Workshop Planning (XI): Discussion As Input

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

Part X <<< >>> Part XII.1

In our example workshop, I decided to go for a discussion as the input. As the topic is collaboration an possible improvements, there is no larger need for any input as the starting point. On the contrary – imagine being invited to a workshop to reflect on your collaboration practices, and the first thing you are presented with is a theoretical text about collaboration at work. Wouldn’t this feel like a punch in the face? It’s like saying Well, nice of you to be here, let’s look at what you did wrong your whole career… and nobody likes that!

Introducing the topic with a reflective discussion on your team’s own practices allows for a much smoother start. They will know that they’re not perfect – but the moment you give them the opportunity to explain and discuss their points of view, the rest of the workshop and any improvements will not feel like a bubbling pool of lava between you and your team.

Setting The Scene

There are two ways of entering the workshop – either you prepared your team for what they may expect, or you decided to really just have this isolated session without any further preparation on their side. Both are fine, and depend on your personal preference as well as the current workload in the team. Do not underestimate the effort it may cause if you ask everyone to read a text prior to the workshop, or to prepare some answers to questions in writing.

Preparation Outside Working Hours – Just Don’t

Before you ask your team to prepare something outside their working hours, change your position with the position of a single parent, someone who takes care of younger siblings or their parents, or someone who has a second job in the evening hours or at the weekend. If you were this person, what would you think of your request? Especially if you are not in a similar position yourself, do not underestimate the stress you might cause on your team member’s side without even knowing. If you have a small child at home, even a 20-minute read may be impossible.

I have had a discussion about this topic with a manager in the past, and their point of view was: With requesting everyone to just read 20 minutes outside of their working hours, I can separate the motivated and ambitious employees from the ones that just do their job. Although this seems like quite an intelligent thing to do, I can not stress enough how much you discriminate the parents and caregivers among your team members with this approach. Who says that I am not ambitious and motivated, just because I have to calm down a three-year-old the whole evening and fall asleep as soon as they do? Who says that I am not very motivated to go the extra mile, just because I have to visit my parents every night, bath them, feed them, and clean for them? If you end up evaluating that all your parents and caregivers are not motivated enough for their jobs and have other priorities, based on an exercise that discriminated against their situation from the beginning on – you will not succeed in keeping your team diverse.

Instead, if it’s just 20 minutes, ask them to prepare within their working hours. You will still see who is ambitious and motivated. If someone simply forgets it, you can ask for reasons in your next one-on-one. If someone decides to give other projects a priority – you can clarify why they did so.

Giving An Impulse

The goal of a preparation is to give an impulse to everybody about the workshop topic. By doing so, you can make sure that everyone – consciously or subconsciously – starts thinking about the topic, and thus about their own opinion. This will facilitate the start into the workshop, as everybody will already feel a bit more comfortable with the topic. It will also reduce the amount of people who feel overwhelmed by too much new information. Some of us just need a bit of time to wrap their heads around new stuff. Going into a workshop unprepared may cause people like us to be very quiet and introverted.

By the way, the same accounts for sharing your agenda upfront. Even if it does not contain all the details, it increases your transparency and is a great service for your team.

Which Impulses Are There?

You have several options to give an impulse:

  • You can just share the agenda, and announce that you will start with a discussion about a topic. By revealing the topic, you will prompt everybody to think about it – at least for a few seconds.
  • You can additionally give them a question (or two) that they should think about, but make it clear that no written notes are necessary. This way, you don’t have to allow for extra working time for the preparation, but you don’t exclude team members who are busy after work. Thinking about a question is something that you can also do while showering, in bed, or while commuting.
  • You can ask them to read a statement, article, or watch a video about a topic. This will automatically narrow down the topics of the discussion (so it might not be beneficial in all cases). It will, however, facilitate the discussion for teams who have difficulties to engage in an open discussion, or who tend to fall quiet very quickly.

All three are fine, and depend on your preferences and your team’s capacity. It also depends on the total length of the workshop – if the whole thing just lasts for three hours, preparing for it for two hours maybe is a bit too much.

The Discussion

After a quick introduction and maybe a warm-up phase, you will end up sitting down and starting to discuss the topic. In our case: the collaboration of the team, with each other and with other departments. There are a few things to remember:

  • Try to minimize your own role. You will be the moderator (unless you appoint someone else or have a facilitator in the room), and all eyes will be on you in the beginning. Vanish into the background or join the discussion round to make clear that it’s not your job to comment and coordinate everything.
  • Take some notes – especially if you’re new to leading workshops, you may want to ask someone to take the notes for you. Taking notes and simultaneously moderating is very hard and requires a lot of coordination skills.
  • Give a time frame. Don’t let the discussion run for 30 minutes straight and abruptly end it because time’s over, before anybody knowing. If you have 30 minutes in total, let everybody know that you’ll discuss for 20 minutes and will have some time for final statements in the end. Don’t underestimate how long final statements will take, even if you ask everyone to just say one sentence (sentences can be very, very long!).

Seating

Make sure that everybody can see everybody’s face during the discussion. It’s not very nice to talk to someone’s neck. Additionally, a discussion profits from non-verbal communication which will be much easier if you can see who you’re talking to.

If your group is larger than 7-8 people, consider limiting the people who talk. With 20 people in the room, a discussion will quickly become unbalanced as the louder and more extroverted ones will automatically take over.

The Structure

A discussion does not necessarily need a lot of structuring. On the contrary, too much structure might inhibit everyone from talking openly. Here’s some ideas for light structuring:

  • Open the discussion with a question. Better than just asking it verbally would be to either have it on a computer screen, whiteboard or flip chart. Make sure that it’s not a yes/no question (Do you think our collaboration is good as it is?) – instead, go for an open question (How would you describe our collaboration in general?).
  • Ask everybody for their opening statement regarding the question. This way, you’ll give room for everybody (or every speaker at least) to talk, no matter whether they’re usually among the loud ones or not.
  • Let the discussion run for some minutes – write down some core topics quietly, and only intervene if you notice that the discussion has started to loop over the same statements. In this case, summarize what you’ve written down and maybe ask some of the quieter participants to elaborate on a topic that you (or you let them choose, maybe?) find important.
  • If you are afraid of everyone being too quiet, you can also prepare two or three additional questions and change the topic a bit, in case that everyone really is finished earlier than expected. To be honest – I always do this, but I have never, ever needed my additional questions until now.
  • Announce 2-3 minutes before the 20 minutes are over that the discussion should slowly come to an end. You’ll see, this will change the dynamics!
  • Be strict with your closing statements. Ask everybody to speak, either for 1-2 minutes, or a few sentences. Intervene if someone takes up too much time – they’re stealing it from other speakers (or you have to rush through your later phases if you go overtime).

If you follow these tips, you will have a great opening discussion with lots of topic to work on afterwards. Now, let’s move on to the next phase!

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