Creative workshops – Episode 2 – Starting the workshop


Marta Haida
UX Designer
Marta Haida
UX designer and master of Axure prototyping strongly interested in making the users’ lives simpler. Passionate about usability testing and watching people’s emotions and reactions. Russian philologist by profession, privately yoga and Slavic culture enthusiast.

“A good beginning makes a good end.”

                                                         — Louis L’Amour

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You already know what a workshop is and what a good facilitator should do before the meeting. One thing is sure – when you organize a workshop, you must remember many rules, don’t forget about people and relationships between them and you must care about the atmosphere. It’s true that everything that happens before the workshop takes much more time than the workshops themselves. But a good beginning means a lot in the end.

Making decisions is always hard

Preparing a workshop with its agenda (more about this in the first episode) is a moment in the beginning when the facilitator must decide what types of exercises will be the most useful for the participants. The problem is we are not always ready to predict what might happen. We often don’t know our participants and we aren’t sure how they will behave (however if we are experienced facilitators, it may be easier to think about it) – it may turn out that they will be creative and do the exercises quickly and we will have some extra time to use, or the complete opposite – they may be as slow as snails. Luckily, our plan isn’t rigid and we can always change it a bit or prepare some additional smaller tasks for participants to fill the time hole in the workshops, if it happens.

Open Sesame!

A good opening interests participants and encourages them to work during the workshops. A facilitator is a storyteller who defines the problem they are going to work with, introduces people to the theme and to each other, reminds them about the common goal, and presents the intended results. He introduces himself as the guardian of the workshop process and underlines that he is present to help in any moment.
The important thing at the beginning is to elaborate workshop rules in one contract for everybody and stick to it until the workshops end. Nobody wants the meeting to become a mess and it’s better to tell people what’s allowed and what is not. A good example would be  a simple rule like “Cell phones or laptops are not allowed” – different devices disturb people and result in them reaching for and checking Facebook messages, Twitters notifications, or text messages.
Last but not least, the golden rule of a workshop opening is to remind everybody that nobody is going to judge and everybody should listen to each other’s statements because every idea may be a good one.

Break the ice and give people some energy

It rarely happens that all the participants are as thick as thieves (maybe only within the workers from one company), which is why a facilitator should do everything he can to make them feel more comfortable together. Icebreakers are made just for this. They may be simple, like asking the person sitting next to you about their favorite pet or sport, or just asking people what their expectations about the meeting are. Nobody shares their secrets, the participants just answer easy questions which let them to get to know each other. They won’t become best friends in a few minutes, but they won’t be a bunch of strangers who are forced to work together anymore.
Icebreakers are not the only way to inject some energy and motivation to work into participants. During the workshops, when people work, think, and create, which is already hard and exhausting, it’s important to notice if they have already become too tired and if they need a short break. The easiest way is to announce a 5 minute break to leave the room and stretch their legs. A good facilitator has also got one more trick up their sleeve – the energizers. They are similar to icebreakers and they are a short exercises which make people feel more relaxed, laugh, and once more get to know each other better. Energizers are good to use after lunch, when people are sleepy and slower. They are usually short and fast physical exercises which raise the participants’ heart rates, resulting in an energy level boost.. But remember, they are mostly for less official groups; I suppose managers and bosses may not want to dance, walk, and laugh with the other participants. Check out the videos to see nice examples of energizers:

Let’s get started

The main part of workshop is when people use their minds and create ideas. This part shouldn’t be too chaotic with participants running to and fro, shouting and pulling post-its and pencils out of their hands like children in kindergarten. It is supposed to be well-organized and the facilitator is responsible for the atmosphere. He controls everybody and encourages them to speak about their ideas, even the crazy ones. The rules are not complicated:

1. Don’t judge (because every idea is good)
2. We try to use others’ ideas to create new ones (to stick to the theme)
3. We are focused on the workshop’s theme
4. One idea for one post-it (it’s easy for everyone to read and understand)
5. Drawing is encouraged  (don’t worry that you are not Van Gogh, simple drawings are enough)
6. We create A LOT and later we will choose the best ideas
7. We stick ideas to the wall to let others see and read
8. A diverse group of people is best because they have different point of views

The most common exercises

Silent brainstorming – in a specified period of time, participants write their ideas on small post-its and stick them to a wall later. Quality doesn’t matter. The main goal is to generate as many ideas  as possible. This exercise is good for shy people because it’s better for them to write down their thoughts rather than say them out loud.

The Lotus Blossom– this is a developed version of silent brainstorming. The participants write ideas on their post-its. Then they choose one post-it and think of ideas connected with that chosen one, then they take the next one and repeat.

Crazy 8’s – a common exercise for Google Sprint (see more). Participants get an A4 sheet of paper and fold it into 8 parts. Thanks to the paper folds, they have 8 small spaces to draw their different ideas in. Of course, there don’t always have to be 8 squares. If we wish, we may try crazy 6 or  crazy 4 with a respectively smaller number of empty spaces on the sheet of paper.

Mind mapping is when the participants create a graphic map of their thoughts with connections and dependences between the elements.

When a facilitator collects the people’s idea on thousands of post-its and sticks them into the wall, it’s time to present the results. There are two simple ways – the participants approach the wall and read everything by themselves or everybody presents their ideas and describes them to each other. Even after one session of generating ideas, it’s possible to get so many post-it notes that it becomes impossible to choose the best at a first glance. This is why the next steps are voting and evaluating which I am going to tell about in the next and final  episode.


To be continued…