My first tip is to avoid putting undue pressure on yourself by feeling that in order to run a workshop you have to have all the answers and know the subject matter in great depth. This expectation makes you nervous, holds you back and is a hindrance. It is true that as the facilitator you need to have some understanding of the subject matter as it will help you to summarize what’s being said, ask clarifying questions, draw conclusions and agree on next steps. But it is fundamentally not the facilitator’s role to provide the answers and come up with the solution. Your role is to facilitate the process and to draw out the answers from the participants.
A great facilitator is someone who can admit that they don’t know what the outcome or decisions from the workshop will be in advance, and who is able to guide the group by being present and engaging people. They have to be comfortable with the unknown. It’s a bit like coaching where the coach doesn’t provide the solution, but instead asks the right questions and thereby helps the coachee to see the situation in a new light and find the answer. The way you can do this in a workshop is by setting a clear purpose for the meeting, making each participant feel at ease, asking great questions and by using collaborative methods that enable everyone to contribute.
Play the host
As people arrive at the workshop, make an effort to connect with each person. Act as if you were hosting a dinner party by greeting people, making them feel relaxed and ensuring that everyone knows who the other people in the room are. Studies show that the best results are achieved when everyone in the group contributes equally and speaks in equal amounts. This will only happen if you make people feel that their thoughts and ideas are respected and appreciated. In other words, you have to make people feel psychologically safe in the workshop and explicitly ask everyone for input.
If the team has never met before, run a fun icebreaker exercise, such as the Marshmallow Challenge where the team has to build a free standing tower with only spaghetti, string, tape and a marshmallow. It’s a fabulous way to break the ice and insert a bit of fun. Shorter icebreakers also work well.
During the workshop itself, make sure that real work gets completed, and that decisions are made, as opposed to just having a long discussion without any conclusion. As you kick off the meeting, create focus by asking each person to “check in”, meaning that they share their purpose for being at the workshop and what outcomes they are looking for. As you finish the workshop ask people to “check out” and share if their purpose was met.
Have flipcharts and post-it notes at hand and divide people into groups so that they can brainstorm ideas and solutions. If you’re running a project definition or planning workshop you can brainstorm scope, tasks, milestones or risks and create a collaborative work breakdown structure. A word of caution though, when you use brainstorming techniques: not everyone likes to spontaneously brainstorm in a larger group, so first ask people to do a brain dump on their own for a few minutes before talking to the entire group. If you’re facilitating a requirement’s definition workshop you can focus the group on drawing out the current state and future state process flows on a whiteboard.
Throughout the workshop make sure that you ask lots of open questions such as What ground rules shall we work to? How shall we track and report progress? What could go wrong and what shall we do about it? What are the options for overcoming this issue? What steps does the current business flow consist of? What does the future business operating model look like? What are the business benefits and how will we measure them?
As you move through the session remember to clarify what is being said and ensure that everyone is sharing their views. Don’t let just a few people dominate the debate. Finally, just before people check out, set time aside to recap conclusions, actions and next steps. Good luck!
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