In the past six months, I’ve been leading design teams of twenty, sometimes thirty people. Some of these people are designers, but the majority are managers, business strategists, front-line workers, and P&L owners. Most of my team members come from my client’s organization. Together we have been solving big wonky strategy and design problems that matter deeply to how our client will continue to support and grow relationships with their customers in the future.
This work has evolved my thinking about making and using workshops in the course of complex UX strategy and design projects. How we authentically create with our clients is something the entire Adaptive Path project team has taken especially seriously. In this work, we have evolved our methods and activities, inspired by necessity, experience and all the good books you can now get for planning a great workshop. And in workshop fashion, we have gathered a whole lot of people in a room and made post-its galore, as I’m sure you do too.
But while creating the right methods and activities is important, what has been especially fascinating is explicitly crafting the workshop-participant experience and recognizing how the participant experience is connected to the overall project success. What follows are my personal principles for creating and facilitating workshops where the goal is to explicitly do strategy and design work with a large client team.
These principles are a bit tribal and a bit wedding planning, and are influenced by the ideas of Skunk Works, Joseph Campbell and my mom, who was a first grade teacher. I return to these principles over and over again because they work. That said, it’s an ever evolving philosophy, so I’d love to know more about what you have learned in your experiences too.
Some experience principles for co-design workshops with big client teams
Honor the gathering. In this ever more interrupt-driven digital world, it’s a challenge to bring together all the right people at the same time to think, make and solve problems that are too complex for just a few people to figure out. Gatherings of this magnitude need opening ceremonies to acknowledge the value of the time we are about to spend together. Typically these ceremonies don’t include marching bands or fireworks (although that would be cool), but there are small and simple actions that help us all recognize that this is a sacred time. These small things include sending out invitations ahead of time, providing food and drink, creating an environment where people can focus without laptops or smart phones, welcoming and orienting people to our day together, and having the client sponsor begin the workshop with essentially an opening blessing for the people gathered and the work we will accomplish.
Establish shared reference. When a large cross-functional team gathers, everyone needs to have some shared knowledge to effectively collaborate—knowing what’s going on is the gateway to empowered participation. To this end, there is nothing wrong with stating what you might assume is obvious to the people present. Most often we will craft an initial 30-60 minute workshop briefing presentation based on all the materials we have been exposed to during stakeholder interviews to share with the workshop team. This briefing helps set the stage for shared understanding and eventually a shared future vision.
Evoke the mission. First off, don’t have a workshop for something that isn’t important enough to inspire people. The mission needs to be big enough, compelling enough and significant enough to justify everyone’s time and attention. Assuming this mission exists, it is the battle ax of the workshop experience. The mission helps people overcome the discomfort of self-doubt, the challenges of collaboration, and the intensity of working together all day. An inspirational and accessible mission gives people both the emotional latitude and the urgency to try new things and accommodate and appreciate their compatriots.
Personalize the purpose. Every person in the workshop is there for a reason. They each have a piece of knowledge, influence, insight, compassion, or experience that will make the ideas richer and the solutions more complete. Each person needs to be aware of their responsibility to voice their ideas, and every voice must be heard and considered. In planning a workshop, we craft activities that enable us to really hear each other and puzzle out the implications of every voice. And in the workshop, we pay careful attention to supporting the meaningful involvement and participation of everyone.
Prepare for excellence. Spending time in a workshop with a group of really smart people covering existing ground and re-iterating known solutions absolutely sucks. Yup, for the record, I say major suckage. Some apologist will say that at least we all know what we know now, but really, that’s just lame. Doing the math—how much each person is worth per hour multiplied by the number of people in the room—shows pretty quickly that this would be one heck of a crazy expensive kumbaya.
Workshops must end producing valuable new insights and solutions for our clients. To accomplish this, there is often a whole lot of work to be done up front. In preparation for workshops, the Adaptive Path team is out in the field doing research, interviewing stakeholders, reading every relevant document and creating the workshop briefings, activities and materials that let us direct the workshop straight into the middle of the deep, meaty, delicious challenges that are the hardest and the most exciting to solve.
Plan for productive groups. Workshops typically have a lot of group work. Small groups of three to six people can quickly generate a ton of interesting thinking and making. But this doesn’t always happen. Without carefully designed activities, unhappy groups abound. Unhappy groups don’t really know what they are doing and spend their time arguing about how best to do something they don’t agree they are doing. Once the argument starts, even asking for help can become enmeshed in the group’s politics. A common attribution error is to assume that the group, or a group member is ‘bad’, but much of this badness can be avoided by ensuring the usability of the collaborative activity. Unnecessary ambiguity can be removed from the activity with tools like written instructions, models, props, templates and activity timing, while ensuring the real problem-solving remains unhindered by the supportive framework.
Another significant way to avoid group unhappiness is to plan the groups ahead of time. When planning groups, I am looking to reduce redundancy. A business owner and a UX designer with strongly held perspectives will have a qualitatively different conversation than two UX designers with strongly held perspectives. People with similar knowledge and experience are more likely to have unproductive conflict than people with significantly different domains of expertise. Client sponsors also often have insights into creating productive groupings, so it’s worth asking ahead of time.
Reveal the forest in the trees. In contrast with conventional meeting approaches, which are typically analog and ephemeral, many workshop methods focus on the process of making ideas visible, tangible and discussable. Workshops can generate walls and walls of stickies and sketches, literally surrounding people with their ideas. It’s exciting to create hundreds or thousands of ideas, but what makes workshop methods powerful is that tangible ideas can be aggregated, synthesized and prioritized. The hard work of the workshop is in creating the big picture perspective from the many inputs. Discerning and deciding, combining or dis-aggregating, clearly saying no to some possibilities and yes to others—how well we engage in this part of a workshop determines the success and impact of work once all the stickies have been taken down from the walls.
Remember the Enterprise. When working intensely with a large group of people, the reality is that almost everyone will find a someone who rubs them the wrong way. Because this is true, it is so lucky that we have have the story of the Starship Enterprise. Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov and Rand. It’s safe to say that not everyone on the bridge was best friends or even always comfortable, but everyone played a critical role in boldly going where no (hu)man has gone before. When ‘people stuff’ flares up, I consider the Enterprise and appreciate that this ship needs a doctor, the doctor we have is McCoy, and let’s face it, he is a damn good doctor.
Be grateful. It’s a very small number of us in the world who get paid to have some 10 or 30 smart and thoughtful people join our design teams, ruminate on the challenges of complex problems and share brilliant, strange, brave, unique, and inspiring perspectives in the service of challenges larger than any of us can puzzle out alone. In the grind of preparation, or in the final hour of some contentious decision making, doing this workshop stuff can seem just plain hard. But frankly, in this field the hard work is the very best work.
Bring your piece of the puzzle. In conclusion, when I think of a workshop, I imagine each person walking into the room with a carefully wrapped puzzle piece. Over the course of the workshop we unwrap the pieces, collect them, sort them and assemble a very big picture. It’s not quite what any one person expected to see, but when we look upon it we have both a sense of satisfaction, and a yearning and curiosity for the good things to come.
These are my thoughts on the UX of Co-Design, I would love to know yours.