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How to keep your workshop on the rails

September 8, 2023
Anna Adlard
Anna Adlard

Our company name is Workshop for good reason. We use workshops throughout our process of discovering, defining and designing strategy. For us, the word has turned into a verb, as in “let’s workshop this.” A structured workshop is ideal for kicking off a new assignment, aligning stakeholders along the way and making decisions at critical moments. 

Here are five ways to keep a workshop running smoothly (or really, any meeting). 

1. Ground Rules

We have a short list of ground rules we use in every workshop, and we always have them posted up on the wall. These are borne out of experience for what makes a discussion more (or less) productive. Sharing these at the start also gives everyone a sense of what to expect from each other. Our ground rules for a productive discussion include:

  • No screens. I’ve shared this before, but we ban phones and laptops during the workshop. We ask everyone to take them off the table and tuck them away. Try it at your next meeting, and you’ll see. A certain magic happens when people are 100% present and have the simple inspiration of pen-and-paper in front of them. 
  • Equal opportunity airtime. We state at the outset that we intend to create space for everyone to speak up throughout the workshop. We give the room a heads-up that we will sometimes interrupt, redirect or call-on someone who hasn’t had a chance to weigh in. Stating this at the outset (in a lighthearted way) gives us permission to do just that when big talkers start taking over. 
  • Constructive candor. We’re often working with diverse stakeholders, and even organizations that compete. This ground rule sets the tone for a discussion that assures psychological safety, so we can clear out posturing and get to the good candor that is required for collaborative problem-solving. 
2. The Parking Lot

The Parking Lot is not an original trick of mine. It’s standard practice among excellent facilitators, and it works brilliantly to keep a discussion focused. The idea is simply this: dedicate a poster or a section of your whiteboard to Parking Lot. This is where you note everything that comes up that is not relevant to your agenda. Putting a crew of bright people into one room to think differently tends to inspire plenty of ideas -- and tangents. 

The Parking Lot gives you a way to affirm those ideas and capture compelling topics  -- while staying focused on the agenda at hand. We introduce the purpose of the Parking Lot at the start of a workshop, and I always say that relegation to the Parking Lot doesn’t mean something isn’t important (usually, it’s just the opposite). I know a workshop is getting good when people start to Parking Lot themselves: “This is a parking lot item, but I want to mention…”

3. Time Outs

When we introduce the Ground Rules, I warn people that we’ll sometimes call “time out” on a discussion. “Don’t take it personally,” I say. “It’s just tough love to keep us moving.” And that warning gives us permission. I call time out when a discussion is getting off-topic, crowded, heated or frustrated. It’s a small trick that can completely reset the room. Try it, and you’ll see. If you need to, follow up a Time-Out with a quick break. Taking a short break can reset a group dynamic in surprising ways. 

4.  Contain It

Structure is your friend when you’re trying to keep a group of 10+ people focused and moving through an agenda. Here are a few ways to contain a discussion:

  • Time-box When you create the agenda for a workshop, map it out down to the minute. Consider how much time you’ll really need in a session if you want every single person to go around and share.
  • Top Three. This is a simple way to contain answers and get a sense of priority. Instead of open-ended questions, ask participants to write down their Top Three in response. For example, “What are your top three pain points?” 
  • Post-Its. What gems these 3x3 squares are, especially when you’re facilitating a workshop. Post-it notes provide an automatic containment strategy. When you ask people to write down their answers or ideas, one by one, on a 3x3 square, it helps their brains organize and parse out information. It also makes for super-efficient presentation when they share back to the group. 
5. Write It All Down

Many years ago, when I was trying my hand at facilitation, my boss coached me through the process. She was a brilliant facilitator and could handle a room full of competing agendas and egos with ease. “The first rule of facilitation is this,” she said. “Write everything down. Everything that everyone says. Write it down.” This seems so simple, but as with the many tools of facilitation, it’s often the basics that make the difference. And she’s right. 

We capture everything we say and do in the course of a workshop. And it’s true, people benefit from seeing it all written down on the walls around them. It helps them process. It helps them build on ideas. In almost every workshop I’ve ever done, there’s always a part of the whiteboard that becomes the touchstone for the conversation.


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