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How to plan a workshop

Back in April I proposed a workshop session at the Agile Business Conference (still waiting to hear back but I’m not holding my breath), not letting the fact that I have never presented at a conference before stop me. The reason for this rather rash decision was that one of my goals for the year was to present at a conference, and well, it seemed like a good idea.

During the Agile Coach Camp in Germany it occurred to me that I might be in a place where people would willingly help me, if I did get accepted. To that, selfish, end I proposed an Open Space session to discuss how people design and plan workshops and presentations, hoping to gather the collected wisdom around me – or at least have someone tell me how they’d done it in the past.

Most of the people who attended the session had questions as well, but each had different insights and we bounced ideas back and forth to see what we felt was best. The discussion centred around two main areas:

Planning the workshop content

  1. Define the goal of the workshop: while no one disagreed that you need a goal, should you have more than one? The consensus seemed that you could have multiple non-conflicting goals within the workshop, either acting as way-markers to a final goal or to cater for different types of stakeholders.
  2. Prepare an opening/introduction: similar to how you’d set the scene in a retrospective you should introduce the workshop, and yourself, to everybody.
  3. Set the mindset: to change how people are thinking and move them into a more productive mindset you should run a quick game or simulation to break them out of their normal thought processes.
  4. Focus on the topic: plan on using one, or maybe more, of the normal methods to gather data and experiences and focus the work-shoppers on the task at hand.
  5. Play it by ear: at this point there were several ideas: either plan as normal, or just run with it. I prefer a compromise between the two camps, and will have ready at least one quick and one normal technique to generate new insights, accepting that the results from the data gathering may not fit either and I’ll have to use something else from the play book.
  6. Have a closing ready: even if you run the workshop on the fly you should still have an idea of how to close the session, ensuring people are able to take actions or ideas away from the workshop.

An agenda will really help everyone to know where they are in the workshop and if they’ve gone off track, so putting a quick one together and ensuring everyone can see it might be a good idea too.

Planning the workshop experience

An area that may easily be over-looked is the environment where you are running a workshop: it doesn’t matter if the content is great, if the people can’t concentrate they’ll never find out. The main points to consider are:

  1. Location: where is the workshop being run? is there sunlight? next to a busy corridor? is the room appealing, or at least not falling apart?
  2. Layout: do you have a big table but want to run small group work?
  3. Catering: is it a long workshop? do you need water/coffee? maybe lunch?
  4. Materials: do you have enough paper, pens, flip-charts, sticky notes?
  5. Breaks: anything over 90 minutes needs to have a break, people just can’t stay interested that long. Rather than plan them in religiously, allow time for them and let them happen when the attendees want. Just remember to give a time for them to return – say “we’ll restart at 10:30” and not “we’ll break for 15 minutes”.

Before the Open Space session I was talking to Marc Löffler, Marc Bless and Rachel Davies about this and they all agreed: follow the same process as planning a retrospective. Pretty much what we came up with ourselves.