A simple tool to take the stress out of planning big workshops

Planning a big workshop can feel like a lot of pressure. It’s often a rare opportunity to get key individuals with busy schedules together. So what happens in the workshop really counts – time is precious, everyone needs to have a say, and the session must be productive. There’s a lot to cover and high expectations for making progress.

When designing these big sessions (or any workshop), you can break it down into a more manageable structure and get better results by starting with the end in mind, before even thinking about the structure of the workshop or the exercises you will run.

When I was planning a recent workshop, I quickly sketched out a tool that shows the process that I use. There are 3 sections: 1) purpose 2) final output 3) questions.

Purpose

The first part of the process is to clarify why the workshop is needed and what your participants need to get out of it. Write down the outcomes that the group needs to achieve, and if there is anything specific to be discussed or covered.

Final output

The next stage is to be clear on what will be produced as a result of the workshop. In addition to the raw notes, what will be produced to ensure that the workshop has an impact beyond the day itself? It might be some kind of written agreement between attendees, or the start of a strategy document or plan. I’ve even produced draft decks for clients before, for them to update and edit themselves, as that’s how they’ll be using the content.

Questions

After clarifying the purpose and final output, brainstorm all of the questions that you think will help to achieve them. These are the questions that the participants will explore together, and come from thinking about the gaps between where they are now and where they would like to be.  Depending on the length of the workshop, this can be a lot of questions – for the last workshop I planned, I brainstormed nearly 80! It’s impossible to answer this number of questions during a workshop, but you can start to group them into similar areas. There will be some naturally emerging themes.

Designing your workshop

These overarching themes will form the broad sections, and you can organise them into the order that they will be addressed during the workshop. With this overview, you can now choose and design the workshop activities.

Planning a workshop in this way helps to make sure that there is a logical narrative to the session and that you’re realistic about what can be covered in the time available.

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