Workshop Planning (IX): Warm-Ups And Where To Find Them

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

Part VIII <<< >>> Part X

Previously, we went through our topic-specific phases and set milestones (i.e., goals) for each one. As I mentioned, the goals for warm-ups and feedbacks are usually quite universal. However, there is a great variance in what you can and will achieve with a warm-up. You should always consider your warm-ups, feedback phases and cool-downs as part of your workshop, and as such, as a phase that fulfills a certain function. A good warm-up is never just a game that interrupts your workshop!

Why Warming Up Is Useful

Warm-ups can set the mood for your workshop, as well as wake everybody up – it depends on the content. With a quick warm-up, you can

  • Start a creative process: Especially valued in design thinking, you can use a warm-up to get your participant in that creative mode that you will need for your workshop.
  • Wake everybody up: After lunch, or early in the morning, your participants might still be in a coma that coffee alone cannot solve. Get the juices flowing by a quick activity game!
  • Calm everybody down: Especially after a long (and possibly heated) discussion, the mood might be over 9000. If you need everyone to concentrate for a longer period of time, throw in a quick cool-down before you start your next phase.
  • Set the mood: With a playful opening to a new topic, you can already get your participants to think about a certain topic, or to start connecting some dots. This will make it easier for everyone to work on new topics.
  • Practice a new way of thinking or working: If you expect your participants to work in a certain manner during the next phase, and you know that it’s completely new to them, you can practice the steps on a much lower scale during a quick warm-up.
  • Help your team to get to the attitude you need: The warm-up can set the stage for saying Yes! instead of But… – which is great if your next phase involves creative thinking, restructuring or defining change projects.
  • Enhance your team-building: Warm-ups are great as team-building activities. This can be useful for a team that doesn’t know each other very well, but is also highly suggested for teams that have been working together for a long time – you can always bring them closer together.

I don’t need to explain why feedback phases are useful, don’t I? Depending on how comfortable you and your team are with feedback, you can choose an activity that will allow them to either speak in front of everyone, or just to one or two persons, or even add their feedback anonymously. Anonymous feedback has its perks – in many groups, it’s more honest than the feedback in a bigger round. However, it also has its weaknesses: If the group is very anonymous, and the team is not used to providing feedback, it might get harsh or aggressive.

Where To Find Warm-Ups Online

No one needs to invent the wheel when it comes to warm-ups – there are already many wheels out there! The following sources are my favorite websites and books which I use for my workshops (not sponsored by anybody, just personal recommendations).

Kanban Retromat

This website is a treasure chest, not only for warm-ups, but also for great feedback activities. It is meant to support Kanban masters with their retrospective meetings. As these meetings focus on improving the workflows and talking about issues in the team, most activities focus around these topics. You can find help for

  • Making sure everybody feels comfortable,
  • Checking the general mood in the group,
  • Mentally preparing everyone for giving and receiving feedback,
  • Anonymously or personally collecting feedback and working further with it.

The activities are categorized according to their goal. Set The Stage activities are great openers, Gather Data help you to collect issues and ideas, or Decide What To Do support you with finding actionable items. Check it out!

Fun Retrospectives

This website has a ton of activities listed for several occasions. You can browse through the different topics or even use their structure and adapt it to your needs. This is again a website directed to people who conduct retrospectives within an agile framework, but the activities are useful for basically any workshop. I love the category Energizer which is great to get everybody focused again, or prevent the food coma after a team lunch in the middle of the day. Also check out their team-building activities.

Wheel Decide for Warm-Ups

This is a great choice if you have troubles deciding, like me! You just spin that wheel and it gives you a random warm-up. Using random warm-ups may contradict what I said earlier – to always use them with a specific goal – but it can get your own creative juices to flow to just be presented with some random choices. And who doesn’t like to spin those wheels?!

Remote Workshops

Not only since the Corona pandemic started, workshops have not only been done in one physical location, but online. Especially in remote workshops, I would recommend to plan warm-ups. Remember, everybody is sitting in front of a screen, and maybe feeling horribly uncomfortable with speaking to a microphone and knowing they are recorded by their webcam. Warm-ups can not only remove social barriers between workshop attendees, they can also help them getting used to the new situation. It’s far easier to first talk about your pets, or children, or hobbies remotely, than immediately diving into the topic of why that big project went so wrong and how you can improve your collaboration!

For remote workshops, you can still use many of the warm-ups presented in the sources above – just substitute your whiteboard with a virtual one, write your sticky notes in a browser-based tool or within the conference software, and you’re good to go!

And What If I Skip Them?

Although I highly recommend to look into the topic of warm-ups – there’s no universal rule that forces you to do them. If you’re someone who doesn’t like to play games, and you feel uncomfortable to add them, this will not be helpful for anybody. First and foremost, you as the workshop leader must stand 100 percent behind your activities! Do not feel forced to add them because everybody does; your workshop can still be fantastic without them. However, there are some which are not as playful as the others; maybe they’re made for you? Try to look beyond the end of your own nose and check whether you can really not find anything.

The same accounts for the situation where you are convinced that your team will feel uncomfortable participating in a warm-up. This can be true for teams that are used to very straightforward work who have not attended workshops before, or for teams that do not know each other and may be afraid of losing face. It is also a cultural, as well as an age factor; depending on your cultural background and the age of your participants, you might feel more keen on gamified workshops – or not. If you still think a warm-up would be great, remember to start with one that is not as playful. Your group might feel okay with talking about their associations for a certain topic (like this one), or filling in some post-its, but may have difficulties with a full-stage improvisation game.

My recommendation is: Try it! Try going baby steps! It’s usually worth it. I was surprised how much some of my participants liked the games – even the ones where I thought they would completely block any gamified activities. Allow yourself to be surprised, too!

Don’t forget to visit the Guides & Downloads Page for an editable workshop template, as well as downloadable versions for two warm-ups!

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