentations or contributions to stimulate discussion.

Defining the agenda

How you structure the day, allot enough time to presentations / debate whilst scheduling time for breaks and practical exercises all need careful thought. Personally I always start by outlining the objectives for the workshop and the key tangible outputs I want to deliver as a group. And also a suitably ice-breaker to get everyone relaxed and contributing to the forum from the outset. If you can link this ice-breaker to the theme of the workshop in some way, all the better. So for the Halloween workshop, I asked everyone to tell me the scariest thing they’ve ever experienced!

Roles and responsibilities

You may be the facilitator but that doesn’t mean you have to do all the work! You can delegate note-taking and  timekeeping to someone else and presentations can come from anyone, even a guest speaker to add a fresh perspective to the topic in hand.  Your job is to facilitate, not to dominate discussion or provide all the answers!

Likewise, the host is not always the same as the facilitator so make sure you give them a role in the proceedings so that they retain some sense of ownership, whether that’s welcoming everyone and running through the agenda or wrapping up the workshop with key conclusions and next steps.

Environment

Choosing the right venue and creating the best environment for a productive session is equally important. So think about whether you want everyone seated around a boardroom table, split into groups or arranged in a semi circle. Make sure you have enough flip charts, pens, post-it notes and pads. And most important of all, work out how you are going to capture the outputs from the day, whether that’s writing up on flipcharts, sticking things on wall charts or populating pre-designed templates etc.

If you have a theme, now’s the time to decorate the venue to bring the theme to life. For my Halloween workshop we could obviously go to town a bit on the decor but it also meant we could theme some of the workshop stimulus materials. So instead of having boards for the different workstreams assigned to this project I re-labelled them ‘Workscreams’🙂

Techniques

There’s a whole array of facilitation techniques which you can employ to stimulate discussion and debate as well as keep energy levels high – far too many to mention here in fact.  But the ones I tend to use (in no particular order) include ice-breakers, task setting, break out sessions, energy-boosting exercises, mind mapping and voting/ranking ideas as a collective group to name but a few.

Workshop outputs

The final piece of the jigsaw is defining the tangible outputs you want from the session. It’s no good just having ‘next steps’. These need to be clearly defined outputs which directly link back to your workshop objectives. So it may be securing agreement on a particular issue, a list of actions which need to be addressed at the next session, clearly defined personas for a particular web project, 3 strategic territories to explore creatively, a strategic roadmap and so on…

So that’s about it. Hope that’s been helpful. I’ve probably only scraped the surface on this subject so by all means add a comment if you’ve got any more pointers or suggestions.

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