'Session design' or 'process design' is one of the 5 key jobs of the facilitator.  

It also happens to be one of my favourite things to do as a facilitator.  I also get asked a lot of questions about how to do it and see a lot of examples of it not being done well (IMHO).  

I think some of the biggest traps to avoid when designing your workshop process are:

  • Jumping straight in to selecting activities, especially your favourite ones or ones that look like fun
  • Misusing time: Prematurely filtering your workshop design with timing constraints.  Underestimating time, both overall and within the session.  
  • Being happy with the first or even second version of your workshop process
  • Not building in flexibility or being flexible when the designed process doesn't fit the reality

Here is a process and some tips for when you're designing your next workshop process, or indeed a process for any collaborative group work:

1.) Get precise definition and shared understanding on the purpose of your session

As we've previously said in this post, all the elements of your session are determined by an in service of, the purpose of the session.  Don't undercook the time you need to develop shared understanding with your sponsor, and facilitation teams of the outcomes, outputs, key questions and issues and boundaries which collectively define the purpose of the session.

2.) Develop a workshop/session story

Before you find and select specific workshop modules or activities, begin by writing a workshop story which narrates what participants will be doing and, most importantly, why they're doing it. If the overall purpose of the session is attained in the final chapter, think about what the preceding chapters, paragraphs and sentences need to be about.

Use everyday language to tell this story e.g. "First we need people to understand and build rapport for who's in the room.  Then we need to have a collective sense of purpose for why gathered.  After this, there's a whole bunch of common understanding we need to develop around key ideas, concepts and language.  We'll use this learning to inspire some initial modelling around what our ideal future state is..." 

Definitely don't worry about timing, or filtering your activities at this stage. 

3.) Test your story

  • Does the story flow or are there bits missing? Think about transitions.

  • Is there a clear purpose to each part (chapter) of the story?

  • Does the overall story achieve the overall purpose of your session?

  • Does your story challenge participants, and in the right ways? Quite often it is in these moments of real challenge that individuals and groups achieve breakthroughs, growth and generate true insight about themselves and their organisational problem.
  • Have you considered moments where the group and individuals need to reflect, have dialogue and share their work (including report outs)?

4.) Find or design actual activities which support each outcome within the session

There are plenty of available resources about workshop activities.  Some of our favourite examples include Gamestorming and IDEO's Field Guide to Human Centred Design.  The key thing with selection of activities is that the activity needs to fulfil a specific purpose, which should be clear from the story you developed.  If the purpose of the activity is clear, it should be possible to consider and evaluate several alternative activities before making your final selection.   

5.) Work out timing 

There are three key things I think about when it comes to workshop timing:

  • Time (and energy) is like a balloon. There's only so much air in the balloon, and if you squeeze it in one spot, it will necessarily expand on the opposite side of the balloon.  If you spend more time in one spot, where will you take this time from?

  • Time 'sinks'.  There are always lots of little and unexpected micro-activities which take time.  Make sure you conservatively allow for these.
  • Timing affects experience and outcome.  A fast activity will feel different to a longer round of work.  Also, consider when and where the group will need to slow down for dialogue and deliberation.  It's easy to undercook this for the sake of getting them to do more work.

For deciding the overall duration of a workshop:

  • At a minimum, I prefer to have at least 4 hours of work time (excluding arrival, breaks etc)
  • A day is generally a good timeframe, sometimes broken up over two consecutive days with a sleep in between
  • Up to 3 days is great for an intensive design workshop for a complicated or complex problem and a large group of participants (e.g. 40+).  A long workshop like this will typically need a facilitation team, or at the very least a co-facilitator. 

For modelling time within your overall workshop window:

    • Arrival time: I usually allow 30mins for arrival.  People are always running late.
    • Giving Instructions and transitions to and between activities: 5 - 10mins to deliver an instruction and for people to settle into their breakout spaces and teams before they start working.
    • Group discussions and report outs: Vary the report out length depending on how much detail needs to be shared.  Generally I go for 3 - 6mins per team.  Allow 5 - 10mins for Q&A or a brief group discussion.
    • Debriefing an activity: sometimes its worthwhile spending 5-10mins having a facilitated debrief of an activity to deepen learning or to surface insights.
    • Breaks: I prefer shorter breaks (15-20mins), working meals and for day sessions, only two meals.  In my view longer breaks, and more breaks too disruptive to the flow of work.  Some people say 'oh but we need to give them opportunity for networking'.  In my view this is best done when they're actually working in the session in well-curated teams, or after the session. 
    • Long rounds of work: if you need teams to do detailed design and get into more precision around their prototypes, go for 45-90min rounds of work, maybe with a quick around of sharing at halfway.  Sometimes in these longer rounds of work, groups will need to be given 10-15mins to explicitly develop their report out.
    • Short rounds of work: if you need high level ideas and lots of ideas, go for 20-min 'sprints'.
    • Finish time: I allow 15-20mins for a final discussion and close.  I've also found that even though we always aim to finish right on ti, this doesn't always happen.  I find that 15mins over time is ok if it meant that the close is more satisfying in terms of finalising actions or agreements.

    Finally, try our handy workshop design spreadsheet to help you calculate timing.

    6.) Re-test your session design...

    ...individually and with your discussion & co-design partners.  

    Some new factors to test against once you have specific activities include:

    • The cultural and physical abilities of the group.  Is it a very conservative group who may need extra priming before participating in your dress-up activity?  Are there people with physical disabilities who may be excluded from participating?
    • The physical environment you have for your session.  This includes the size and shape of the space but also how people and things will flow within it during and between activities.
    • The available time (step 5)
    • The availability of any special equipment or supplies
    • Whether you need any help with an activity such as co-facilitation, breakout facilitation, taking pictures, moving furniture etc. 
    • The anticipated energy level of the group and the time of the day

    7.) Iterate your design several times...

    ...right up to, and even during your session. Remember that when it comes to session design, "the map is not the terrain", meaning that up until you actually press 'play' on your session design on the actual day, it's just a theory or hypotheses for how things might work. Once again, having clarity on outcomes gives you a compass to navigate when things don't go to plan.