So you want to facilitate a ? No matter if you’re a seasoned facilitator or have never facilitated before, here are some that I’ve picked up along the way that may prove useful:

1. Time

Time or more importantly how you communicate the amount of time required from participants can be your most important asset as a design workshop facilitator. In my experience (especially when trying to get sceptical stakeholders to participate) I’ve found it far easier to get buy-in when you frame your workshop with “only asking for 2 hours of your time” vs. “attend this day workshop”. Even if you have multiple days worth of activities, try breaking down the days into individual events and you may find this is more palatable approach for participants to accept.

Don’t become a walking clock — invest in a Time-Timer

In an ideal world you would have stakeholders participate in every single workshop activity BUT when this is not possible, an important skill is deducing what activities in your workshop would benefit from a particular function’s input. For example, if you’re a customer journey-mapping session, the value that a particular function e.g. customer support, can bring is going to be extremely valuable and in most cases provide unrivalled insights. Two hours of insights from a stakeholder in a highly relevant function will be more valuable than creating an echo chamber of non-participation caused by your 5-day workshop placeholder.

The other aspect of ‘time’, is making sure that you have planned out in advance the activities you are going to be conducting. This will become what millennials call a frenemy. It will be your best friend, disguised as your worst enemy but an enemy that ultimately has your best intentions at heart. Here’s a plan from some recent workshops that I facilitated (Who doesn’t love a colour coded spreadsheet!):

Example Workshop Schedule

Here are some tips, related to the workshop schedule:

  • Provide prior visibility of the schedule so that participants can plan any other work commitments around this.
  • Be generous in the time that you dedicate to particular tasks, particularly activities that may not be familiar to “non-design” audiences. Something as simple as Dot-Voting can take a few minutes for participants to grasp, so overestimate the time you dedicate to these activities.
  • An often overlooked part of workshop facilitation is scheduling breaks. It’s amazing (and not surprising) that a 10 minute coffee break can recharge the energy in the room. It also gives participants a dedicated time to check emails and pickup other“work” activities, reducing the likelihood that they will get distracted by these during your session.
  • Invest in a Time Timer — facilitation can seem like you’re trying to herd sheep and you’ll feel like a walking clock (see GIF above) without one.

2. Alpha State

Have you ever been in an external workshop activity and felt like the energy in the room is different? No matter what you do, when you try to recreate the activities in your own office it just doesn’t kindle the same kind of energy? I certainly have, and until recently I didn’t know how to describe it. That is, until I attended a workshop by the folks from @TheDesignGym and they introduced me to the concept of ‘The Alpha State’.

(Source: www.mindtosucceed.com)

I’m a Designer and not a neurologist, so here is a great explanation from Mind Power expert Mandy Bass:

An “alpha state of mind” is what scientists associate with “right brain” activity, or our subjective senses of imagination, creativity, memory and intuition. When you are actively awake, you are typically in a state of mind known as Beta, with brain wave activity between 14 and 30 HZ. When your brain wave activity slows down to between 7 and 14 HZ, you are said to be in an alpha state. It is considered a “relaxed” state of mind that allows you to be more receptive, open, creative and less critical.

(Original Article: https://www.mindtosucceed.com/alpha-state-of-mind.html)

If you’re interested, here are a few more scientific studies that discuss Alpha brainwaves and creativity:

  1. Chrysikou, E. G. (2018). 17 The Costs and Benefits of Cognitive Control for Creativity. The Cambridge Handbook of the Neuroscience of Creativity, 299.
  2. Wei-Lun Lin, Yi-Ling Shih. (2016) Designing EEG Neurofeedback Procedures to Enhance Open-ended versus Closed-ended Creative Potentials.
  3. Boynton. (2008) Applied Research Using Alpha/Theta Training for Enhancing Creativity and Well-Being

There are many techniques for achieving the alpha state and the internet is a great resource for uncovering some of these, including many meditation exercises. While, some may not be practically possible in the context of a design workshop, a low barrier method to help achieve an Alpha state is music.Here’s one of my playlists that I use throughout my workshops to help elicit the alpha state:

Alpha State Spotify Playlist

3. Show the process

A mistake often made when facilitating design workshops is that facilitators often forget to show what the output or the process will look like. Concepts such as journey maps, wireframes or affinity diagrams may be familiar to or product teams but for many functions, don’t assume there is any prior knowledge. In fact, even for teams that are familiar with these artifacts I would recommend spending a few minutes demonstrating what the final output will look like. This helps to ensure there is a mutual understanding within the room. A common example could be wireframes. You may be facilitating an exercise in which participants create wireframes, one person in the room may be thinking quick sketches whilst another person could be visualising higher fidelity mockups. Start an activity with a quick explanation and demonstration to create that shared understanding to help ensure a common goal is understood from the outset.

Show the journey that you will go on (Source: Brian Ho on Unsplash)

What happens after the workshop is just as important as the activities during the workshop. Share the output, artifacts or discussion points with participants following the workshop. It can help important conversations to continue, draw additional insights that may not have been shared during the workshop and provide a mechanism for people that may not have been able to attend to provide their input. If workshops become a blackhole and there is no visibility then it can become harder to garner participation in the future. In organizations that aren’t used to design-related activities, a followup with participants can be the hook & lure that gets people coming back for more.

4. Have Fun

This one is pretty self-explanatory. That being said, it’s still an important point to remember when facilitating workshops. I remember facilitating my first few workshops; I was so concerned with getting through the activities that I’m pretty sure the atmosphere created was akin to getting a filling at the dentist — not ideal for facilitator or participants alike! This is were a workshop schedule comes into a world of its own . Knowing you have a plan can help you achieve a relaxed demeanour which will be infectious for your participants throughout the day.

Here are some tips, that will help you feel prepared and in-turn help create a fun atmosphere:

  • Have a walkthrough prior to the workshop. If you are hosting larger workshops it’s important that you know the plan. This is integral for your own sanity. Nothing ruins an atmosphere more than a facilitator poorly improvising.
  • Within your plan, make sure you’ve noted the resources required (I’m going to bet you’ll need a lot of post-its). It’s better to source these in advance so you’re not rummaging through every stationary cupboard in sight (talking from experience!).
  • If possible, do a tech-check so that you know how to connect to any visual or audio equipment. I’m sure the law of workshops states that the more people attending, the more connectivity issues that you will experience. Better to at least try to get out in front of them.
(Making a mess and having fun with a paper airplane competition)

If you’re hosting a longer workshop, after a while the atmosphere can become stagnant. As a facilitator you can inject some energy back into the room by planning some activities outside of the regular design activities. There are 100s of free online resources for finding different activities that you may be able to use. Something as simple as a paper airplane competition can get people energised and is a good way to build relationships amongst participants, particularly useful if it’s a cross-functional group. These activities are great if your workshops contains alot of participant ideation. A quick context switch can help to new thought paths being formed.

5. Remove Hierarchy

When facilitating a workshop with executives, it’s important to be aware that it can sometimes be intimating for participants to not feel comfortable with sharing their insights. This can be for many reasons. It can sometimes be a false perception that there will be “repercussions” from speaking candidly in a “superior’s” presence. Some people may naturally feel like they are not the authoritative voice in a room. It’s your job as a facilitator to create a safe environment in which EVERYBODY in the room can feel comfortable in participating.

It’s also important to note that whilst you can can create this environment, there may be some other barriers that prevent full participation in your workshop e.g. different cultures. It’s particularly important to do some homework if you’re facilitating a workshop in a culture that differs from your usual working environment. For example, some Eastern cultures can traditionally be more hierarchical in nature, in which open questioning to senior leadership could be seen as not conforming to this “hierarchy”. Here are some handy tips that I’ve found useful in combatting this:

  • Mix groups of varying levels. This allows for different levels of viewpoints to mix and is a great way to ignite conversation amongst participants.
  • Get executive buy-in prior to the workshop and provide visibility of this at the start of your workshop.
  • Create a level playing field from the offset, this can be achieved with a number of “ice-breaker” type activities that can help groups of participants feel more comfortable with each other. It can be better to have a few minutes of awkwardness than an entire workshop that hasn’t achieved it’s full potential due to non-participation.
  • Cool idea 🚨 (Hint: It involves slippers), courtesy of the team @AJSmartDesign

6. Adapt

Yes, I know this is a 6th point but this hopefully illustrates my point. During a workshop, you can control the structure, you can’t fully control the output or the direction it may take. I view workshops like a plane or a ship and you’re the captain. You’re taking your team from familiar surroundings to the land of the unknown. As a facilitator your job is to steer the ship. You should guide and advise attendees through this journey but ultimately you can’t fully control the way conversations will go, how ideas will develop or how people will interact.

(Source: Caleb Woods on Unsplash)

At times, you may hit rough-waters or experience turbulence. Like any good pilot, it is your job to steer and reach the best possible outcome for all involved. Sometimes this means you might need to stray from your original plan and adapt to the conditions on the day. Note, there is an important distinction between adapting a plan and going completely off-track.The more workshops that you facilitate the more you will develop an instinct to detect if a change in strategy is required. Finally, if everything seems to be going wrong, don’t let it show to participants. After-all, you are the captain and your confidence is required every step of the way. It will all work out in the end and a “fake it till you make it” approach will go along way in bringing the ship back on course.



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