Does It Have To Be a Workshop? / by David Sherwin

Does It Have To Be a Workshop

Every time I’m asked to design a workshop, I like to challenge the assumptions that come along with that workshop. This includes asking the tough question: Does it have to be a workshop?

Why this question? I spend a good chunk of my year leading workshops. Many of the best product decisions I’ve participated in have been achieved in workshops. Design teams are hungry for the skills to design and run effective workshops and sprints, and my partner Mary and I have helped many of them build those skills. So suffice it to say, I’m a fan.

But I’ve also been in enough workshops to understand their weaknesses. Sure, you’ve got the best workshop design, a foolproof agenda, compelling customer stories, amazing cookies for breaks… and a complete misunderstanding of how the workshop will lead to action in your organization. They contain the right tools, but they’re being used at the wrong time.

If you want to get more out of workshops in your organization, here are three things to try alongside the convening of workshops and sprints. There are many paths to the outcomes your team seeks.

Map Your Workshop Activities to Decision-Making Journeys

When creating workshops, teams often start by developing rough agendas and draft activities based on previous workshops. This isn’t the right starting point, especially for complex projects and initiatives that require high-stakes decision-making. Instead, start by reviewing what key decisions need to be made for your projects, from the point of view of your project partners and stakeholders. Our rule of thumb is this: If you don’t design the workshop around how you already make decisions, then the decisions made during a workshop won’t stick.

A great way to do this is by using a design tool you’re already familiar with: journey maps. Instead of just applying journey maps to customer needs, use them as a way to map the perspectives of partners in your organization. This will help you identify where you should collaborate, and when a workshop would make sense.

Here’s a quick example. Imagine you’re working at a startup that is trying to create an alternative to investing your retirement savings with the big banks. You’re designing a new digital product, and you know that your startup CEO holds the final decision-making power on what ships. From her perspective, what information does she need to make that decision? Who will provide that information? Where do you solicit her input or feedback in advance of the decision to ship? And is a workshop the right way to involve her in making that determination?

In creating an internal-facing journey map with your team, you’ll learn a ton. You’ll better understand what team members need to be involved, and in what ways. You’ll uncover situations where collaborative work and team decision making could happen separate of a formal workshop: special events, 1:1 meetings, product reviews, coffee chats, pitches at the board meetings, and many other possibilities.

Confront Logistical Challenges by Breaking Down Your Workshops

Let’s say you’ve created your decision-making journey and decided that a workshop is critical for your project’s success. Unsurprisingly, you run into logistical challenges. You can’t get everyone into the same room until next month. Everyone’s remote, and the time zones simply won’t align. And it’s hard to find a half hour on your CEO’s calendar, let alone a whole day. 

How are you going to involve everyone? Look at your workshop plan and break it down into 90-minute blocks. In each of those blocks, you can ask for intense focus on creation or refinement for 60 minutes, bookended by 15 minutes at the start to refresh on the topic and 15 minutes at the end to play back what the team was able to accomplish. 

When you aren’t wedded to the construct of a half-day or full-day workshop, new opportunities emerge. Working in short time blocks help you avoid disruptive drop-ins and drop-outs; when a few people step into or away from a workshop mid-flow, you waste valuable time adjusting. And if you’re working with a new team or partners, doing a single activity will give you immediate visibility into collaboration and communication dynamics.

We’ve seen this strategy work best when teams are tackling complex problems that require additional time to explore and understand. For example: Additional time between problem framing and idea generation can help team members answer open questions and disprove assumptions that a lock-the-doors workshop won’t allow. We’ve worked with multiple teams where this break between activities was critical for product success, simply based on the scale of their customer base and what was needed for shipping new features.

You’ll need a strong sense of who needs to be in which activities, and your stakeholders will need clarity around how decisions are being made with this model. And there are risks with this approach. Some workshop activities just take longer. Some subject matter is too complex. And if too much time elapses between each activity, team members and partners will lose the context around their collaborative work. You’ll need to invest time into documenting and playing back the right information and key decisions for each activity session. 

Rebrand Your Workshop Activities for Use in Other Situations

Let’s face it: ‘Workshop’ can be a loaded word. There are expectations tied to workshops that you just can’t get around. If this sounds like your organization, we advocate finding ways to conduct workshop-style activities in everyday team settings. 

The most successful strategy we’ve seen is rebranding workshop activities for use in everyday team rituals and routines. (We’ve collected examples of dozens of these activities in our most recent book.) If you’re going to try this, messaging really matters. Saying: “We’re going to do a workshop, but it’ll be during our next meeting!” is not going to be successful if your team has hangups about workshops. Instead, frame your workshop-type activity for that meeting with the following information:

  • What type of activity you want to conduct

  • What outcomes you’re trying to achieve with your team

  • Why everyone’s participation is valuable, both for the team and/or the organization as a whole

Gauge the team’s response to the above, and go from there. You’ll know you’re on the right track when teammates begin pulling the same workshop-style activities into your everyday routines: We’re planning to move from design into development in our next sprint. Ok, let’s plan when a brainstorming session needs to happen, and when we’ll decide on final designs. What’s coming  up where we can do that?

That said, there’s one way this approach can backfire: You didn’t put enough preparation into your activity, compared to whether you were running a formal workshop. We often hear from designers that this happens because they want to keep their team interactions informal. Our response is this: There is no such thing as an ‘informal’ workshop activity. You should always be intentional in the effect you want to create when you propose and lead an activity, even if it’s in a casual team environment. If your team doesn’t see the value of an activity, it’s unlikely they’ll want to repeat it in the future, regardless of where it happened. 

Workshops Can Advance Your Team’s Efforts, But They Aren’t the Only Way to Have an Impact

We want to be included in key product decisions, so we have a voice and a choice in what gets made by our organizations. Well-deployed workshops are one of the ways to support that aim. But workshops aren’t the only way to achieve important outcomes with teams or make the best use of design tools. Generating ideas, creating journey maps, or deciding what user flows to test—you can do that anywhere. What’s needed to advance your work may not be a workshop at all, and forcing a cross-functional team into that structure may be what’s holding them back.