What travelling the world has taught me about leading design workshops

With 2019 already underway, I can’t help but reflect back and give thanks. I am grateful for my job, the beautiful city in which I live in, and the chance that I have to work weekly with the future leaders of the UX profession.

With 2019 already underway, I can’t help but reflect back and give thanks. I am grateful for my job, the beautiful city in which I live in, and the chance that I have to work weekly with the future leaders of the UX profession. This past year, I had a personal goal of teaching more, primarily through workshops. I worked with large national banks, pioneering startups, and nonprofits. I helped business professionals in Spain, Colombia and Peru, better understand their users, validate an idea in a short amount of time, and adopt a systems mindset. 

Workshops are a valuable way to learn new material or can also serve as a quick refresher when needed. Whether you are a freelancer wanting to offer workshops as a part of your services, or are a manager wanting to conduct higher-quality internal sessions, here are a few tips that I have learned from conducting workshops around the world: 

Before the workshop


Understand your audience

Who will be present in the room? The C-Suite? The marketing team? Recent hires? Are they comfortable with the different activities that you will do in the workshop? Have they participated in workshops before? How was their experience? What do they expect to accomplish? These are just a few of the questions that you need to consider. In the workshops that I offer, I always make sure there is a senior leader present. It may not be the CEO but should be someone who has the power to make decisions and to see the project forward. 
 

Set clear objectives at the very beginning

I frequently do Google Design Sprint workshops with my clients. I have learned the importance of establishing and communicating the objectives clearly as early in the process as possible. I was once asked to hold a one-day intensive training for a process that usually takes four days. The feedback was very positive, just they expected to dive deeper into every tool and phase. If I would have communicated ahead of time what we would cover during our three hours together, we would have avoided any misunderstanding all together.

In order to avoid any surprises, be sure to have a conversation ahead of time with the team that will be involved and ensure that everyone is on the same page as to what will be accomplished by the end of the workshop.
 

Establish rules

In an ideal world, a workshop would flow all by itself. If you have led a workshop before, you know this isn’t the case. In my Google Design Sprint Workshops, the ground rules that are crucial to achieving results are:

No cell phones, no distractions – If anyone absolutely needs to check their phone, they may, but outside of the Sprint space. It is important to set boundaries. When they are in the room, everyone’s energy should be focused on the task at hand.
 

  • Getting started > being right – When something is new, especially when following a process that one is not used to, many individuals get paralyzed with the notion that everything they do needs to be perfect from the get go. To help overcome this paralysis, I set strict time limits for each activity in the workshop. This encourages everyone to not stress about getting it the right the first time, focus on what truly matters, and just start creating.  

  • Tangible > discussion – Here the lifelong saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” comes into play.  I always create opportunities for discussion, for debate, for thinking out loud, but to me the true value comes from filling multiple Post-Its, sketching the key screens of an app, or visually representing user personas. 

  • There are no such thing as bad/crazy ideas – Whenever my workshops involve at least some sort of ideation, everyone must embrace this rule 100%. There will be a time to select the ideas that make the sense to prioritize, but at least in the beginning, it’s more important to have quantity over quality. My philosophy: assume anything is possible.


During the workshop

Remember: It’s a workshop, not a lecture

Have you ever attended a workshop that should have been labeled a lecture? I have. The workshop ended up being very little participation and a whole lot of information. Even if you are preparing a workshop that seems that it will be content heavy, look for small ways to involve the audience as much as possible. Do you have a few ice breakers? Do you have them write down their answers to a series of questions? Do you include short video clips to break up your talking?


Pivot when necessary

My workshops follow structured processes. These processes help me stay on track and ensure that I help my clients accomplish their goals and objectives. However, there have been cases, due to circumstances beyond my control, where I have had to deviate from the process. Did that cause problems? No. It just required me to quickly analyze the situation and chart a new course of action. How do you prepare for these unexpected changes? Preparation and research. The more know about those who will be participating in your workshop and the more you know about what they want to achieve, the better prepared you will be for when something doesn’t go exactly as planned.


Enforce the rules

This may go without saying, but it is easier said than done. I learned this lesson the hard way. As a mentioned before, the Google Design Sprint follows strict time-boxed activities. In one workshop, I remember the client asking for more time on a particular exercise (key example of getting started vs. getting it right). At first, I insisted on following the clock, but after receiving more pressure, I caved. Luckily, I was able to adapt and course correct as much as possible, but not enforcing the rules added some additional stress that could have easily been avoided in the first place. 

After the workshop

Congratulate the participants

After successfully completing a workshop, congratulate them. Remind them of the goals and objectives, where they started at the beginning of the day, and what they achieved. 


Get them to commit to something

A successful workshop always results in action items. Save a few minutes at the end for everyone on the team to discuss next steps and assign them to an owner with a specific deadline. Discuss how as a team you will hold each other accountable. 


Share knowledge

I currently have a financial institution as a client. We are always sharing information between teams. I have often learned something from a client in a different sector and been able to apply it to my work. After completing a workshop, look for ways to share what you have learned within your company at a lunch and learn, on your intranet, or in the next conversation with a colleague. In the words of Joseph Badaracco, “In today's environment, hoarding knowledge ultimately erodes your power. If you know something very important, the way to get power is by actually sharing it.”

Workshops truly are a great way to both learn and to teach. As with anything in life, practice makes perfect. As I have applied the tips above and iterated on my workshop content, I have seen improvements in the flow of the process, results obtained, and overall satisfaction with my clients. May your 2019 be full of workshops that provide value and help you achieve your various business goals. 


Do you have any facilitation tips for leading effective workshops? If so, please share them with me the comments below! 

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