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Workshop Wisdom

In Africa, there’s a saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” It’s a great mindset with regard to software design and development - we should always encourage a joint working environment.

One way to “go together” is through workshops. We do it a lot at ThoughtWorks - whether it’s to kickoff a Discovery phase around developing new product propositions or initiating a new phase of work in what we call an “inception”. But setting up and running a workshop, of any flavor, is not easy.

First off, when facilitating, it’s hard to keep a room alive. Second, participants’ brains get tired. No surprise: we’re trying to extract a crucial amount of information, from a possibly argumentative group, in a compact amount of time. Luckily, there are a few things we can do about it.

Let’s take a look at seven of them, specifically.

1. Come prepared. One of the best ways to ensure a fruitful conversation is having the right material. Make sure to bring along pens, sharpies, poster boards, and plenty of sticky notes to any sort of workshop. You may need to conduct any number of innovation games—as detailed in Dave Gray’s Book, Gamestorming—so be sure to bring along the relevant tools.

2. Provoke. As designer Andrew Maier stated in his Digital Literacy piece late last year, “questions lie at the heart of what we do”. Provoke the team with a question to help drive a richer discussion. Phrases like “How might we…” is one way to launch a bounteous brainstorm.

3. Write clearly and concisely. When facilitating, encourage people to use all-caps, and try to keep thoughts short and sweet. Some of us might not write as beautifully as others, but readability trumps style here. For example, when it comes to stickies, a few bold words each is usually enough. There’s no point in writing anything down if we can’t read it later.

4. Try drawing. Instead of writing everything as bullet points and phrases, how about using a few diagrams, boxes and arrows? Modeling ideas is software development’s best friend. It doesn’t matter if it’s stick figures or full on sketches, this technique is about expressing yourself with substance.

5. Keep focus. One of the most critical things is to make sure our conversations are directed. As facilitators, we need to be observant of how the time is flowing and try our best to lead it in the right direction. Consider using a parking lot to keep people on task and engaged.

6. Capture everything. As Joshua Porter instructs us, “always be capturing.” Try using ethnographic observation techniques, like recording a conversation or snapping photos on a smartphone. We’ll need this material later when we’re analyzing or iterating our work.

7. Synthesize. Last, but not least, don’t forget to synthesize the material we’ve just put out. It’s essential we leave the room on the same page and know what the next steps are. This doesn’t have to end up in any long form deliverable, it could just be a few key points in an e-mail or stickies on a white board. From here, activities like affinity mapping can help us find patterns and relationships in our work.

At the end of the day, there’s no single recipe to conduct a workshop. But there are ways to make sure that they stay more on task and add more value. Just remember: it’s about bringing together the people in the workshop - and not the process behind the workshop - that’s important to success.