The Technical Workshop – How to make them work for you

Anyone experienced in product design will understand just how valuable a facilitated workshop can be. Bringing together a project’s key stakeholders into a single space allows for the exploration of diverse opinions and ideas, while simultaneously striving to achieve “consensual validation”.

Software systems are typically built with support from a large network of stakeholders. You have your product owners, multifaceted development teams, service providers such as Zircon and of course your end-users. By bringing these groups together, you will be bringing together people with differing opinions, interests and agendas. Taking this into account, it is hardly surprising that the facilitated workshop can be a powerful asset in the development process.

Here at Zircon, we have utilised workshops on a number of our projects to gain a clear understanding of expectations for the system under development. For example, as part of a project to develop an Android application, we implemented a series of workshops with the end-user to establish the suitability of our mocked up prototypes. For another project to capture the requirements of a new rail signalling product, our team facilitated several workshops to understand stakeholder expectations for the system and how it would be used and its integration with the client’s wider system (or portfolio of products).

A successful and productive workshop can be both fun and energising. However, when a workshop is poorly planned or badly run it can be incredibly damaging. The “best” worst-case scenario is an unnecessary waste of precious time and resources, however, the results can be as extreme as damaging vital relationships or project derailment as political agendas play out. So to help you ensure that your next workshop will be a resounding success, we have outlined some pointers to guide you in the right direction.

Determine and define the purpose of the workshop

If you are considering the implementation of a workshop, you must have some idea of a goal that you would like to achieve. Before you approach a potential audience, you need to define what that goal is, as it is impossible to reach an agreed endpoint if you haven’t taken the time to define what that endpoint is.

Start with a few sentences to explain your reasons for hosting the workshop, almost as if you are sending out a calendar invite. You can then expand on this to articulate what you are attempting to achieve, and how the world will be a better place after the completion of the workshop. Try to articulate your concrete aims for the outcome in the form of actions. For example:

  • Identify and agree on the safety hazards of the level crossing CCTV system
  • review the proposed mobile app user interface prototypes
  • agree the elements to be incorporated in the final prototype

When you finally do decide to reach out to your attendees, you should explain why they are being invited and what you will expect them to contribute during the workshop. If you are expecting them to prepare ahead of time, i.e. read any documents relevant to the outcome of the workshop or be prepared to make a short presentation, you should also make this clear to them.

Choose a healthy mix of attendees

Your audience will have a direct impact on the quality of your workshop. Unfortunately, you can’t just invite the individuals that you know will play nice and make life easier, the need for their involvement will single-handedly depend on their ability to contribute to your workshops outcomes. Take the time to look over the purpose that you have outlined, this will define which stakeholders are key and those that will have no valuable input and simply increase the risk of derailment and distraction.

As an additional note, ensuring that attendees are empowered to make decisions regarding the objectives of the workshop will help ensure that progress is made, and avoid the creation of an echo-chamber in which ideas are bounced around but a lack of approval prevents progress on those ideas.

You also need to be aware that most of the attendees invited to the workshop will be keen to promote their agendas and ideas. In being aware that certain participants will attend with preconceived attitudes to the problem, and maybe even other attendees, you can address them early on in the workshop plan.

Be cautious of the size of the group

While you will want to achieve diversity in your attendee list, you want to avoid going too crazy with theinvites to the point that you have a town hall meeting on your hands rather than a workshop. Considering that the purpose of the workshop is to achieve a mutual agreement, you don’t want to put yourself in a position that could jeopardise that goal. However, there is no clear cut answer as to the ideal number of invitees, as this will depend he avily on the purpose of your meeting. If you are finding that you are bringing too many people to the table, you need to consider modifying the purpose rather than downsizing the numbers.

As a general rule of thumb, the bigger the discussion group, the harder it will be to reach a unanimous decision. That being said, several workshop management techniques can be employed when dealing with larger groups. These techniques can be demanding and take a lot of work but it can be done if the workshop requires it.

Outline some ground rules

To help ensure smooth sailing, you should be applying a set of principles for the duration of your workshop, for example:

  • One person talking at a time. No having multiple conversations while the workshop is in session.
  • No mobile phones. Breaks will be offered for you to catch up on emails and calls.
  • Respect one another.
  • This will be a ‘safe’ environment and there will be no such thing as a bad or silly idea or comment, all input will be valued.
  • The facilitator apologises in advance for cutting off speakers and stopping discussions mid-flow. We appreciate that this may appear rude, but it is the facilitator’s job to keep the workshop on schedule.

These principles will help to maintain acceptable behaviour, promote the overall goal of the workshop as well as serve as a process guide.

Work with your group to establish and agree upon principles that are clearly defined and acceptable to all participants. As the facilitator, you are first and foremost responsible for monitoring the adherence to these principles.

Carefully manage the characters

Once the workshop is underway, one of the facilitator’s many roles is to ensure that each participant is offered the chance to have their voice heard. There is a careful balancing act between gently subduing strong characters who push their agenda and trying to engage those who are more passive and hold back on putting their ideas across.

There will be times where a facilitator will have to employ techniques, or exercises, that will help prevent the conversation from stalling. Whether this is to pull more introverted members into a discussion or to ensure that the thread of discussion stays on track. For example, to try and engage those who may be nervous or reluctant to speak you may benefit from running a warm-up exercise when all attendees have gathered. Examples of particularly useful exercises include:

  • Leave-your-baggage at the door
  • Share one positive and one negative
  • Change up the style of voting/option ranking

If you feel a conversation beginning to enter that never-ending circle, it is the role of the facilitator to break the cycle and refocus the group on the workshop’s goal. You need to try and get those in the debate to articulate the areas where they agree and recognise exactly where they disagree. For example, the facilitator could say something along the lines of “so I hear you, person A, saying this …, and I hear you, person B, saying this …. You both seem to be agreeing on this point … but are disagreeing on this point …, how could we bridge this gap?”

Take frequents breaks

It may not always seem like an intensive experience, but a workshop demands a lot of focus from its attendees. Considering the limited time frame and availability of the individuals involved, you may not want to risk taking time out of your allotted schedule but to maintain productivity and focus brief regular breaks are beneficial. These breaks can also be more than simply for comfort, i.e. topping up drinks or making visits to the bathroom, they can be offered as an opportunity for busy attendees to check on their emails or make a call. If you provide these opportunities, you will simultaneously build a better connection with your attendees and minimise their distraction during the focused sections of the workshop.

The workshop doesn’t end at the door

Once all the discussions are over, you need to remember that even though the meeting may be over, the workshop doesn’t end once everyone is out of the room. Writing up and publishing the notes generated during the workshop, so that participants have the means to remember what was discussed and agreed upon. You should also make sure to accompany these notes with a list of actions and next steps that make it clear who owns each task and the date for completion.

By having a common point of information for all participants to refresh their memories, you remove the risk of conflicting accounts and improve productivity through task ownership.

So to quickly summarise, your workshop should have a clear objective and you should have invited the right participants who are empowered to make the necessary decisions. Your invite should be clear and ensures that invitees know what the workshop is for, why they are being invited and what their role is. Your workshop should be designed to address anticipated sticking points, overcome obstacles and move towards achieving the objective. And finally, you should utilise good workshop facilitation to keep the session moving, to build collaboration and consensus between participants, keeping the workshop to schedule and achieving its objectives. Put yourself in a strong position where your preparation and processes will allow participants to be active, engaged and committed to completing the task.