How to prepare for a digital planning workshop.

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We were chatting in a team development meeting on Friday afternoon about different planning styles and how every planner has their own individual approach. For me, I often use workshops as a great way to listen and learn more about my clients, this helps me to shape my planning better. Others in the db team disagreed with me, some shuddering at the thought of running a workshop.

So I thought I would share with you how I think and prepare for a workshop; not because I consider myself brilliant at them (far from it!) but because I think facilitating a workshop is a really useful skill to have. And more importantly, I don’t think they should cause you to shudder!

5 tips for running a digital planning workshop

1. Learn from others.

Having a mentor or someone you greatly admire really helps you to develop your own skills and style. Observe how others structure and run workshops and take the pieces you really like. See how they manage conflict or a lack of engagement and store it up for future experiences.  Use others to learn from but don’t try and copy their style as you’ll never feel truly comfortable. It’s really important when you’re running a workshop to be yourself, try to be as natural as possible as this will make your participants feel much more comfortable and ready to engage.

2. Understand your role.

That’s pretty obvious right? Maybe not.
When facilitating a planning workshop your role is to help the participants piece together their combined thoughts and ideas by leading them along a journey. Your role is not to teach, even though you might be standing at the front of the room, and nor are you the one who is meant to have all the answers. You are there to help participants expand their thinking beyond their traditional boundaries. Be nosey, encourage conversation and dig a little deeper.
A workshop is not about getting the answer but about providing you with enough ideas. Ask a lot of open-ended questions and try to bring others into the conversation frequently. This is your chance to capture as much food for thought as possible, ideally you should be doing more listening and less talking.

3. Create helpful exercises.

Take a number of exercises with you into a session to help you tease ideas and opinions out of the participants. You may not get through all of them, especially if the conversation is flowing really well, but have them ready to go if you need a change of pace or thinking style. I found this article from Mark Pollard really helpful for structuring exercises and keeping others focused. Everyone has a different thinking style so some exercises will work better than others. Don’t be offended if one exercises isn’t working, just move onto another one.  
Always start with a solo exercise to allow everyone to “tune in” to being in a workshop. Participating from the beginning gives individuals a chance to start thinking for themselves, rather than sitting back, bringing out the mobile and letting everyone else in the group take responsibility.

4. Expect conflict but don’t take it personally.

Always expect an element of conflict in a workshop. There will be very few occasions where everyone in the session will be in complete agreement with each other (and that’s boring anyway). Your role as a facilitator in this situation is to understand the cause and the source of the conflict and give them a chance to air their concerns. Hopefully from there you can all move on. If not, prepare to be a little bit more forceful in needing to park the issue and moving on. Others in the room will quickly switch off and loose interest if one person gets carried away with the sound of their own opinion.

5. Don’t try to over achieve.

A workshop planning session is rarely about finding the answer to the big question but about helping to shape opinion and frame your future thinking. If you go in looking for too much you’ll be disappointed. If you are hoping to get to the detail you may find that individual interviews work better.

Learn from the experience

Workshops can be a little be daunting so be as prepared as possible with the basics such as technology in the room and the seating layout. Make sure they compliment your exercises and that the room has space for groups to break out if that’s what you need. Keep the session fairly small too, 8-12 people is ideal. You may need to run a couple of sessions if there are lots of people that need to attend but in the long run that’s easier than trying to herd 20+ people through a series of exercises.

I’m the first to admit I’ve had my fair share of tough sessions but I think they all help you to learn, plan better for next time and get some much needed experience under your belt.


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