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How to prepare for a super productive workshop

September 8, 2023
Anna Adlard
Anna Adlard

Our company name is Workshop for good reason. For us, the word is rich with meaning. It conjures up a certain kind of place. A studio full of natural light, bright ideas and just the right amount of mess. A desk covered in tools, notebooks and pens in every color. Walls covered in visual inspiration and in-progress sketches. This is the kind of place we want to encourage and create -- both in the workspace we create for ourselves at and our clients. 

But to us, workshop is not just a place—it’s also a way of working. “Let’s workshop this,” we often say to each other and our clients. It’s become a shorthand for: a dedicated block of time with a focused group of people to run exercises with a specific goal in mind. Workshops are perfect for aligning, planning or deciding. These are all critical moments in the life of a new product, so we use workshops often. 

At this point in my career, I’ve led hundreds of meetings, focus groups and workshops. I’ve learned by doing. 

1. Make a plan.

Don’t wing it. Give yourself time to map out a detailed plan for the workshop. At least a week before, I plan out an entire workshop, down to the minute (including how much time I’ll give for breaks along the way). This is as much about mental preparation for the role of facilitation, as it is about planning a smart agenda. 

2. Get creative. 

I think workshops should be fun. If you’re going to ask for a team’s time: keep it engaging and make it memorable. Your mission is to help everyone shake off their responsibilities for a few hours and shift into more creative territory together. Choose activities and games that support the goals of your workshop. There’s a treasure trove of workshop activities that are freely available. Here are a few of my favorites. 

Open Design Kit 

The Product Discovery Activity Guide 


3. Design for dynamics. 

Consider the dynamics in the room. We try to get inside perspective on the personalities, agendas and dynamics in the room before every workshop we run. If we can, we try to schedule a pre-workshop check-in with participants to suss out their concerns and expectations for the session. Managing team dynamics toward a constructive, productive discussion is the primary role of facilitation. 

4.  Ban screens. 

Yes, really. And I’m not just talking about laptops. I think phones should also stay off the table in a workshop. Research shows that even having a cell phone on the table during a conversation creates distraction and hinders empathy. The dynamics in a workshop are sensitive and wily, and I do everything I can to facilitate a focused, constructive conversation. That means a ban on screens. We could all use a break from our demanding inboxes and the constant ping of Slack updates. 


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