Besides that moment when I look up at the clock and realize I’ve been sketching wireframes in a flow state for two hours, facilitating design workshops are one of my favorite things about my job. There is no greater joy than starting with an ambiguous problem and working with a team to uncover surprising opportunities and create an elegant solution.
But, getting a bunch of smart people in a room and throwing stickies at the wall can feel like herding cats. That’s why I use a few steps and questions to craft workshops that get the most bang for your buck. It comes down to a few things:
As a facilitator, it’s my job to have an open and honest conversation about the team’s goals and objectives.
Goals can be answered with: Why are we meeting?
Ex: To bring together founding members of the AI/ML Community of Practice
Objectives: What do we want to walk away from this workshop with?
Ex: A first draft of the AI/ML Charter, including mission and goals
Sometimes after talking, it becomes clear that they don’t have the necessary data to achieve their objectives and they may need to run a heuristic review, content audit, or usability testing of their current product before we can tackle their challenge. It’s my responsibility as facilitator to set them up for success and bring this to their attention.
The meeting should have a wide variety of opinions and expertise. The best case scenario is an invitee list of at least one representative from every discipline on the team. Sending out placeholder invitations as soon as you have a list is essential to getting a strong attendance rate.
I will also invite folks from outside the team if they already have a good understanding of the challenge and I think their perspective would be valuable for the team to hear.
At this point I’ll ask a co-facilitator to work with me. They’re essential to keeping the meeting running on time, working small challenges that pop up, and add another perspective to the agenda creation. This role is a great opportunity for a newer team member to take on a leadership position and gets them face time with team members they may not meet in their normal daily rhythms.
Pre-2020, in-person meetings were the gold standard but alas, since then I have had to shift most of my practices to remote meetings. I’ve found success using a collaborative whiteboard space such as Mural, InVision, or Figma in coordination with a file sharing tool like Box or Sharepoint.
It is absolutely critical at this point to check that any data we’re planning to share is cleared to be hosted on any tools we’re planning to use. (i.e. Is anything classified, proprietary, or third party proprietary information?)
Taking a look at the objectives and knowing our setup (In-person, remote, or hybrid)- I get to work with my co-facilitator on making an agenda.
This section is used to get people moving in the same direction and comfortable knowing what they can expect for the day.
If you are running a remote workshop, a warm up activity is a great opportunity to get folks used to whatever virtual software you’ll be using for the workshop.
• Welcome, introduce facilitators
• Review ground rules
• Explain goals and objectives
• Walkthrough agenda
• Warm up activity
Background & Context
Brief the team on any research that’s been done before the workshop. This could include user interviews, competitive analysis, usability tests, etc.
• What is a Community of Practice (CoP)?
• Overview of similar CoPs
• Overview of AI/ML at the company
• User interviews with AI/ML practitioners
Going wide to generate possible solutions to the problem.
Keep the goal in mind when selecting a brainstorming activity.
• Nine Why’s Activity
• Structured brainstorming exercise around a question like “What is the most important thing to understand about AI/ML work?”
Stepping back from the brainstorm work- begin working with participants to group like ideas together into themes. Where do you see patterns or common threads emerging?
• Affinity grouping if small group
• Dot Voting for a larger group
Develop further and test
Now that some promising solutions have bubbled up to the top, determine how you can prove the viability of that idea as quickly as you can.
Break into small groups, have teams write possible goals based on the themes that have emerged from brainstorming. Provide teams with the SMART goal template.
Have teams elect one spokesperson for the group and share their goals out. Running another dot voting exercise would get us down to some clear goals for the charter.
Thank participants for coming and remind them of all the good work they’ve made together. Now is also the time to make sure any Parking Lot issues are brought up and any next steps are assigned and recorded.
• Review the work completed today
• Go over parking lot notes
• Review assigned next steps
If we are lucky enough to be in person, now is the time to gather tactical items like sticky notes, large easels, butcher paper, Sharpies, and snacks.
As a pro-tip: I always opt for thicker markers instead of normal ballpoint pens. This encourages people to be more direct with their input because they can’t write as many words on a single sticky note.
A week before a remote workshop, I check the RSVPs and make sure all attendees have access and permissions to the tools and folders we’ll be using.
Facilitating can be a little intimidating but incredibly rewarding. Some tips I have for new facilitators are:
Begin at the beginning
Start by introducing yourself, let your participants know how excited you are to be with them today and take time to review ground rules. Set rules that allow people to create safely but also provide you with some boundaries.
For example: I always ask that in remote meetings, if someone has an idea or comment that might send us down a rabbit hole, they put it in the Parking Lot- a designated space for those ideas. It helps keep us on track and we don't lose ideas in the shuffle. This is established early so when I direct folks to the parking lot, they don't feel dismissed.
Give yourself more time than you actually think you'll need on more activities. You'll be thankful when you have that extra buffer time to extend an activity that's going really well or when something overruns unexpectedly.
Don't skip on breaks
I try to schedule at least a 15 minute break for every 2 hours of working time. I've thrown up trivia slide decks on autoplay, played lofi chill hip hop beats (to study and relax to, obviously) with the agenda up, and even played an animation for folks to practice deep breathing. Make these breaks as formal or informal as you'd like but remember to make them.
Rely on your co-facilitator
Your co-facilitator should be on timing duty and a diligent worker in the shadows, helping people troubleshoot software or recording next step actions as they're announced. Be upfront with what you expect their role to be before the meeting and thank them graciously after the meeting concludes.