Running a workshop can be pretty stressful. Especially if you’re a first-time facilitator worried about how the session should feel for everyone taking part.
Having run a number of workshops with clients, designers, developers and product people over the years, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes – so you don't have to. These learnings might just help you finish on time, on target, and with a real sense of team. Here goes.
❌ DON’T fill the allotted time with back-to-back tasks 🥵
This is the #1 most common, easiest, and worst mistake to make. It creates a time-pressured environment that stresses out everyone in the room and actually cuts people off just as they’re engaging in meaningful discussion. People have the best ideas when they’re relaxed and have time to let their minds wander and bounce ideas around. Encourage that.
❌ DON’T cut people off mid-flow 💞
We’ve all done it. You’ve designed a perfect series of time-boxed tasks, and someone dares to share their thoughts beyond the allotted time. So, you drop the guillotine and move the team to the next task. This can be really damaging to the atmosphere. Letting people run their course validates what they’re saying and encourages a safe-space vibe, which makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy inside. Everyone likes that.
❌ DON’T rely on post-it notes 🌳
The prevailing product stereotype of people putting post-it notes on a board works for informal discussions. In my experience, though, organising hundreds of post-it notes can obstruct creativity and get in the way of what you’re there to do: explore ideas with each other. It’s also a pain to document and clean up afterwards, not to mention a waste of precious trees. Try a digital whiteboard like FigJam instead; they’re rife for collaboration and are easy to maintain, update, and share.
❌ DON’T copy Jake Knapp’s book SPRINT (unless you've 5 days spare) 🚀
Length matters. And whilst SPRINT has loads of groundbreaking, really important stuff in it, unless you have 5 days for your workshop (and who the hell does?), you’re going to need a different approach. Like the one below, for example…
✅ DO share an agenda before the workshop 💪
Agendas don’t have to be complicated. Outline the objectives and outcomes, what participants will need, and what activities you will be doing. This will help people arrive at the workshop prepared and ready to go. See the example at the bottom of this article.
✅ DO limit the scope 🤏
Whilst a workshop might seem like the perfect opportunity to answer all your burning questions, a single exercise done in a relaxed manner is way more valuable than many exercises rushed through in a stressful manner. Think of the task simply as a framework for discussion and idea generation.
✅ DO build in a 30% time contingency ⏱
Tasks inevitably run over. And that’s ok! I’ve found that a 30% time contingency is the golden number for finishing on schedule and not stressing everyone out. Planned breaks also help people decompress and mull over ideas while gathering around the water cooler.
✅ DO limit the number of people at the table 🙅♂️
Be draconian on this. The key to a good workshop is letting everyone have their say. It’s exhausting and time-consuming to go around and hear 10 opinions. Four to six participants is ideal and gives you the opportunity to bring in a bunch of different perspectives (Design, Dev, Product, Customer etc.). If you must include more people, make sure the workshop's scope is really simple, or divide people into groups and let one person speak for the group.
✅ DO provide snacks 🍩
This is actually very important. Our brains consume a lot of glucose to run effectively. Having snacks at the table allows people to have a little pick-me-up if they’re feeling sluggish and keeps the energy levels in the room high.
✅ DO be inclusive when collating input from participants 💖
I used to always push people to use Miro or sketch out their ideas. But Miro can be alienating (especially for non-tech-types), and some people aren’t comfortable putting pen to paper. And that’s ok! For workshop novices, I’ve found FigJam to be much more user-friendly. For idea generation, I’d still encourage pen and paper because it’s fun and brings nostalgic child-like joy. But the key takeout is to let people communicate their ideas however they feel comfortable.
✅ DO prepare your exit strategy 🔐
Have you ever felt like everyone’s thrown loads of great ideas out, but you now have no idea how to resolve them into a meaningful outcome? This happens when you don’t predefine your end state or craft an exercise that naturally concludes the workshop. It’s important to note that the solution doesn’t HAVE to be pinned down. Sometimes there will be an organic consensus about the best way to solve a problem. Sometimes there will be some different ideas with pros and cons. Both are great outcomes to test and move forward with. Ideally, the person who will do (or lead) the follow-up work makes the final decisions. If you must make a decision in the workshop, you can get a poll of opinions using a dot vote.
✅ DO facilitate an open, relaxed and safe space so magic can happen ✨
The best workshops are ‘magic’. They feel joyous. They’re fun. Engaging. Easy-going. Relaxed. And effective. They leave participants feeling like everyone understands the problem and has had their voice heard. That’s when you know you’ve run a good workshop.