Or how to kick ass during your next workshop

Over time I have been building a collection of I like to use in workshops and sessions. That’s besides my enthusiasm for the the 1-week design sprint format of course (more on that here), but spending a full week isn’t always possible or necessary. For shorter workshops I like to have a few others at hand, and in this article I would like to share my favorites with you. They are all tried and tested at the TU Delft or at KLM’s Digital Transformation program of course!

30 circles

This exercise, originally created by IDEO, serves as a great warmup for people that say “I can’t draw” before you’ve even started. By forcing them to draw simple things in a predefined format under time pressure you’ll see that everyone is able to produce something and just get going. The fun aspect of doing something random as drawing and filling circles makes this exercise perfect as icebreaker before starting one of the other exercises in this list. Make sure you don’t forget the explanation afterwards, in which you can point out where someone broke the rules (‘You broke the rules on purpose? Good!’), quantity over quality (‘You filled all 30? Awesome!’), or building on earlier ideas (‘You drew flowers leading to planets leading to smileys? Fantastic!’). Together they will get participants in the right mood for the rest of your workshop.

How might we fail?

The second exercise I want to cover is named differently by multiple sources. Sprint calls it How Might We Fail?, while the Gamestorming book calls it doing a post mortem analysis on your idea. In essence both mean the same thing: by looking at potential failures upfront, you can catch issues before they even become an actual problem. In my experience this sometimes leads to the same factors coming up over and over again, such as the nameless, faceless monster we call ‘IT’ or ‘HR’, but keep doing it nevertheless. It’s great to get your participants’ fears on this out there, so you can ask the right follow-up to find out exactly what they think can go wrong. Just make sure you pay attention to resolving the potential issues you find during or after your workshop though.

Empathy map

As designers we all agree that you’re not designing for yourself and that empathy is key. But building empathy takes time, and creating good personas is just hard work. Using an Empathy Map (credits to XPLANE) is one of the quickest way of getting your workshop participants into the mood of designing for something else. By following the structured format you’ll have them working with something that resembles a persona in no-time. If you don’t have much time most of the content will of course be based on assumptions of course, so make sure you prepare research upfront or follow-up afterwards. But the true power of this exercise is in quickly building a picture of the person you’re designing for, so your participants can make decisions for them instead of themselves.


This exercise is maybe not the most well-known, but it still remains one of my favorites. Workshop participants often ask ‘How did you become so creative? ‘. Well, part of creativity is using associations on random things around you, and that is exactly what Matec does.

Here’s how it works: by systematically associating on words from your original problem statement, putting them in a 5×5 matrix, and force-fitting them back to the original problem, you’ll help your participants open up parts of their mind they didn’t know existed. It will feel a bit wacky and uncomfortable at first, but if you follow the instructions there will be structure and purpose to the randomness. The new thoughts and associations gained will contribute to creative approaches and solutions to your original problem.

Reverse brainstorm

Are you dealing with a lot of “We can’t do that?” or “That won’t work” in your group? Then try reversing the problem and making use of the negativity: how can you make the problem worse, make your customers not use your product, or how can you break your current system? Reverse brainstorming builds on approaching the problem from a different angle that everyone knows: who can’t recall a time a product or service made them feel terrible?

Once you’ve come up with some ideas, try reversing them into something positive that you can use to solve your original problem. Would you scare away people by playing your latest hardcore hits playlist? Then maybe you can look into ways you can use music to create a positive atmosphere for your customers when they enter? Or would you make it impossible to upload pictures in your app? Then maybe you can make it as easy as possible to add a picture? Reversing your problem brings you creative, new angles to look at your problem.

100$ test

The fact that the book Gamestorming is in my top 5 design books should be obvious from my exercises by now as well. Once you’ve generated loads of great, fresh ideas you’ll need to prioritize in order to get something useful out of them. Using the 100$ test wil help you do this. By asking participants to invest their hard-earned money into items, ideas or features you’ll get a rough idea of what they find important.

It won’t give you a solid business case, but it will help you focus on what’s most important or even which features to build in your first agile development sprint. The alternative is of course plain old voting with sticky dots, but where’s the fun in that? Including a monetary aspect will challenge participants to ‘put their money where their mouth is’. Want to up the fun even further? Use old Monopoly banknotes or even create banknotes with your company logo to represent the investment.

Two-axis matrix

Struggle helping your participants find the magic combination between seemingly contradicting demands? Then this exercise, — although I’m still not sure about it’s official name — is a great start. Start by picking two criteria your participants find important: often combinations of along the lines of feasibility and innovativeness work best. But for example problem fit and cost also work, as long as they can be put on opposite ends of the spectrum and are understandable for all participants. Next, rank each idea or concept on these two criteria, comparing ideas as you go along: ‘Is this idea more or less feasible than the other one?’.

The value of this exercise is not in the absolute rankings you obtain, but in the discussion your participants will have around it. Often you’ll run into different interpretations of an idea, different views on what’s feasible, or even totally different criteria for making a decision. So make sure you not only capture the ranking, but also the arguments used in the discussion as well. I must confess: I haven’t tacked the best wat to do these two things at the same time myself though. Again: this way of prioritizing is not rocket science, but a first indication on how people feel about an idea. Don’t aim for being 100% right, somewhere around 70 percent should be just enough.

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