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Put ‘design’ into action

by Dr Penny Pullan
Indian Management September 2021

In today's time of rapid change and a shift in our approach towards collaboration, it makes sense to apply design to the ways we work together, right down to individual meetings and workshops. How effective would your organisation be if every session was aligned to your organisational goals?

In today's time of rapid change and a shift in our approach towards collaboration, it makes sense to apply design to the ways we work together, right down to individual meetings and workshops. How effective would your organisation be if every session was aligned to your organisational goals? What would happen to your team’s productivity if each meeting was designed to get the best out of everyone, regardless of whether the meeting was in-person, remote, or hybrid? How much time would you save if every meeting and workshop was clearly defined, so everyone knew what they were doing?

In my new book, Making Workshops Work: Creative collaboration for our time, I explore what it takes for leaders to design workshops from an initial idea or brief, through step-by-step preparation to an engaging, well-run, and effective session, with agreed actions and clear follow up. Careful design thinking upfront makes it much more likely that each session will work well and achieve its aims.

Of course, before focusing on any particular session, it helps to have a good understanding of how people work together, which can touch on aspects of neuroscience, the psychology of groups, conflict, change management, learning, and inclusion. Workshop leaders themselves need to be able to function effectively in what can become stressful situations in meetings, when their fight/ flight/freeze response can kick in and reduce their effectiveness.

So, what are the steps in designing a workshop or meeting for collaboration?

  • Before arranging anything, review what has worked well previously and what should be changed. Ask others, as well as reflecting yourself. If you can learn as you go and put that learning into practice, then your workshops will improve over time.
  • What is the purpose of your session? In this step, ensure that you understand the point of the meeting or workshop and that this aligns with your organisation’s goals.
  • What will success look like for different stakeholders? There are usually many different perspectives to consider and views of success can vary hugely. For example, perhaps one person thinks that cost is paramount, while another sees the impact on morale as most important and a third person is concerned about timescales above everything else.
  • Who needs to be present? Being clear on the purpose of the session really helps here.

To achieve your purpose, who needs to be there? You can also ask who should ‘not’ be there. Getting the right people to attend is an additional challenge, but this step means that the participant list is clear.

  • What format should you use? Will your workshop be held in person, with everyone in the same room face-to-face or will everyone join virtually via their devices? Perhaps you will have a hybrid combination of the two. Whatever you decide, choose the format and environment for your participants carefully upfront, as these will affect your results. Do you need people to get to know each other for the first time? In this case, an in-person meeting may well be best. Are they spread around the world, so travel would be costly or perhaps dangerous, as it was in the COVID lockdowns? In that case, meet virtually, but pay particular attention to aspects such as keeping sessions short and engaging for all. Sometimes a hybrid meeting is unavoidable—in which case, design your session to overcome the ‘unsymmetrical’ experience across the group with some in the room with others while others join remotely. The key here is to ‘level the playing field’ as much as possible. This might mean everyone joining using technology, physical reminders in the room of those who are remote or linking remote people to in-room buddies to support their involvement.
  • What kit will you need? While physical sticky notes and white boards are standard issues for in-person workshops, they do not work for those not in the room, so consider what collaboration tools you’ll need to support hybrid and virtual workshops. What else would make the session work better? You might consider posting out the kit to remote participants—in the past I have sent out Sharpie pens, paper, sticky notes, and snacks to those who were not going to be in the room so they did not feel left out. Physical kit adds something away from the screen, which helps.
  • Where you have online collaboration tools, use time beforehand to begin to introduce people and to gather ideas. If your workshop is part of a series, then use this time in between workshops too, with each person working at times to suit them.
  • What are the risks and issues that could affect your workshop? Risks are those things which might happen and issues are known problems. It is far better to think about these upfront and then design mitigations if required.

Once you have a good understanding of each of these, it is time for detailed preparation. Here, I give you six statements to complete. They are my Magic 6TM, which you can use at the start of your workshop to provide absolute clarity to your participants. Make sure that you gain their agreement, adjusting things if required before you proceed.

Figure: The Magic 6TM statements to use to start up a workshop, represented visually (used with permission)

Here are the Magic 6TM statements:

  • We are here to… the purpose (high level);
  • Today we will… four or five objectives for your meeting;
  • Our plan… the time plan, showing start and finish times, plus breaks;
  • Who’s doing what… who is playing each role;
  • How we work together… the ‘ground rules’ for the session. Agree these in the meeting, and don’t avoid discussing potential problems and how you would deal with them as a group;
  • What’s next… actions going forward.

By using the Magic 6TM for your own preparation and design of your workshop, and then reviewing and adjusting them at the start, both you and your participants will be really clear. Along with careful design and planning upfront, this brings organisational design right down into the realm of day-to-day creative collaboration: meetings and workshops.

Dr Penny Pullan is Director, www.makingprojectswork. co.uk. She is author, Making Workshops Work: Creative collaboration for our time.

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