Organizing workshops in Product Design is a common practice to generate ideas and find solutions to complex problems.
The objective is to bring people with diverse skills to collaborate with their unique perspectives and experiences.
In essence, the key to a successful workshop lies in planning, organizing, and of course, facilitating.
Throughout this article, you'll learn about workshop facilitation and everything you need to know to be a facilitator yourself. Enjoy your reading!
Workshops for collaboration
Leaders become advocates of collaboration once they harvest the fruits of a team that truly works together, helping each other out.
Collaboration between team members and departments is becoming more and more essential. After all, team collaboration is indispensable for methodologies like Design Thinking, Design Sprint, and Lean UX to work.
When we talk about Product Design, it's no different. Promoting collaborative workshops is a way to ensure results and innovation.
Moreover, workshops promote engagement and interaction between colleagues, stakeholders, and clients, precisely what makes a workshop unique and different from a presentation or meeting.
A workshop is an activity where individuals collaborate to reach a particular goal. The purpose can be to solve a problem, develop a prototype, or debate an idea.
However, putting a workshop together requires planning, organizing, and a lot of expertise.
That's why the facilitator plays a unique role for a workshop to be successful.
Facilitators: the order behind workshops
The purpose of workshop facilitation is to guide a group — through open communication and collaboration — toward an established goal and help them generate their best ideas to solve problems.
So knowing how to facilitate workshops is a valuable skill and an asset to your resume.
Responsibilities of a Facilitator
Overall, the responsibilities of a facilitator are based on organizing, planning, and leading activities to help the participants reach their goals, enabling a collaborative outcome.
Some of a facilitator's chores are:
- Choose the best tools, activities, and dynamics for the workshop's goal;
- Promote collaboration between participants, making everyone feel welcomed and safe to contribute;
- Act as a mediator for constructive conflicts resolution – a workshop is an ideal place to strive through diverse opinions;
- Help the team develop their best ideas through facilitation techniques;
- Inspire debates and creativity for insights and solutions.
Consequently, a certain set of skills are expected from a facilitator:
- Unbiased: the facilitator, just like a referee, must be free from bias and avoid giving advice. Facilitators should always lead the process, never the content. Think of them as a teacher during an exam, a person with authority in the room who can help you with doubts but never give you the answer to a question.
- Time management: sometimes discussions or activities might lose their way, so facilitators need to ensure each activity lasts for as long as it's being constructive and know when it's time to move on.
- Toolbox: having a set of methods and techniques up their sleeves will allow them to improvise when necessary. Activities can be done and combined at each stage of product development, be it in decision-making, problem-solving, or ideation. Storyboard or Design Sprint are some good examples of exercises.
- Knowledge of facilitation principles: knowing the facilitation principles are paramount to making the job easier and the workshop more engaging.
Remember that it is not a facilitator's job to participate in the discussions or hand out opinions. Instead, their role is to guide participants so they can, alone, find the best answers to their questions and the best ideas for their problems.
The principles of facilitation
The principles are values that guide facilitators' actions and behaviors.
According to Nielsen Norman Group, these are the main principles you should follow when facilitating a workshop:
Always listen to what participants have to say, so be open yet careful to guide them towards a better path if needed. Always talk to everyone, so the rest of the group in the workshop can also make progress from an answer.
Create a welcoming space
The environment should welcome all voices, fostering inclusion and equal opportunities for the whole group.
Some people are more reserved and quiet, pay attention to those and bring them into the conversation. The facilitator can encourage them to talk by asking questions like: "Does anyone have anything to add?" or "What's your take on the matter?".
Also, think of ice breakers and ways to start up debates and conversations by taking advantage of collaborative methods and techniques.
Planning and organizing are essential but remember that many setbacks can happen during an event, and the facilitator must be able to deal with them.
People are unique and respond differently to situations and methods, so you can't afford to be strict about doing things in a certain way, as you can't predict how things will unfold.
Be ready to see what doesn't work with a specific group and adapt as you go. For that, it's important to have an extensive option of exercises. Of course, the more workshops you lead, the better you'll get at this. Experience comes with time.
There is no such thing as an ideal profile for a facilitator. Each person has their own personality and a different style to facilitate workshops. So if you're an introvert or less energetic, don't think you need to be someone other than that.
That being said, be true to who you are and honest about what you know and what you don't.
You don't have to master the workshop's content or a specific matter that is being discussed; the facilitator only needs to be an expert in one thing: the process.
Avoid giving advice
The goal of a facilitator is to be objective and unbiased. Therefore, they should not advise, express personal opinions, or participate in discussions during the workshop.
Answering questions should be strictly about the workshop process, the dynamics, or the activities.
Encourage constructive debates
It's normal for discussions to arise during activities and dynamics, so instead of avoiding these conflicts, embrace them.
Different opinions and ideas clashing are a great way to provide insights and good outcomes. This diversity is enriching for a company and should always be encouraged.
The facilitator should know the best way to handle each situation, having the right tools and techniques to work conflicts productively.
Depending on the group, these conflicts can be a sensitive situation but even so, it is the role of a facilitator to delve into these discussions because they are useful and beneficial to solving problems and achieving objectives.
Hands-on: how to facilitate a workshop
When facilitating a workshop you can divide the steps into three main events:
- Planning and organizing;
1) Planning and organizing
We all have things we want to achieve. Whether it is a new car, getting a promotion, or running a marathon. What will make us successful in meeting those goals is how we plan ahead and stick to our plans.
And for a successful workshop is no different.
Planning and organizing allow the facilitator to be prepared for all kinds of scenarios, making participants give their best while making every minute count.
Ask yourself: What is the main goal of this workshop?
From this, you can move to other aspects:
- are there any secondary purposes?
- who doesn't need to be invited?
- how many and which people should you invite?
- what will they learn and what are the outcomes of that?
Reflecting on this will help you figure out how participants will impact the organization — as a result of attending the workshop — and guide your decisions on who is paramount to participate and who is not.
Setting the tone
Now it's time to structure the activities in the schedule and think about the experience you want to provide.
Think of questions like:
- How long should the workshop last?
- Which activities can better achieve the workshop's goals?
- What methods, tools, and techniques can you use?
- How many steps are involved in each exercise? How can you anticipate questions or objections that might arise?
- How can you break the ice?
- How many breaks should you set?
Think of the materials you will need:
- pen, paper, sharpies;
- whiteboard, sticky notes;
- voting dots, index cards, or any other material that might be relevant for the activities.
For the execution part, pay attention to the following:
- timing: manage the time spent on each task;
- encourage participation: pay attention to introverts and invite them to participate;
- be unbiased: as mentioned earlier, don't take sides. Treat everyone's opinions and ideas in the same way;
- keep order and respect: don't allow discussions to be about people; make sure everyone is being respectful during debates;
- respect the breaks: don't skip breaks; people will get tired through the workshop.
As you gain experience with workshop facilitation, you'll learn new ways to conduct activities and handle conflicts.
A good way to start is by participating in workshops and watching other facilitators. Take notes and observe their tactics, methods, or dynamics you think might be interesting.
Another great way to gain experience is volunteering for a nonprofit organization. Then, begin facilitating your first workshops with small groups that you feel comfortable with.
Once your workshop is over, evaluate yourself and ask participants to provide feedback.
Feedbacks are important to see what you can do better and if expectations were met.
Moreover, it's essential to understand whether the workshop has achieved its goals or not.
Important points for you to evaluate at this point are:
- Did the participants find it easy to complete assignments?
- Were the activities efficient, and their corresponding objectives achieved?
- Did the participants have a good experience throughout the workshop?
- Which activities, methods, and tools were more efficient?
- What have you learned? What can you improve for the next workshops?
Since the pandemic hit, we all have adapted to do things differently due to social distancing.
Despite the main steps remaining the same, there are a few additional aspects to take into account:
- stable internet connection: this is crucial for a good workshop flow;
- consider a backup connection: e.g., your phone as a hotspot;
- suitable environment: choose a well-lit and quiet environment preventing anything from interfering with the conduct of the workshop;
- suitable accessories: headsets, video camera, and an excellent microphone to ensure quality communication with participants; test your equipment and ensure everything is ready to go!
- suitable software: make sure you're using software that improves interaction with participants, enabling screen sharing, file sharing, and group organization. Don't forget to have a plan B for every tool! If some participants are in a different region, restrictions can be applied to using some tools.
- tips and tricks: it really comes in handy having two screens: one for the video call and one for the digital whiteboard (e.g., Miro, Mural). This way, you can observe all participants and see when someone looks confused or if they are experiencing any technical problems;
- the whiteboard: the workshop relies a lot on your digital whiteboard, so prepare it in advance.
Overall, the facilitator should test everything beforehand and have a contingency plan for every tool and software. Consequently, everything you might need during the workshop should be ready to go; avoid distracting the group or breaking up the workshop flow.
Another good move is to have an assistant, a co-facilitator. They will support you if any technical problem comes up and assist you with the music, timers, and the online whiteboard.
Final tips and considerations
Finally, wrapping up is just as important. After all the work is done, show the group how far they got and all the things they accomplished during the session.
This will leave participants with a nice feeling, enhancing the overall experience.
It's really professional to schedule a final handover document or call, summarizing the entire workshop, the process, outcomes, solutions, and the rationale behind them.
Apart from that, here are a few other tips:
1) Pick participants well
A big part of the event's success is about choosing the right people to work with.
You should definitely shoot for a diverse, multidisciplinary team. This way, the search for solutions will be much broader with all kinds of opinions and different perspectives.
Adittionnaly, try to keep the number of participants to 7 per facilitator. So if you have 2 facilitators, you can double the number of participants.
2) Good distribution of activities
Some activities require more attention than others. Therefore, try to avoid fatigue by dividing exercises and breaks according to the necessary effort to accomplish each task. This way, you can prevent participants from feeling tired, frustrated, or out of focus.
Consider putting activities that require more focus first; if you leave them to the end, there might not be enough energy or motivation.
In addition, distribute the breaks well and don't overwhelm the schedule with too many intense activities.
3) Align expectations
Workshops are intense, not only for facilitators but for participants as well.
Therefore, if you know that a specific assignment takes longer, tell them so. Or, if a task is more complex, anticipate to the group that it's normal to find difficulties in the process they are about to start.
Providing participants feedback helps align expectations towards the process and ease possible fears and insecurities.
Aligning these expectations is paramount to keeping everyone engaged and motivated throughout the workshop.
Also, ask each participant what their expectations are for the event and write them down; this can help you navigate the group through certain times.
4) Embrace your teacher mode
Some activities may seem very easy to facilitators, as they already know the entire process.
But for participants, this is something new.
So walk through the steps calmly and don't assume what you know is common to all. Therefore, don't use jargon or technical language; explain everything in a way that even people from different departments or backgrounds can understand.
Facilitating workshops is a role that requires a lot of time and practice. We hope you have the foundation to start successfully facilitating workshops with this article.