Planning workshops

September 30th, 2014

We’re often asked about designing workshops – how to, what processes to select, how to estimate timings, what works, and what doesn’t. Everyone eventually develops their own approach. Whenever I’m doing something new, I write it out – long hand (not on a computer). This slows me down and I can visualise each step. It helps me to be clear about what I can do, and what I’m still unsure about. Once I’m familiar with a process, I can do this in my head.

I do name processes – it helps me to remember them. If I make something up, I give it a name. It becomes my own personal jargon – a shortcut in having options to choose from.

If there is one thing we have learnt about planning workshops is that the plan will not survive contact with the group.

Here’s why.

Imagine a game of Rock Paper Scissors, or any other game that you’re familiar with – it could even be football. Now imagine a way in which you could modify the game – some change in the rules of play. Play the game in your head with the new rules. Imagine what would happen. Write it down if you like. Make a drawing.

Now play the game for real, with your modified rules. Chances are, your modified rules will not survive first contact with players. At some stage, something will emerge that needs to be changed to accommodate the new rules; or the new rules will lead to something unexpected, that you hadn’t thought of; or the players will complain, or maybe come up with ideas of their own to modify or improve the game.

What makes sense in your head doesn’t translate to working in the real world.

This is true of designing workshops too.

This is because a group of people in a workshop is a network and exhibits the characteristics of a network: complexity, emergence and self organising. Try pushing against that! Better to notice what is happening in real time and respond.

Plan by all means – it’s part of being well prepared. And be prepared to throw the plan away when faced with the reality of facilitating a complex system aka a group of people.

3 Comments so far

  1. Stuart Reid on October 1, 2014 7:54 pm

    I used to refer to planning as ‘worrying on paper’ 🙂 More of a useful way of defusing anxiety than a prediction about what would actually happen…

    I have exactly your experience of coming to all (or almost all) of my workshops with a plan, but knowing that the plan won’t be what happens. Just lately I have started to relish those moments when something changes and I have absolutely no clue what to do next – the excitement of improvising kicks in.

    I hadn’t thought about linking that experience to complexity before – that’s a lovely connection Viv.

  2. Clare on October 2, 2014 12:58 pm

    I love this post, particularly the ‘plan will not survive contact with the group’ line! Since becoming a mum just over a year ago, I’m also noticing how much parenting is teaching me about facilitating. And the whole planning thing is a classic example! While it’s helpful to have a plan about how you’re going to structure your day with a toddler, you’re setting yourself up for frustration and disappointment if you get too wedded to that plan. And on the flip side, sticking closely to the plan may not allow the time and space to explore those interesting and delightful tangents that emerge 🙂

  3. nancy white on October 9, 2014 6:29 am

    I like to use post its and drawings to build the storyboard of the time. Then I take the key images (like your “names” ) with me for a) remixing, b) changing, c) pointedly throwing in the recycle bin.

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