Top Tips for Facilitating Great Collaborative Workshops

News Collaborative Workshops
Gareth Anderson May 31, 2023
Facilitating Collaborative Workshops
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Whether online or in person, workshop facilitation is a key tool in the CreateFuture toolbox. It’s a part of our practice that I really enjoy and a skill set I’m always looking to hone through both learning and doing.

In this post, I’ll share a few handy principles and tips I’ve picked up across 10 years of running training sessions, strategy workshops and design sprints.

To add a bit more perspective I also reached out to my Linkedin community and have included some of the key takeaways from those discussions in this piece. So whether you’re new in the game, or just looking for different ways to think about your approach, hopefully, you’ll find something in here that strikes a chord.

Let’s start with the basics, what is facilitation?

If you Google the definition of facilitation, you’ll likely get a multitude of different answers and approaches, as well as a pile of wildly pretentious practitioner chat.

At its core, however, it’s pretty simple:

‘Facilitation is the process of making something possible or easier.’
Cambridge Dictionary

To me, workshop facilitation is about supporting and enabling colleagues or clients to have discussions, solve problems or make decisions that they would otherwise struggle with, via a process that is as simple and user-friendly as possible. Good facilitation increases engagement, collaboration, clarity and quality of work. Bad facilitation feeds confusion, adds blockers and leaves teams feeling flat and unmotivated.

So, how do you do it right?

Plan & Prepare

When you’re fully prepped, facilitation is super fun. You’re confident in your ability, comfortable with the challenge at hand and able to easily adapt to the inevitable curve balls coming your way.

  • Do your research. Read around the problem space and get to know the team you’re working with to get fully up to speed.
  • Create detailed session plans. Make sure to define the what, the how and the why and communicate these to your attendees. It will make their lives, and yours, a lot easier.
  • Include buffer time. Make sure your agenda has plenty of buffer time between exercises. Teams like to talk and sometimes things just take a little bit longer than you expected - plan for that.
  • Do a dry run. Whether working on your own or with a teammate, make sure you’ve checked everything off, are comfortable with the agenda and have everything you need.
  • Onboard your attendees. Think about what your team needs to know in advance. This could be timings, tools, or any homework you need them to complete in advance.

Read The Room

Never underestimate the importance of the energy in the room and the impact it can have on a session. It must be understood, observed and managed in order to keep you and your team on track for a great session and a positive outcome.

  • Start with fun. Don’t just dive straight into the task. In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor states “Your brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed.” So start with an icebreaker that will get everyone chatting and smiling.
  • Get to know your audience. Who are the leaders in the room and what can you do to get them onside early? Positive energy from senior leaders can be infectious and getting that upfront will get you started on the right foot.
  • Manage the peaks and the troughs. Plan the day around maintaining attention and energy. A mix of listening, learning, doing and resting. Plan in breaks and stick to the timings, but be ready to adapt if you need to. This is even more important if you’re working online.
  • Recognize different personality types. Make the most of democratic tools and exercises to help everyone contribute and provide feedback so that the loudest people don’t dominate. Nothing saps energy like sitting in silence for two hours.
  • Don’t forget your own energy. As the facilitator, you set the tone. If your energy dips it will impact the rest of the team. Lots of water and healthy snacks to keep you going and work with a co-facilitator to share the load when you can.

Get Sh*t Done

This is why you’re there. You might not achieve everything and your goals might change as you go, but what’s important is making concrete decisions and setting tangible next steps as a group. Otherwise, it was just another meeting and it probably could have happened without you.

  • Align on the brief. Make sure you all understand what you’re trying to achieve and are aligned on what a good outcome will look like. That way you all know where you’re heading and you can have an informed and centered discussion if you need to adapt as you go.
  • Always have the right tools for the job. Facilitation is rarely a copy-and-paste activity, make sure you pick the right tools from your toolkit to help your team answer the brief. It’s worth having a few backups just in case things aren’t working out as planned and you need to switch it up.
  • Ask the big questions. Never shy away from the big questions - even if they make you and the room nervous. Part of your role is to push your team, so get comfortable with awkward silences and make sure you are ready to mediate if the discussion gets heated.
  • Have a decider. Ensure you have agreed on one person in your team who has the knowledge and authority to make final decisions. This person will be key in unlocking any impasse within the session and in making final calls on the next steps.
  • Set the next steps. Before you leave, make sure that everyone involved knows what’s been agreed, what is happening next and what that means for them. It will give them a sense of purpose and ownership and make them more likely to support the outcomes of the session.

This is not an exhaustive list, or a step-by-step guide to success, but hopefully, you found some useful provocations in there.

If you have any questions or you think I’ve missed anything important drop me a line, I’m always interested in learning from other people’s experiences.

Finally, I want to leave you with three takeaways from my Linkedin discussions that really struck a chord with me.

  • Find your own approach and don’t be afraid to be yourself in the room.
  • It’s okay to not know everything - you are not the oracle of all things.
  • Understand that you’ve got to facilitate some bad sessions to know what good ‘feels’ like!