In planning a team workshop, you’re also designing a collaborative experience. The aim is to create an event that brings people together, uses their thinking in the best possible way, engages them and enables them to feel part of something. It’s an opportunity to get creative and think about the function of the workshop (what it needs to achieve), the form (the structure and the exercises and activities you’ll run) and the participants (how they’ll experience it).

There’s a space for creativity at various stages of the workshop design process:

Identifying the challenge

When you’re designing a workshop, you’re creating a framework to help a team solve a problem or challenge. It starts with information gathering and research to identify the catalysts for the workshop – why is it needed? Who is involved? What has happened prior to this workshop? What has been attempted before? What are you looking to achieve? You might uncover keywords and phrases, existing views and assumptions and the dynamics around the challenge. You’ll use this information to clarify the key points to address.

Starting the design process

With all of that content, you can start the design process. Like any creative endeavour, the tools you’ll use can have an impact. At this stage, I find it too early to start working digitally into a spreadsheet or table. I prefer to manually sketch out all of the parts individually using good old pen and paper and then start to consider how it might fit together. This is where I use this tool (purpose, outcomes, questions) to explore what will be covered in the workshop.

Shaping the narrative

The narrative of the workshop is the sequence of the topics to be addressed, as well as the entire experience for the participants. In shaping the narrative, you can also think about the rhythm of the session. For example,

  • When does it make sense to move quickly through a discussion, and when would it be valuable to slow down and reflect?
  • Will you introduce points of tension, intentionally to encourage productive conflict? How will you balance this with discussions that are easier to flow through?
  • What will you do at the beginning of the workshop to ease participants into the collaborative format? How will you end the workshop to create some closure, with a sense of forward momentum?
  • How will you switch between feeling progress, and staying in a deep, messy topic?
  • When and how will you transition from divergent thinking (generating ideas and options) to convergent thinking (making decisions, defining a solution), and vice versa?

Supporting the activities

Designing a collaborative experience involves thinking about the whole package from start to finish. When designing and choosing the specific activities that you’ll run, this also includes how you’ll use the materials and room to support them. What size and colour of sticky notes are best to help participants visually organise content? How will you set up the room and use different areas – e.g. wall space, windows, tables etc? How will you divide the larger group into breakouts to get a good mix of perspectives across roles and disciplines?

On the day

There’s still room for creativity in the process on the day of the workshop. The outline you’ve created will serve as an important guide – a reminder of the key outcomes and what is important to cover. Running the workshop itself will give you instant feedback about what is and isn’t working. You may need to spend more time on one exercise, another might go quicker than you planned, and others might not land with the participants at all. So, being prepared, but staying flexible, open and experimental will help to you navigate the unexpected on the day.

After the workshop

Each workshop you run will teach you something new. Even the same workshop outline facilitated for a different team will bring new learning. Following the workshop, reflect on any new insights that might be useful for your future sessions: what exercises worked well, and why? Which exercises need tweaking? What would you change if you were to run this workshop again?

A workshop is a time for people to come together, think differently and generate ideas. A facilitator supports this during the session, and there’s also a lot of room for creativity in the preparation stage to make sure this happens.