Workshop Planning (III): Structures

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This article is part of the series on workshop planning. Check out the whole series!

Part II <<< >>> Part IV.1

In the last part, I talked about why structure matters so much for your workshop. Providing a structure will help your participants to navigate through the endless possibilities that open up to them during discussions and brainstorming phases, and will align all of you to focus on the goal of the workshop. Now, let’s look into different options for structures.

No Decision Without Your Goal In Mind

The structure that fits your workshop best highly depends on two aspects: Where do you come from, and where do you want to be after the workshop? So make sure to set your goal first! Questions you can ask yourself to evaluate which kind of structure you should use include:

  • Does my topic (have to) start with a (new) set of rules, regulations, or policies?
  • Does the goal of the workshop include the results of a brainstorming, discussion, or otherwise creative input by the participants?
  • How much input in the form of reading material, videos, podcasts, or similar, does my topic require?

Theoretically, you can use any structure for any topic, but especially if you are a beginner and might not have eternity to prepare, there are easier and more complex matches. Let’s dive in!

The Basic Structure

On a very abstract level, the structure is as easy as can be: You provide an input, the input is transformed in a way during the workshop, which will give you the desired output. Yes, it really is that easy!

The input can be something tangible – something to read, watch, or listen to – as well as an introductory question, a problem to solve, or an initial discussion. You have to provide some kind of input at the beginning of the workshop. The funny thing is – the more active the input is, the less it will be perceived as such.

Depending on your topic and participants, you might have the need for more or less creativity, freedom, or – on the other hand – hard facts. If your goal is to discuss a new policy, it makes little sense to start without knowing the policy. If you want to find out how to market a new product, starting with some hard facts makes sense (for example, how much time or budget you’ll have). However, if you are in a merger process and want to find a way to work together with another department, there might be no written rules, hard facts, or agreements beforehand that have to be met. Starting with a creative input will probably work best in this case. You can roughly distinguish between three approaches: rules first, discussion first, and discussion only. Let’s look at the details!

Rules First Approach

Starting with the rules is the most natural approach for many people. This is due to the years and years of sitting in school we went through. Learning something new most often meant that the teacher would introduce a topic, write down the rules, after which everyone would practice with some exercises. Your participants might expect your workshop to work in the same way, especially if they are not used to participating in workshops.

The advantage of this approach is that you as the leader will have a very defined structure with little freedom for the participants to go “off course”. If you are afraid of losing control over the group, starting with a set of rules or regulations is the easiest approach.

The disadvantage of giving the rules first is to engage your participants. Remember, your workshop will work best if you reach the goal as a team – with this passive start into the day (or even week), you might encounter difficulties in motivating everybody to discuss and be creative. The reason for this is clear; if the rules are already existing, and cannot be changed anymore, why discussing them in the first place?

Of course, how your participants react depends on their general characteristics, the group dynamic, their expectations for the workshop and your company culture. The more used they are to the fact that their input is valued, the more likely it is that they will provide some.

Starting off with a set of rules or regulations requires a more open and creative phase afterwards. After reading, listening or watching something, everybody will need time to relax a bit and be more active to counteract tiredness (and no, coffee alone will not solve this problem). So ask yourself whether having a quick discussion about everybody’s opinion on the topic or talking about the direct impact of this topic on the team might be an option.

Discussion First Approach

Some topics do not have a pre-defined set of rules; or you simply do not want to start with them. In this case, you can start with a more active input: Give a question or problem to the team, and let them solve or discuss it first. The goal for this first phase would then be to familiarize everybody with the topic and to get everybody started to think about it. Discussions without any theoretical input usually are quite personal (as everybody will start with their personal opinion on things), which can additionally be useful if you have a group that doesn’t know each other too well.

The advantage of this approach is that your participants are very active from the beginning. Especially for groups that are used to a lot of creative work, discussion rounds and other workshops, this approach will feel natural. It’s also a great approach if you have to tackle a topic that is quite emotional. Instead of forcing them into a passive phase, you provide the room to your participants to talk about their opinion and thoughts on this topic. They will feel valued and be more motivated to discuss further. But watch out – if you ask for someone’s thoughts, and then never come back to them nor use them in any way, the feeling of value will vanish very, very quickly. So make sure to come back to the results of this first phase at some point of the workshop.

I don’t even want to call it a disadvantage; it’s more like the danger of this approach is to lose control over the group right at the start. For every phase with lots of participants in the workshop, it is important to be able to say no. You might need to do this – starting with a discussion will only work if you have a clear timeline. Most groups, once they engage in discussions, will need more time than they are given. So make sure to plan a buffer of some minutes, and be strict with your times.

Discussion Only Approach

The last approach is made for topics that do not have a fixed set of rules. There might be things that need to be discussed and agreed, without anyone in the whole wide internet has written a piece about them (or you simply do not want any external input, which is fine, too!). In this case, you will start with open discussions, a problem-solving task, or something similar, and from this derive your own rules – which is a separate creative process. The output in the end will be an agreement, or definition of some sort. This approach is great if your team just needs some room to discuss an important topic or agree on something that usually misses out in daily business.

Choose Your Approach!

After your goal is set, choosing your approach is the first step towards your structure. If you start of more passive, your structure will end up more active – and vice versa. If you choose the Discussion Only Approach, you will have a very active participation throughout your whole workshop, but nonetheless there will be more passive phases so that everybody can relax a bit. The ultimate goal for your structure is to appear natural, have a nice flow to it (i.e., phases conclude and begin logically after each other), and provide your participants with a variety of activities, working forms and exercises.

Your approach is the vertical level of your workshop plan.

Don’t forget to visit the Guides & Downloads Page for an editable workshop template, as well as some exercise ideas!

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