Facilitating Decision-Making With Workshops
Decision-making in team and collaboration are one of the hardest challenges of every designer. But it doesn’t have to be this way! Intrigued? Then we have a treat for you today. Our CEO, Jonathan Courtney, has recently joined the Design Life podcast as a guest to talk all about workshop facilitation, and how it can help teams make decisions easier, faster, and more enjoyable.
Design Life is a podcast about design and side projects for motivated creators. It’s a must-listen for all multi-passionate creators looking for a way to balance their projects with the demands of a full-time job. The podcast hosts, Charli Prangley and Femke van Schoonhoven, are truly the experts in this field. Self-described “serial side project addicts,” both women have an impressive track record of performing in high-demanding jobs while pursuing several side projects simultaneously.
We hiiighly recommend you give this episode a listen, it’s filled with knowledge nuggets and sound career advice:
But in case reading is more your thing, we’ve summarized the key learnings into bite-sized pieces for you! Ready to learn how to make design decision-making easier? Then let’s dive right in!
Conventional way of working is causing busy-work and overwhelm
After starting his career as a UI designer, and later running a conventional design agency for over six years, Jonathan Courtney, CEO of AJ&Smart, has realized one thing: the way teams work together is fundamentally broken.
No matter the team or company size, the horrors of teamwork always stayed the same: unstructured meetings that would produce no outcome, lengthy decision-making processes, politics-driven teams, and very little meaningful work actually getting done.
As Jon puts it, running his own agency was a constant up and down of being excited at the prospect of working with cool, innovative companies, all the while dreading every new project. After seeing the pattern repeat itself over and over, one thing was clear – The problem was always the same. It wasn’t the people or companies. The problem was no processes and rules in place for effective collaboration.
No matter the team or company size, the horrors of teamwork stay the same: unstructured meetings that produce no outcome, lengthy decision-making processes, politics-driven teams, and very little meaningful work actually getting done.
Working together efficiently is an inherently challenging thing for people to do. Working-style differences, politics that always creep into any group setting, and asymmetrical knowledge are just parts of the overall problem. The underlying issue, however, is that conventional collaboration scenarios don’t address that!
Without a set of tools and processes in place, every meeting inevitably goes off-topic and devolves into endless discussions. The introverts and juniors in the room don’t feel comfortable speaking up, even if they think they might have the right solution. One person is doing all the talking. Everyone understands the job to be done differently. No tangible outcomes are produced, and yet another meeting is scheduled. Meetings like this are deadly to productive work, not only because they are excruciatingly dull to be in, but because they don’t do their main job. That is, providing alignment and clear next steps for a project.
While defining an end-goal is comparatively easy, getting everyone aligned on the course of action to achieve that goal is the tricky part. How do you get everyone on the same page? Spoiler alert: by using a workshop. But why is it such an effective method?
Because workshops fundamentally change the way collaborative work is done. They take out the unstructured discussion and replace it with streamlined processes that help teams do their best work. Groupthink and talking over each other in circles are replaced by structured discussion and uninterrupted ideation.
Convincing your team to run a workshop is as important as the workshop itself!
You can have the coolest idea in the world, but if you can’t get your team on-board with it, it’s no use. Dealing with skeptics and trouble-makers in the room will take the wind out of your sails and derail the focus of the whole workshop. Here are some simple, actionable steps you can take to convince your team to run a workshop:
- Start small
Especially if you work in a more conservative team, convincing them to run a multiple-day workshop can be challenging. The good news is, you don’t have to go all-in right off the bat. If you force people to do workshops, they’ll hate them! So start with something small first. Volunteer to be the person in the room who captures information as other people speak and facilitate the discussion by including workshop-features like timeboxing or ideating ‘together alone.’
- Show, don’t tell
The best way to convince your team of the value of workshops is to let them experience first hand how effective this way of working is. Run a smaller workshop (Lightning Decision Jam is perfect for this!) and tackle a small but annoying challenge that has been on your team’s agenda for ages. After they see how much work can get done within an hour, they’ll inevitably want to experience more of that. Running a 1-hour LDJ session has been AJ&Smart’s secret weapon in selling our Design Sprint package, and it worked for us in 99% of the cases!
- Set the right expectations
Letting your team know exactly what to expect will take their edge off and will set your workshop up for success. Don’t declare workshops to be the transformation vehicle that will change your entire company. Realistically, that is not going to happen. Emphasize to your team that workshops are NOT a process change for your company. They are a plug-and-play tool to solve problems. This will ease some worries and tensions and will make your team more receptive to running workshops.
- Reframe your offer
One of the main push backs against running workshops is taking the time out of a team’s busy schedule for something that potentially doesn’t work. No one likes to waste time and energy, and if your organization has never run workshops before, you’ll need to reframe how you talk about them. Instead of presenting it as a big, complicated, annoying, schedule-destroying event, present it like the time-saver it is.
Explain to your team that workshops help frontload all of the decision-making processes into one day. All strategically important details get decided on, and the team can go into full execution mode, as opposed to spreading out the decision-making process over several weeks, with team members constantly being pulled away from their work into meetings.
- Make the process enjoyable for the team
Raise your hand if you’ve ever had one of these thoughts before:
Should I talk now? Oh no, the team extrovert has already started talking, I guess I’ll wait.
I actually know the answer, but I know that this person will talk over me.
Uhh, pretty sure that’s NOT the correct answer, but they’re more senior than me, so I probably shouldn’t say anything.
We can guarantee most of your teammates have thought something along these lines as well. So acknowledge it and let them know that with workshops, they won’t have to worry about all of this stuff.
Emphasize that you’re turning a meeting into a workshop to make it more enjoyable and smooth. Tell them that you’re not going to be imposing your solutions on them, but instead help them tap into their expertise. All they will have to do is provide their skill, and follow a predefined process, which will take all the heavy-lifting off their shoulders.
How to ensure solid outcomes for every workshop
Just like any methodology, workshops are not a magic pill, and won’t have much effect… unless you create a sound plan for executing on your workshop takeaways.
Don’t leave it to your workshop participants to figure out what to do with all the learnings and takeaways. That’s a mistake most of the workshop-novices make, and we used to be guilty of it ourselves!
A job of a facilitator includes making sure the next steps after the workshop are clear to the participants. One way to ensure that is to create a handover document that specifies the recommended next steps and sums up all of the progress you’ve achieved in the previous weeks. Include photos of the process, the challenge you’ve tackled, the mid-way milestones, your final decision, and what the next steps should be.
Starting a workshop culture at your company
So maybe you’ve tried your hand at a workshop or two, but they’re just not doing it. You’ve dabbled in Sprints and jams, but everybody just goes to their old ways after the workshops are over.
It might be tempting to blame it on your company culture, but trust us when we say–it’s the same in every organization. No matter if you’re working in an old-fashioned corporate or a Silicon Valley giant, culture change is h a r d. At a certain point, cruft builds up, and it’s almost impossible to solve that on a company structure level.
That’s why it’s on the individual to try to incentivize the teams to run workshops. Trying to systemize and force your entire company to get on-board with workshops is VERY challenging, and–in most cases– futile.
No matter if you’re working in an old-fashioned corporate or a Silicon Valley giant, culture change is hard. At a certain point, cruft builds up, and it’s almost impossible to solve that on a company structure level.
Instead of trying to change your entire company’s structure, do one workshop at a time. Do it so that that one small team you’re running workshops with has a better life and enjoys their work more.
Become a workshopper – the person volunteering to help teams who are starting a new project. Volunteer to facilitate a kick-off of a new project, decision-making process for that new feature that everyone’s been putting off, or a particularly big clunky challenge. Once you’re seen as the person who can come in and help others do their work better and with less annoyance, you are wanted all the time for every project. It’s a GREAT career move because you become the catalyst for getting work done better.
That’s also what companies are missing right now. There are agile coaches and design thinking coaches, but the role of a facilitator of a workshopper is missing. Companies like Google, LEGO, Tetra Pak, Zurich Insurance, Wayfair, and many others have caught on and started to develop the workshop culture. We are getting called to fill in the role all the time – that’s pretty much what our entire business at AJ&Smart is built upon!
This is exactly why our CEO Jonathan Courtney wrote The Workshopper Playbook – to help people take that space in their companies and start a workshop culture from within.
Setting up the perfect workshop team
Workshops are (with a few exceptions) not a solo feat. You NEED a variety of people, roles, and opinions in the room to get a holistic picture of the challenge you’re working on. But not too much – otherwise, you run the risk of having an unmanageable discussion. So what’s the perfect workshop team set up?
As a rule of thumb, we’d recommend keeping the workshop team under ten people. That’s the size that is still easy to facilitate on your own while allowing for different roles to be part of the process.
An easy way to get a good idea of who should be in the room is to answer these questions: Who are the people we should have in the room, so we don’t have to explain this again to someone else? Whos day to day work is affected by the challenge you’re trying to solve, who has valuable knowledge that might help fix the problem at hand, who’s calling the shots on that team?
Once you’re seen as the person who can come in and help others do their work better and with less annoyance, you are wanted all the time for every project.
Your team set up will vary depending on the challenge you want to tackle. It is best practice to try and include the following roles: the decision-maker for the team who’s directly affected, a designer, someone who deals with your customer directly, marketing, and project manager. Excluding decision-makers from the workshop can backfire. You don’t want to have to convince them afterward that your decisions are plausible. You want them to be part of the process and understanding the thinking behind the decisions.
Anyone can become an excellent workshop facilitator
Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, loud, or soft-spoken – you can become a good workshop facilitator. Sure, you’re not going to ace it on the first attempt, and your first workshop will probably be far from perfect. You will need to put in practice and learn the facilitation techniques.
But the first, most crucial step that you can take right now is adopting the facilitator’s mindset.
That is, shifting the focus from trying to show how good, confident, and smart you are to helping your participants channel their best work. The job of a facilitator is to be the guide, not the hero. You’re there to unlock their superpower, not to show off how good you are.
The job of a facilitator is to be the guide, not the hero. You’re there to unlock their superpower, not to show off how good you are.
This paradigm shift really takes the performance pressure off. You don’t have to have all the answers or suggest the best solutions. All you have to do is guide the team to unlock THEIR expertise and let them do their best work.
Ready to become a Workshopper yourself?
If you ever felt helpless working in companies, sitting around in a meeting, and just waiting for it to end so you can go back, ignore everything you’ve heard and get back to making your design–you know how unfulfilling that is.
Becoming a Workshopper is an antidote to that.
It’s a very satisfying thing to do: you get LOADS of work done in record times, without the overwhelm or burn-out. Sounds like a dream, right? But it’s also one of the highest-paid creative jobs currently. The demand is insane, and the day rates reflect that!
So, where do you start? Our CEO, Jonathan Courtney, wrote The Workshopper Playbook with the exact purpose of teaching people the ins and outs of becoming a Workshopper. The framework and exact steps for designing and running your own custom workshops. The book is out now and it’s FREE for a limited time, so get your hands on it while stocks last.
So there you have it–our biggest takeaways from this episode of the Design Life podcast. After you’ve listened to the episode, we’d love to hear from you! What was your biggest takeaway from it? Do you want to become a Workshopper? Or are you an experienced facilitator already? Let us know in the comments below.