The workshop exercise formula
Here's my framework for building a great workshop
There are thousands of workshop exercise ideas out there. Just check out SessionLab’s library for example.
But what do you do when you can’t find the perfect workshop exercise for the problem you’re solving?
Well, other than asking ChatGPT, you can build your own exercise using the workshop exercise formula:
Plus: Your objective
Plus: A mechanic
Identify a useful question
Your question can literally be anything! But there are also great questions that have been used to get useful outcomes and answers by many facilitators in the past.
Some of my favourite workshop exercises are basically just really great questions. For example, the Sailboat exercise is actually just two great questions: “What is carrying us forward?” and “What is holding us back?”
Once you have a useful question, you next pick your objective for answering the question and a mechanic to achieve that objective for your question.
Identify your objective
For a workshop exercise, there’s actually a small set of objectives that you might have. These come from AJ&Smart’s 4C Framework.
You will most likely want to do one or more of these objectives:
Collect: you need to gather information, data, opinions, etc. that will influence the answer to your question
Choose: you need to select what’s important from among collected data or created items
Create: you need to make something new from the information and data that has been shared
Commit: you need to make a decision and commit as an individual or group to carrying it forward (beyond the workshop session!)
If we are using the sailboat exercise, we are collecting the team’s opinions when we ask “What is holding us back?” We might then want to use a tool like voting or evaluating to choose which barriers need to be addressed. We also might move into creating solutions and committing to an experiment from there.
Find the right mechanic
This is where the sticky notes, markers and voting dots come in, and is usually what differentiates a workshop from a meeting.
Here’s a somewhat comprehensive list of mechanics you can pair with your question and your objective:
Noting: writing information on sticky notes
Voting: using dots or other tools to vote for items
Sorting: grouping information into categories
Evaluations: ranking items on a scale
Canvases: creating more enriched information by filling out a canvas or form (like Strategyzer’s Business Model Canvas for example)
Drawing: drawing solutions or concepts, which can include everything from box and line process diagrams to hand-drawn wireframes
Building: creating physical or digital artefacts using tools like UX prototyping tools, Lego, craft materials or even 3D printers
Highlighting: using dots or other tools to highlight areas of interest or concern (but not necessarily to indicate decisions)
I’ve tried to capture as many mechanics as I could but I am sure there are others. Hit reply or drop a comment on the post to let me know if I’ve missed any.
Despite what it may seem at first glance, all of the mechanics can be useful for most of the objectives. For example, Lego Serious Play techniques use the building mechanic to meet the objective of collect: participants are asked to use the Lego to build something in response to a question and then share an explanation with the group. This is a way of collecting information without necessarily writing it down.
Build your workshop
Next time you’re creating an agenda for a workshop or structured collaboration session, use this formula to create the perfect exercise:
This formula works for any kind of workshop whether you’re running an innovation workshop, a strategy day or a team building event.
Give it a try, and let me know if you develop a new go-to workshop exercise.