Workshop Planning (XII.1): Working Form Changes

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

Part XI <<< >>> Part XII.2

As mentioned in several other posts before, changing the working form regularly will help your workshop in multiple ways. First, it will help your participants to concentrate longer. Second, it will make your workshop more diverse as you give different types of learners the option to find a phase that they feel most comfortable with. Third, there are things than can best be done with a partner, or in a group, or in smaller groups – or alone, and adjusting the working form to the most beneficial one will help you to get the most out of each phase.

Workshop Opening: Group Setting

There are two types of working form that involve the whole group. You can have a presentation setting (someone stands in front of everyone and presents or talks about a topic), or you can have a joint discussion. It’s recommended for the latter to choose a seating order that allows everybody to see everybody else. Typical scenarios where you would choose one of those include

  • Discussions: Try to form a circle or a half-moon seating order. This way, the seating order automatically implies that everyone has an equal position in this discussion.
  • Discussion with audience: In rounds that are too big for a joint discussion, you can also have a smaller circle or half-moon setting in the front, and everybody else as the audience. I would recommend to give clear instructions to the audience of what is expected of them (see below: Active Audience).
  • Introductions: Sometimes, it will be you who talks, for example to introduce everyone to the workshop or to explain a new task or topic. You can also present something (company numbers, a new concept you’d like to try). While you could do this with everybody in person, or in smaller groups, the quickest way is by doing it with the whole group at once.

In our example, we’ll have the introduction/warm-up in the beginning, which will be a mix of a presentational setting and an active group setting for the warm-up.

Active Audience

With some of your participants as the audience, there is a danger of them not following the discussion actively. At last, if you’re either not too interested in the topic, or you maybe think that it will be your turn to pay attention later, it’s easy to use this apparently ‘passive’ time to think about what you have to buy from the supermarket, or what you’ll do on the weekend, or what to prepare before your grandmother visits you next week. Note that this is usually not intentional and disrespectful, but a very normal consequence of dividing the group in an ‘active’ and a ‘passive’ one. If you ask someone to ‘just’ listen, it may be quite hard for them to follow the discussion for longer, because there are so many possibilities to what they could possibly turn their attention to.

If you want to make sure that your audience follows the discussion actively, you can do so by giving them a special task. This way, they will have a goal in mind with which they can actively listen. The task focuses the attention on exactly the aspects that you’ll need later. In our example, you could ask them to focus on the following:

  • Every person’s satisfaction with the current situation,
  • Examples that either show a very good or bad collaboration,
  • Differences in collaboration between different departments and within the team.

All of those tasks will automatically pre-structure the next phases. The discussion we plan will be rather superficial and time will fly by quickly – that is fine, because the next phase will continue the discussion. However, we’ll change the working form! Instead of continuing with the whole group, we’ll divide everyone into smaller groups.

Intensive Brainstorming: Small Groups

The benefits of small groups definitely is that everybody can talk more freely. There’s also less chances that the louder and more extroverted participants overpower the quiet ones – which is a very common problem in bigger groups.

After our joint start, everybody has now received exactly the same input with (hopefully!) many interesting aspects to develop further. The separation into groups will diversify the results you get in the end. Sometimes, results will be surprisingly similar – then you’ll know that the topics simply are so important that everybody had them in mind.

If you have the option to send the groups to different rooms, I would recommend it. It can get very loud with many groups in one room. This is not only more intense for everybody – there are also people who cannot concentrate with too many voices in the room. In order to facilitate the workshop for them, relocating groups to other rooms is great.

Dividing the groups

The easiest way to divide the groups is to either just divide everyone by where they’re sitting, or, if you want to split up neighbors, assigning numbers. If you want to have four groups, you assign the first person the number one, their neighbor number 2, then 3, then 4, and then 1 again – and so on. Then you just ask everybody with the same number to gather in a group.

You can also have everybody find their own groups – this is a bit messier, but it gives people the opportunity to choose the groups for themselves. They can not only work with the person they appreciate the most, but also avoid persons that are not a good fit. Depending on your team, you’ll know whether this could be an issue (which should be addressed in one-on-ones, but there’s no need to force someone to work with a group they really can’t stand).

Clear Goals

It’s common that small groups may go off-topic or be ‘too’ engaged into continuing the discussion, so that they don’t finish their task. However, if the goal was not very clear, it’s perfectly logical that you will not gain any usable results from the groups (although they maybe had fun in their discussions). Make sure that you give them clear instructions of what is expected of them. If they have to write something down that you want to stick to a whiteboard – tell them. If they should fill in a work sheet – hand it to them in the beginning. If everybody should take notes – let them know. I would also recommend that you go through the groups and ask them whether everything is clear. This way, you’ll catch misunderstandings early on and can clarify things before it’s too late.

Merging Results: Prioritizing

After the groups had time to discuss and work on their preferred points, you can ask everybody to join the big round again. You now have groups that talked about quite different things, so in order to bring everything together, the groups should present their results quickly. For this step, it’s important that they already knew they were going to present their results in a way during their group sessions. For most people, it’s awfully difficult to improvise a presentation and they’d like to prepare a few notes beforehand. This means, asking someone for a spontaneous summary of half an hour of discussion will probably overwhelm them.

Make sure to support the groups by either writing down their key aspects, or use sticky notes or magnets to pin them to a whiteboard. Also give the groups a time limit – presenting the key points should not take longer than a few minutes per group. Make sure to reserve at least five minutes of this session to wrap up the discussion yourself (and, in our case, also wrap up the first half of the workshop).

Once all key aspects are on the whiteboard, you can have a quick voting to prioritize them. Depending on the amount of aspects and how often they were named by the group, this will be more or less easy. In order to avoid that everybody thinks that every topic is important (so you’ll end up with a tie of basically everything that’s on the table), you can limit everyone’s votes to two or three. Before you leave for the break, you should all have a clear vision of what will be the topic in the second half of the workshop. Even if your workshop is much longer or different from the example we’re using, now would be a great time to have a small break: The topic is clearly done, and after so many presentations and discussions, everybody will long for a small opportunity to relax.

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