Continuous improvement: for your next workshop

Last week I facilitated a workshop on a (ssshhhh, top secret IT topic) for colleagues at Air France-KLM. This session taught me a lot on creative practicalities, and my role as facilitator. Therefore, in this blog I want to share my learnings from this workshop for you to learn from.

Prepared & flexible logistics

Damn, the logistics of this workshop took quite some time & energy! Imagine when your go-to location is not available, meeting rooms are in short supply, your group size is getting out of hand, you decide to do part of the program in parallel, aaand you also have to make sure lunch with 15 people gets done in under 45 minutes…. Being able to deal with this requires two things from you as facilitator: preparation and flexibility.

Preparation includes having a good schedule, with all your activities roughly planned out, with some slack, and most importantly backup plans available. Make sure you have all your rooms booked, confirmed and close by. For this I like to remind myself of the golden rule of workshop rooms (wisdom shared by one of my Creative Facilitation teachers at the TY Delft): always book a room that is at least twice as big as your group size.

Flexibility comes with experience: being able to judge the flow of the workshop to see where you should adjust in order to get to where you want to be. This includes feeling which discussions to let go a bit, what parts of your planning have slack in them and where you can adjust exercises to make up for changes in content.

Golden rule of workshop rooms: book a room twice as big as your number of participants.

Group size & composition

Together with the logistics of this workshop, getting the group size and composition right is always a struggle. From practice I learned that there is an optimal group size for workshops, which is around 7 people (excluding you as facilitator(s)). This will make sure your workshop remains effective, but also that everyone has a chance to speak up and contribute.

In terms of group composition there’s always a delicate balance between including all perspectives or keeping the group manageable. When you’re in charge of the group composition as facilitator it may be easier to have control over the group you want, but in return this will take more effort to manage all people. In contrast, having your business stakeholder or customer take care of all the scheduling will result in less control over your group composition, offset by less effort getting everyone on the same page. In the end, it’s always a balance between those two opposites. Group size and contribution also have a large impact on group dynamics, but more on that topic (and the application of Tuckman’s theories) maybe in a later blog.


Other than the maps we create on the first day of a design sprint, this workshop was a great opportunity to co-create a service blueprint. With the distinction between front- and backstage, blueprints are a great tool for bridging the gap between what the user sees and what IT systems need to take care of. Although for designers blueprints and journeys are a common tool, introducing this during a workshop to unsuspecting participants can be a challenge. Therefore, take your time to explain the elements and steps, and use examples where possible. And using printed templates is far from necessary, with some good preparation and a clear goal doing things with old-fashioned flipover sheets and Post-its will get the job done just as easy with more flexibility.

Blueprints are a great tool for bridging the gap between what the user sees and what IT systems need to take care of.

Pingpong on the parking spot

In my most recent creative workshops I have become better at playing what I call verbal ping-pong: feeding people’s own words back to them. Especially when dealing with the kind of complex topics we at KLM try to put into workshops, it’s crucial as facilitator to check if there’s common agreement and everyone is still in. A small selection of useful magic words

  • “Is this what we all mean?” > Keep checking back with your group if everyone still feels you’re on the right track.
  • “You say (…), am I understanding you correctly that you mean?” > Listen, rephrase and check back. This makes sure you check if you’ve understood everything (and gives you time to come up with a proper reply).
  • “Can you write that down on a Post-It and put it on there yourself, so we’ve captured it somewhere?” I often made the mistake of being the only one writing post its while facilitating. These are magic words to use while you hand people the tools to become involved themselves.
  • “Do you mind if we park this on our parking spot to get back to later?” > Discussions on tough topics are likely to get out of hand, so make sure you have a parking spot ready to use together with this sentence. Of course make sure you address the things you park at some point, otherwise people will still feel left out and ignored.

Any more magic words for facilitators that I missed? Let me know in the comments!


The most productive creative workshops require total focus and commitment from all participants, instead of checking your e-mail and pretending you have something more important to do. When working with IT-colleagues this is of course likely go all wrong. Not addressing this is a mistake I’ve made before, which resulted in distracted and disengaged participants. The solution to this is a fun but serious way to introduce this element as part of your general workshop introduction (tip: animated GIF’s are awesome for this 😉 ). Of course, letting participants quickly check their e-mail during a break or handle an important phone call isn’t a problem, but make sure you don’t loosen the reigns too far, because you will struggle to regain control afterwards.

Just make sure this doesn’t have to happen 😉

User testing

Doing on the spot user research is by far the most powerful tool to get stakeholders to believe in your research findings. Seeing users struggle reveals way more than you as designer saying ‘that is not clear to the user, we need to change it’. We tried to make sure our test participants were representative for our intended target group, but in an environment where pulling people from their operational schedules is (of course) close to impossible this is very hard to achieve. Just make sure you keep thinking about the composition of your test group upfront when preparing similar workshops.

Due to the same logistical concerns I mentioned earlier we had to resolve to an unfamiliar test setup: putting the test participant plus interviewer in one room and having the observers in another. This prevented the awkwardness of having five observers staring at one participants, all with their own burning questions. Biggest learning here is to test your video setup thoroughly beforehand, as nothing will work as planned when you need it.

Observing a test via a video stream is a great tool, just make sure to test it upfront.

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