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4 Ways to Design a Better Workshop: Notes from the Lab

Featured Image: The Lab team posing during Home Week with our favorite design tool ever…Post Its!

At the Lab, we take great care in designing sessions with our partners that are productive, engaging, and learner-centric—and we’re always looking for ways to improve our practice. Earlier this month, our team gathered in DC to reflect, expand our methods toolkit, and ultimately, get better at what we do. Our week-long bananza of field trips, workshops, and discussions yielded a clear takeaway (or, maybe four): However you are convening people, whether that be for a quick team meeting or for a design session with a room of 300, the details matter.

4 ways to design a better workshop:

1. Ask people what their favorite karaoke song is.

Karen Hold of Experience LABS challenged us to refresh our practice of facilitating and convening. How can we make design more fun? How might we shake people out of their regular way of thinking and ready them to imagine and explore possibility? Karen gave us space to play: building paper airplanes, creating tactile prototypes with pipe cleaners, and making trail mix. The team’s universal favorite? Set up a whiteboard and invite participants to write down their favorite karaoke song when they first walk in. Almost immediately, this exercise sparked joyful conversation and brightened up the energy of the room. (Pro tip: Use the list to create your playlist for the session.)

2. Bring the snacks…and the legos.

Walking into our afternoon with the education design team at Cannon Design, an integrated practice architecture firm, the connection between space and practice was immediately clear. How might we select, create, and curate a space where people want to be and learn? What kind of room inspires people? More often than not, the room we work in with our partners is little up to us, yet we do have the ability to bring snacks (our favorites are chocolates, mints, popcorn) and tools and imagery that inspire. Consider tools that are more tactile and visual, such as building blocks to create prototypes and models and photographs to prompt empathy for personas and communicate feelings.

Take a cue from Karen Hold: these silly toys helped spark our imaginations.

3. Help people recognize that they are awesome designers.

How do you facilitate a session that’s not another boring initiative on participants’ plates? Make impact the center of your conversation. Your participants are not just administrators and staff. They are warriors driving impact through innovation. Our conversation with Whiteboard Advisors, a strategy and consulting firm, brought this to light: Bringing people together to design for themselves is not just about designing for themselves. When we are co-designing healthcare pathways with Virginia Western Community College (VWCC), for example, we are not just designing for their learners. Helping VWCC core team members recognize that they are designers means reminding them that they are creating new models that have the potential to scale to the greater education system. And we think that is pretty cool.

4. Give compliments (to your team, too!).

Prior to Home Week, each of us at the Lab took the Clifton Strengths Assessment and shared our results (five core strengths) back to the whole team. We then collectively looked at our individual strengths, as well as our strengths as a whole. Where do each of our strengths shine? (Pro tip: Insert compliments here.) How might we use this new lens to better design our internal processes? To put together more balanced, and in turn, stronger teams? Asking your participants to take an official Strengths Finder Assessment might be too much, but finding ways to learn about their work styles, their strengths, or even their comfort level with the design process will allow you to tailor how you form working groups or assign roles.

Designing, facilitating, convening, workshopping––it’s all a practice. Giving space to reflect and explore how we can better ourselves and our work is a practice, too. So, the next time you find yourself hosting a staff meeting or something larger, check-in with yourself and ask: What’s my favorite karaoke song? 

Add your song to the Lab’s Karaoke Hits playlist