Top 3 Workshop Facilitation Tips I Learned Running 100 Workshops

Over the past 5 1/2 years I have run a lot of workshops.  Everything from design sprints to very short ideation workshops lasting 1 hour. Almost every single one of these workshops was with a large enterprise (at least $1B in revenue) and I have learned a lot from my experiences.  Here are my top 3 workshop facilitation tips:

1. Facilitation is a learned skill that takes time to master

I have been asked several times to help with a workshop or be a co-facilitator and I can tell you there is a huge difference between a seasoned facilitator and a newbie.  Seasoned facilitators do the following:

  • Guide conversations and not let individuals take over
  • Deviate from their pre planned agenda
  • Have a sixth sense to understand when a topic warrants a deeper dive or be pushed to the “parking lot”. 
  • Focus on the workshop outcomes not just the mechanics of the workshop
  • Can run a variety of workshops and not just a Design Sprint
  • Say “no”

Multiple times I have seen large consulting companies expect a resource to read a couple articles on facilitation then put them in front of room as an expert facilitator.  What invariably happens is the workshop falls flat and nothing changes.  It is viewed as a “that was a nice activity but had no value”.  This only hurts these consulting companies as they are not trying to justify why they ran a workshop.

I am here to tell you that just in time facilitation training does not work and has a negative ROI. You need to grow and mature your facilitation skills like any other skill with practice and repetitions.

⚡️Tip 1:

Do a dry run with internal teams to practice specific exercises so you feel more comfortable running them.

⚡️Tip 2:

Join in AJ Smart’s Facilitator Club or enroll in their Workshop Master course.  They have curated an excellent set of resources for you to learn from quickly.

2. Do more prework and planning

Several years ago I was asked to help co-facilitate with a very large consulting company.  It was a couple hour workshop during a vendor conference.  A couple days before the workshop I met with the resources from the large consulting company and found out they had a rough agenda, no clear understanding of the amount of attendees, and very little understanding of how the workshop output would be used.  What was supposed to be a 30 minute meeting turned into 2 hours as we hammered out a defined agenda, a defined list of attendees, and how the outputs from the workshop could be used.  Fast forward two days later I show up a couple hours before our workshop to find out the main facilitators did not have near enough physical supplies (e.g. Sharpies, Post It Notes, etc.) for the 50 attendees we were expecting.  After a mad dash to an office supply store we made it work but it certainly was not ideal.  Bottom line: make sure to spend time planning.  Do not just wing it.  You will be stressed.

Workshopping is very powerful but just like data analysis it’s only as good as the inputs you give it.  When you are workshopping you need to have a baseline understanding of the problem you are trying to solve before you workshop.  Try to experience the problem first hand and bring the team with you.  

Make sure to have a workshop preview meeting with your attendees.  Invariably attendees will want to know what are we going to do during the workshop?  Are we going to take breaks?  Do I need to do anything before?  How will this affect me and my current workload? 

For every hour of workshopping we expect to spend at least 1 hour doing prework.  We see it all too often inexperienced workshoppers will not spend time during prework which leads to ineffective workshops. Instead of building alignment attendees are arguing over what is happening in today’s world and if it is a problem then all the sudden 3 hours is gone and nothing has been accomplished.  Nine times out of ten we adjust what activities we had planned for our workshop based on what we discovered during prework.  

To dramatically increase the likelihood of an workshop to be wildly successful do 3 simple things: 

  • Experience the problem and document it 
  • Plan for the logistics (where, when, have the supplies there ahead of time)
  • Set expectations with attendees during a workshop preview

Remember for every hour of workshopping expect to spend at least 1 hour doing prework

⚡️Tip 1:

If you are running a virtual workshop make sure to test out your whiteboarding tools (e.g. Mural, Miro) multiple times ahead of the workshop with attendees. If you are running a workshop in person make sure the room you are using can hold the number of attendees plus 5 so that you have room to move around.

⚡️Tip 2:

Create reusable assets like a journey map template, workshop shopping list, questions that you commonly ask.  This will save you time and increase the quality of your workshops.

3. Alignment, Alignment, Alignment

After experiencing large scale Digital Transformations, kick starting Digital Transformations, and helping sell Digital Transformations at enterprise levels I can tell you alignment is the single biggest challenge.  If you are aligned from senior leadership down to the end users you will have a high chance of success.  Everyone should understand what is the problem we are trying to solve, the root causes, and be able to articulate a vision of the future. Workshops should help facilitate alignment.  Let me repeat that. Workshops should help facilitate alignment.  

You should expect that all attendees have different goals that are driven by different incentivisation.  Almost always every attendee will have a different understanding of the current problem.  When you are designing a workshop you need to build in time to get everyone aligned around what is happening today.  

Use prioritization activities like dot voting throughout your workshops to drive alignment by giving all attendees the chance to “vote” while forcing decisions from your decider.  In the end its almost always better to force a decision to be made and align the group around that decision then to waiver around the decision.  While some attendees may not be happy with the choice made by your decider they will be aligned (and sometimes relieved) around the fact a decision has been made.  

⚡️Tip 1:

Prework is very important when it comes to alignment.  When reviewing a current journey or process, bring the team so everyone can experience.  Use concrete stories and examples to overcome the dreaded curse of knowledge.  This will set you up for success by establishing a baseline shared experience of the current journey or process.

⚡️Tip 2:

Use timeboxing and visual management to aid in alignment.  Heat maps are a great way to show groups where good ideas are and where the group is believes their is value.  Time boxing can be used to remove paralysis analysis.

Hopefully you will learn from my experience and these tips will help improve your next workshop. 

If you would like to learn more about Impactful Workshops or book a workshop book a call with Kenton, our lead facilitator.