Workshop Planning (IV.1): Working Phases

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

Part III <<< >>> Part IV.2

In the last part, I talked about the vertical level of your workshop. After having set a goal, you now know how you want to approach it, which type of input you will provide and where your most active phases will be.

Now, the next step is to plan out each of your phases which will give you the horizontal level of your workshop plan. For each phase, you should plan the following:

  • Estimated time needed
  • Working form
  • Goal
  • Exercises or structure
  • Material needed

I also like to add a column for notes, because I usually have last-minute thoughts that I like to note down. Let’s go through the columns one by one!

Time Needed

This column is mandatory. Estimate the time you’ll need for each phase separately. You will be surprised how fast three hours are planned out! It’s hard to estimate how much time you’ll need when you have never led a workshop before. Here’s some ground rules:

  • Time to explain an exercise or introduce a new topic (even if it’s just a sentence in your head) should explicitly be noted down. I usually plan 5 minutes for this; most often, I need them all because there’s questions or something needs clarification, and if not – then my participants get two or three more minutes for the next phase.
  • If your participants should start with a new format that you have to explain before – like, a more complex task or exercise – plan 5 minutes as a buffer. Even if you explain everything very well, it usually takes some additional time for your participants to understand this formerly unknown task. This gets more likely if you ask them to work in bigger groups instead of pairs (which can be beneficial in many other ways, so this is not meant to rate working in pairs any higher than working in groups). The 5 extra minutes give you the chance to approach single groups or pairs individually if they seem stuck, and the other groups or pairs get the chance to quickly recap what you explained before immediately diving into the topic.
  • The more people work together, the longer the time you should plan. Planning a group exercise below 15 minutes usually ends up to be awfully stressful for everybody. Working in pairs, depending on the task, starts around 10 minutes. It can be less if the task is very small – in this case, you should check if your task really needs to be a separate phase.
  • There is a natural limit of how long the phases can be: Nobody will stay focused for longer than 20-30 minutes (and even this is a long, long time!). This is a natural effect of your brain getting used to a situation – if nothing new is coming, it starts to relax. So what usually happens if you give a group a time frame longer than this: They will start to procrastinate because their brains tell them that there’s more than enough time for everything. If you have more complex tasks that cannot be done in 20-30 minutes, help your participants by breaking them down into smaller pieces.
  • This also accounts for bigger discussion rounds. They may end up to be longer (discussions need time!), but for yourself, plan them in 30-minutes phases. If your discussion should be 90 minutes in total, ask yourself where you want to be after 30 and 60 minutes. Depending on your participants, there’s no need to explicitly interrupt the discussion, especially if the flow is great – but this way, you have a control mechanism for yourself to check whether you are still on track.

Many of those times are based on my personal experience with diverse groups and they roughly fit usually. Of course – it always depends on your participants how well they work out, but they should give you a rough idea of how much you have to plan. If you know that you have very active participants, you will need more time in the moment that creativity comes into play, or if they have to discuss or solve something. If your participants are usually very straightforward and pragmatic, these phases might be a bit shorter.

Working Form

Let’s start with a quick overview of why you should use different working forms:

  • Changing the working form will boost your participants’ concentration. While it is true that nobody will concentrate longer than 20-30 minutes, you can prolong this time by regularly changing the working form. This will stimulate the brain (‘something new is coming’) and cancel out the usual effects of habituation.
  • Your participants will have diverse learning types. There are some who can concentrate and work better if they work on their own, and others that need to check with their peers first what to do and how they do it. By offering different working forms during your workshop, you diversify the possibilities for everyone to find something that they like and where they’re good at.
  • Some tasks can naturally be done better alone, and some need the feedback of others or can be done much quicker in a group. By adapting your working form to the tasks you have in mind, you are on a good way to get the most out of your workshop – which will be great for the results, but also has an extra motivating effect on your participants. They will feel that they’re going somewhere good!
  • Working alone usually requires a higher degree of focus than working in a group. That is due to the fact that if you’re on your own, you will have to perform every step that is required. In a group, you can always relax a bit if someone else is talking or taking the lead for a moment. This will help your participants to focus again and also support creative processes – because nobody can be creative if they’re too stressed or exhausted.

There’s no need to explicitly add this column to your plan, if you feel confident to skip it. Just remember to always think about the working form when you plan your phases, and check after you finished whether they change regularly. If you notice that you have a lot of similar phases, try to change one of them into another working form to add value to your workshop.

Working Forms: Definitions

  • Single work: You will ask your participants from time to time to write down their thoughts, read, watch, or listen to something, or prepare a later phase by taking notes. These are typical cases of single working phases. The reason why they fit so well is obvious: Nobody else can do this for you, and having an exchange with someone else will not help you at this stage (but can be a logical next step!).
  • Working in pairs: This is usually done with the direct neighbor for logistic reasons, but do not underestimate the power of mixing up the seating order. Matching pairs that didn’t sit close to each other can change the group dynamic immensely, especially in groups where the participants know each other well. If you have been working on the same team for quite some time, you will naturally sit next to your closest peers (i.e., the ones you usually talk with the most). Breaking up these pairs and matching new ones will possibly lead to different results. A nice side effect is that you can break up pairs that disturb the workshop atmosphere (the clowns, or the naysayers maybe). Typical tasks for this working form are discussions, reviewing a previously given input, clarifying questions or preparing notes for a discussion.
  • Working in groups: This working form is great for problem solving tasks, discussions, creative processes or exchanging opinions and points of view. The bigger the groups, the more chaotic it might get – but remember, chaos is not always a bad thing. If you communicated the goals of this phase clearly, groups usually come to great results. Especially in more creative tasks, you might be surprised by the results as they differ from your expectations – it is interesting how differently one task can be interpreted sometimes!
  • Group discussion: If your group is not too big, or you want everybody to participate in the same round, you can do this in a group discussion setting. It is easier if you sit (or stand) in a way so that everybody can see everybody else, but even if you can’t, it will work out fine. You will find yourself in the role of a moderator during these phases, if you did not appoint anybody else. Being the moderator, you should motivate your participants to actively speak – otherwise, there’s the danger of accidentally slipping into a teacher-student setup (you talk, everybody listens). Group discussions should be very active phases. Ideally, you can vanish completely and will not have to moderate much. It usually helps if you sit with your participants. This resolves the teacher situation visually.
  • Frontal phases: This is the usual teacher-student setup that so many of us are used to. The teacher talks, the students listen. It is the most passive working form of the presented. The danger is that your participants lose their focus, or get bored, so try to limit these phases to only a few minutes. Nonetheless, this working form can be quite useful, for example if you need to introduce a new topic, communicate decisions from higher levels that are needed for the workshop, or share your knowledge. It is recommended that you support your participants during these phases by providing visual input as well – this can be in the form of a presentation, pictures, or notes that you take on a whiteboard while you talk.

These were the first two aspects of your plan. We’ll cover the last three in the next part!

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

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