Workshopping for the Big Leagues

In a previous post I made the case for seeing design thinking, and IBM Design Thinking, as more than the running of workshops. This time I'd like to address another misconception people have about workshopping itself. Many people believe that you just need to have sharpies and sticky notes and you're good to go. Anyone can do it and there's not much to it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Effective workshop facilitation is hard and there's more to it than most people think. And, to make the point, I'll use a sports analogy. 

Most people don't approach a sport with the assumption that you just need a ball and depending on the sport a bat, a glove, maybe some pads and you're set to go. Most people realize that there's much more to it than that. You not only need to have the requisite equipment, you also have to spend hours and hours learning and practicing the skills and getting experience in practices and in actual games to get good. They also realize that there are specialized skills for certain positions on the team. Whether professionals or amateurs, most people take their sport seriously and often spend a lifetime to master it.    

I'm concerned that many people simply participate in a design thinking workshop, get some post-it notes, some Sharpies, a few charts and think they're all set to go. I believe the field would benefit from taking a more rigorous approach, more like that used in sport. And, the approach taken in the big leagues. 

I've led hundreds of IBM Design Thinking workshops all around the world with some of the largest companies and also some of the most promising startups too. I've also run numerous internal company workshops and trained hundreds of facilitators and co-facilitated workshops with many of them. I've also seen how design thinking workshopping is taught, how other organizations use it, and have incorporated workshopping in several university programs.

These then are what I consider to be the ways to unleash the power of design thinking workshopping for the big leagues. 

  1. The venue is key. Big league teams care about all the details of the venues they play at and leagues ensure that facilities are optimal for game play. The same holds true for workshopping. You may think that any room will do. But you'd be wrong. I've been asked to run workshops in boardrooms with one very large table in them and virtually no room to move around the table. I've also been asked to do workshops in rooms that have cloth, brick, or cement walls and insufficient room to bring in whiteboards on wheels, or even the less than optimal flip chart easels. You should select a room that has tables and chairs on wheels and with sufficient wall and/or window space for the number of large post-it note board the you'll need. You should have sufficient room to keep all Post-it Note boards up at all times. Ensure the venue has the right equipment too. Make sure to use actual fine tipped Sharpie brand pens. Ballpoint pens won't do. You'll need the flip-chart sized Post-it Note brand pads and small, square, multi-colored Post-it Note brand pads that have the glue on the back top in the same position on each sheet. Don't use the accordion-style. Anything less than this will compromise your workshop. Using ballpoint pens will allow people to write too much and make what's written on the sticky notes unreadable from a distance which makes group collaboration difficult. Using sticky notes from other brands often leads to the sticky notes falling off onto the floor and using accordion-style ones which alternate glue on the top and then the bottom of the sheets makes them awkward to use and often leads to people sticking notes with the glue on the bottom leading to them not being visible or falling down. Much like sports teams have a maximum number of players so should your workshop. I think twelve to eighteen participants with two to three groups of six participants is optimal. I have run workshops with several hundred participants out of necessity and while they were workable and met the objectives, they weren't optimal. You should plan on having one facilitator for every six or so participants.  

  2. Have a game plan. You may think that you can just launch into the workshop and figure out what you're going to focus on when you get into the room, it is a workshop after all. That's like saying to a big league team to just go for it. Of course, they don't. They carefully craft a game plan, discuss it among the leadership team, and then execute on it. The same goes for a workshop. You have to have full clarity on what problems you'll address, hone them in collaboration with the leaders, and then map a workshopping plan of methods to explore, progress, and address the problems identified. Make sure that your problem statements satisfy the Goldilocks rule, not too big, not to small, just right. Also ensure that the problem statements include who's life will be improved if the problem statement were to be addressed.  

  3. Its a team sport. Just like any sport, workshopping needs the participation of the entire team. You need to ensure that you've got the right people in the room with the right skills, experience, and who will follow up on the work that will be progressed. In addition, if someone is on the field or in the workshop, they can't just decide that they'd like to sit on the sidelines and watch. Everyone has a position and role to play so everyone has to be all in. Just like a player on the field can't pull out a cellphone and start talking or texting during a game, the same holds for a workshop. Multitasking is fine in other environments but during a game or a workshop, every single person has to be fully engaged, focussed, and participating. 

  4. Bring your A-Team. Coaches, quarterbacks, captains, and other leaders are critically important in sport. They are also to workshopping. Workshop facilitators need to be highly trained and also have significant depth of experience. As with a sports team, you can have assistant facilitators but you have to have one lead facilitator who ultimately calls the shots. In my experience, the lead facilitator should be a designer with significant experience not only in workshopping methods but also of one or more of the design disciplines. I teach all facilitators to learn the material extremely well, the flow, the charts, the exercises, so that virtually all of their attention can be focussed on the people in the room. I tell them to focus on how they'd like to have the hearts and minds in the room changed from the time they start the workshop to when they leave it. I also get them to focus on what they objectives of the workshop are and to relentlessly stay on track to achieve them. And, lastly, I get them to empathize at every moment of the workshop with the participants and not themselves. Just like it takes focussed practice in sports, it also takes many hours practice in workshopping to master these skills. 

  5. Keep your eye on the ball. Everyone in sport has to stay focussed on the ball and the ultimate goal. Same goes for workshopping. Inexperienced facilitators will sometimes pursue topics that aren't central to the problems being worked and will waste precious time on them. An experienced facilitator will keep a board on the wall for "parking lot" items. These are for things that an important member of the team may have raised but aren't directly related to the objectives of the workshop so you can satisfy that person by acknowledging the importance of the topic by putting into the parking lot which can then be dealt with at the end of the workshop if you have time or can be dealt with following the workshop proper. Also, when you have sales people in a workshop, they often have a desire to demo, pitch, or just get into a selling mode. That's inappropriate for most workshops. Like the parking lot, the lead facilitator should handle this situation by directing the team to do any of these sorts of activities after the workshop. 

  6. Use all of your playbook. Sports teams develop and practice a series of plays that the team's leadership can call up at will during the game depending on what's going on in the game. The same holds for workshopping. Many facilitators have learned a default set of workshopping methods and they run that play regardless of what's going on in the workshop. This is often the case if facilitators aren't designers. Designers typically have a deeper playbook of methods to draw on and also have more skill and experience at knowing how to apply particular methods optimally given the particular needs of the workshop. Assistant facilitators whom I've worked with as the lead facilitator are often surprised to see how I modify methods or use new to them methods given the particular needs of a workshop. 

  7. Win the season and not just the game. Stretching the sports analogy a little more, teams don't just play one game and that's it, they have a whole season of games to play. Similarly for workshopping, a single workshop doesn't win the season. As I pointed out in a previous post, IBM Design Thinking is not workshopping, it is a framework for a entire project (or season). Please refer to my previous post "design thinking is not workshopping" to understand the ways in which workshopping fit into an end-to-end IBM Design Thinking project. 

Analogies are often helpful in visualizing something or getting a different perspective on something. I hope my use of a sports analogy helped bring some clarity, understanding, and actionable insight regarding design thinking or more specifically IBM Design Thinking workshopping.