My workshop design process

I run a lot of workshops for clients. I design these using an approach that I’ve honed for years, and until now, have never really explained to others. So, if you find you need to design a workshop and are wondering what approach to take, here’s my rough process for you. Hope it’s useful.

Step 1. Discover.


First, I want to discover what my client needs. So, I’ll sit down with the client, a blank sheet of paper and a pen to find out. Does this mean I haven’t done any thinking beforehand? No – I’ll put my curious hat on. The one that has me asking open questions I probably don’t have the answers to. Like: what’s the business driver for this? What does success look like? What’s at stake here? How urgent is this? What are you hoping for? I’ll have these sorts of questions in my mind as I sit down, and engage in conversation. I might have some ideas up my sleeve, but this isn’t the time to bring them out.

Step 2. Sense-making.


Through lots of listening and questioning, I’ll have scribbled heaps of notes. I might have also tested some of my ideas with the client. It depends on the situation – some clients will want to do a big brainstorming session right there and then – in which case we may jump into steps 2, 3 and 4 on the spot (I’m always prepared for this). More often than not, I’ll have some time to step back and look at what they’re saying, look for patterns and themes emerging, and make sense of it all. I also want to be really clear on the desired outcomes at this point. Sometimes, what a client says they want can evolve during the course of the conversation, as we dig deeper into the underlying issues. So it’s important to be clear on this before moving on. If I’m not sure, I’ll re-check with the client.

Step 3. Braindump.


My next step is to get down a bunch of ideas for possible content and processes. I’ll have captured some of those ideas before the initial meeting, some more during the meeting, and will have had others pop up since. This is also where I draw on my experience from similar scenarios in the past, as well as the new ideas I’ve been thinking or learning about. During this process, I’ll draw on adult learning and instructional design principles to ensure a sound approach.

Sometimes I mind-map on a whiteboard, sometimes I use sticky notes on a blank A3. I find it’s more helpful to do this in ‘analogue’ i.e. using paper and pen, rather than doing it on a screen. That way, I can see the big picture and move stuff around. I usually do this by myself, and sometimes I might draw in one or two other minds in my network, especially if I’m seeking extra inspiration.

Step 4. Rough Draft(s).


Once I’ve reasonably happy with the ideas I’ve got, I’ll map those to a rough timeframe that lines up with the available time that the client has for the workshop. If there’s any pre-work for participants, I’ll identify that here too. I’m still in analogue at this stage – I scribble faster than I type. I might share it with the client at this stage to do an initial sense-check and get feedback.

Step 5. Finished Draft.


This is where I go to my computer. What I do in this step varies widely, depending on the need. I might want a typed up, detailed run plan, and / or some slides and handouts. Sometimes, I’ll skip this step completely, especially if I know the stuff back-to-front and it doesn’t require anything flash to be presented. There is usually some value in having some visuals and handouts – however I err on less rather than more. Often, I’ll set up a web page for participants to access relevant resources before or afterwards.

Step 6. Ready To Go.


All the thinking has been done. Now it’s just about execution (which is a whole other story). I’ll have let the admin staff know how I want the room set up (wherever possible I’ll visit the venue beforehand), and I’ll arrive with plenty of time to ensure it is just right. There’s nothing worse than running around sorting our technology and room layout five minutes before people are due to show up. Once it’s all sorted, I relax and get in the zone. And away we go…


Here’s a rough idea of how long each step takes for a one-day workshop:

Discovery: 1 hour

Sense-making: 1-3 hours

Braindump: 30 mins – 3 hours

Rough draft: 1-3 hours (might be a few iterations here)

Final draft: 3-6 hours

Ready to go: 1 hour


So, there you have it. A quick once-over of my approach. There is of course a lot more to it, but this should give you a rough road map. Go play…