The Perfect Workshop Blueprint

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How to create workshops that get the best from any group

“I’m going to share with you the blueprint for designing workshops that get the most from a group, get the answers you need, and build consensus towards a common understanding every time.”

We’re continuing the discovery phase of the data strategy process this week – where we take a look at the existing state of our data landscape and practices. Last week we talked about how to get a broad perspective across the organisation. I introduced how I use surveys to make this as easy as possible and talked about how to craft one here. This week we’ll take a look at how to follow that first analysis up, and I’ll walk through one of the most powerful tools in a data professional’s arsenal.

This meeting should have been an email

We’ve all been there. The meeting that just goes on and on. Half a dozen people sat in a room listening to one person read their slides to you for over an hour. What’s worse, this is a recurring weekly event you’re forced to sit through to make whoever feel like they’re doing important work.

I’m a huge advocate of eliminating meetings wherever possible. Please just make proper use of documentation, reports, and plain old email if you’re just broadcasting information to an audience.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with meetings. They’re not evil. Just misunderstood.

They’re essential when collaboration is called for, or you’re stuck working through a challenging problem that needs the group’s insight. Unfortunately, very few folks know how to get the most from a group.

Open, agenda-less spaces are not the answer.

This meeting should have been a workshop

I honestly think being able to run good workshops is a superpower for data teams. Think of it like this, the most valuable information is locked in the stakeholder’s heads. Years of experience have given them golden insights that could be worth fortunes if only you could get to it.

The problem is, often:

  • they don’t know what’s valuable for you
  • they don’t know how to communicate it
  • they don’t know what’s possible
  • and they rarely agree

Getting good at the facilitation of workshops is an art in itself and not something we’ll cover here but the 80/20 rule, in my opinion, points to having a good workshop structure or template as the most impactful factor in getting results.

Now I’m not going to give you templates for specific use cases – I’d not be able to cover the specifics of your use case and context. Instead, I’m going to share with you the blueprint for designing workshops that get the most from a group, get the answers you need, and build consensus towards a common understanding every time. Teach a person to fish, and they’ll eat for a day and all that…

It’s all about structure

Meetings are expensive; eight people in a room for an hour half-listening to a set of slides being read out just wasted the equivalent of a day’s time on something they’ll probably need to reread later anyway.

We must maximise this precious time. The structure is the way to do it.

An effective workshop gets ideas out of people’s heads, prioritises the real challenge, collaborates on a solution, and gets group commitment for follow-up. These things don’t happen accidentally, so you must force activities and structure to guide them.

The four Cs

These four components are the key to designing workshops to get the results you need.

Collect – you always need to start with some form of information gathering. This is where the scope of the project or challenge is defined. This can be done collaboratively, in open conversation, in private on post-it notes, or even in advance in some cases. There should be some interaction between the group to warm things up and ensure the quieter folks in the room are comfortable getting involved and not drowned out (vital for you as a facilitator to ensure everyone gets their turn).

Importantly, everything should be captured in writing, and it should then be visualised. I’m a big fan of simultaneous discussion and post-it note writing for most workshops.

Choose – the next step is to get the group to pick which of the items they’ve created and shared you should focus on.

You’ll want to take some time to talk through everything that’s been put forward and group things into themes if possible. Once that’s done, find a way to get the group to prioritise them.  The classic “Impact” vs “Effort” ranking is a favourite but allowing folks to vote with stickers also does a really good job of visualising what the group thinks.

Create – the third phase is when problem-solving begins. Get the group to work together and craft several solutions that speak to the prioritised problems. These are by no means final and don’t even have to be well thought out. Remember, the point here is to uncover avenues of investigation that will allow you to deliver more as a data professional.

Commit – once you have a list of possible solutions and prioritised problems you need to take the first steps to action. Get the group to commit to a small number of the solutions to try (you’re better off going too small than too big at this point). Help them capture the next steps and most importantly how they’ll be held accountable. A great way to wrap up any workshop is to book the check-in session for two weeks’ time.

Exercises and other resources

Each of the stages of a workshop outlined above can be done any number of ways. What’s right for you will depend on your context, the group, the challenge, etc. Many well-known exercises exist to support these steps (I’ve hinted at a couple of favourites above). You don’t have to use canned exercises but they often help when used right.

You might be familiar with the sailboat or dot-voting already but if you’re really stuck, places like SessionLab have stacks of great resources for inspiration.

Final thoughts

I encourage you to look at your next meeting and ask: would we get more from this group with a workshop? This has helped me both as a consultant and a team leader drive unlock some of the toughest projects with a healthy injection from otherwise unheard experts in the room.

Good luck.


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