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Planning a Facilitated Workshop: A Comprehensive Guide

Over the last six months, I have been working with one of our facilitators on a long-term project which has required a lot of facilitation. The facilitator I am working with is great with pre-planned, stepped-out content that has a defined answer, but has sometimes struggled with the uncertainty of semi-structured facilitated sessions where we don’t always know where the workshop will go. We have put this post together based on some of the learnings we have had while working together and working through our improvements.

Facilitated workshops are powerful tools that can drive collaboration, solve problems, and generate innovative ideas. Planning and executing such workshops requires preparation, adaptability, and reflection. Below is a detailed guide to help you organise a successful facilitated workshop:

1. Pre-Planning

Before diving into the actual workshop, a thorough groundwork is essential. Pre-planning is akin to setting the stage for a play. By defining clear objectives, identifying the right stakeholders, selecting an optimal venue, and pinpointing the best date, you are laying the foundational blocks. This step ensures that you not only have a direction but also the right participants and environment to make your session successful.

Know Your Objective: Begin by identifying the primary purpose of the workshop. Whether it's strategy formation, problem-solving, or brainstorming, a clear objective is the foundation of an effective session.

Identify Stakeholders: List everyone who should be part of the workshop. This includes decision-makers, contributors, and any individual whose input or buy-in is essential.

Choose a Suitable Venue: Ensure the venue promotes collaboration. Consider factors such as size, accessibility, interruptions, technology availability, and ambience.

Set the Date: When choosing a date, keep in mind the availability of key participants, holidays, and other potential conflicts.

2. Creating a Great Session Outline

Crafting a session is both an art and a science. Creating a great session outline is about structuring the flow of activities and discussions to keep participants engaged, informed, and interactive. It's the blueprint of your workshop. By starting with icebreakers to ease into the session, to the allocation of time for each activity, it's about ensuring a seamless transition from one segment to the next, catering to diverse styles, and ensuring optimal participation.

Start with an Icebreaker: Opening with a fun or thought-provoking activity warms up the group, promotes interaction, and reduces tension.

Structure the Session: It is important to build your structure around the strengths and limitations of the environment, resources and participants while always ensuring a clear outcome for each action.

Allocate Time Wisely: While it's crucial to give ample time for each activity, also account for unplanned discussions or breaks. A time buffer ensures the session doesn't feel rushed.

Incorporate Varied Activities: This caters to diverse learning and interaction styles. For example, a mix of group discussions, pair activities, and individual reflections can cater to extroverts and introverts alike.

3. Planning for Difficult Participants

Every group has its dynamics, and not all participants may align in their behaviour and participation levels. Planning for difficult participants is crucial for maintaining the harmony and productivity of the session. Whether it's the silent thinkers who need a nudge to share their insights or the dominant speakers who might overshadow others, being prepared for these scenarios ensures that all voices are heard, and the session remains balanced.

Set Ground Rules: At the start, establish clear rules such as active participation, respecting others' viewpoints, and avoiding side conversations.

Engage Quiet Participants: Create opportunities for everyone to speak. Asking open-ended questions or using techniques like "round-robin" can help.

Handle Dominant Participants: If someone is dominating the conversation, politely interject and redirect the focus. You might say, "Thank you for your input, Alex. I'd love to hear what Jamie thinks about this."

Address Negative Behaviour: If a participant is disruptive or negative, address it privately during a break or immediately if it's hampering the process.

4. Being Prepared for a Course Change Mid-Session

No matter how well-prepared a facilitator might be, workshops often come with their set of surprises. Being prepared for a course change mid-session is about embracing adaptability. Whether it's an unexpected turn in discussions, an unforeseen challenge, or the need to pivot the session's focus, being ready to steer the session back on track or take a new direction ensures the workshop remains productive and meets its objectives.

Be Open to Flex: Even with a perfect outline, be prepared to adjust based on the group's dynamics and energy.

Have a 'Parking Lot': This is a space (physical or digital) where off-topic or complex issues are noted for future consideration. This ensures the agenda remains on track while also acknowledging valuable input.

Solicit Feedback: If you sense the session isn't going as planned, ask participants for feedback. They might offer insights you hadn't considered.

5. Evaluating Performance in the Session

Reflection is the key to growth. Evaluating performance in the session is not just about assessing the outcomes but also understanding the strengths and areas of improvement for future workshops. By gathering feedback, indulging in self-reflection, measuring the session's deliverables, and ensuring a systematic follow-up, facilitators can refine their approach, making every subsequent workshop better than the last.

Feedback Forms: Distribute feedback forms at the end of the session. Include questions about the session's effectiveness, the facilitator's performance, and areas for improvement.

Self-Reflection: Analyse what went well and what didn’t. This will help you refine your approach for future sessions.

Measure Outcomes: Depending on the workshop's objective, outcomes might be a list of generated ideas, a strategic plan, or action items for a project. Evaluate the quality and feasibility of these outcomes.

Follow Up: After the workshop, send out a summary, the next steps, and any resources. This reinforces the session's importance and maintains momentum.

In conclusion, facilitating a workshop is both an art and a science. It requires preparation, engagement, adaptability, and evaluation. With these guidelines in hand, you're well on your way to leading a session that's not only productive but also memorable for all participants.

Trevor O'Sullivan

Trevor O'Sullivan

General Manager. Since the early 2000s, Trevor has worked with thousands of Talent Management professionals to develop and apply assessment-based talent management solutions for selecting, developing and managing people. Trevor is an active member of the TTI Success Insights (TTISI) Global Advisory Council, contributes to TTISI product development and is a regular presenter at TTISI-R3. He is honoured to have received multiple Blue Diamond Awards and, more recently, the Bill Brooks Impact Award recognising his contributions to the TTISI global network.

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