In my role as CEO, I spend a large portion of my time coming up with solutions – this is actually the part of my job I enjoy most.
I have been involved in hundreds of workshops, some really successful ones and others, a complete disaster. Here are my basic rules when it comes to solutions workshops:
1) Get the right people in the room
The most important people to get in the room are:
those that will implement the solution
those that will use it
those that will have responsibility for its management
Keep the group as diverse as possible, you need introverts who don’t generally want to be in the workshops (on many occasions more than you need the extroverts).
2) Engender a sense of challenge and/or fun
Make sure you set the tone early, before the meeting begins. Get people thinking about it as something other than a “meeting”.
Ideally, try to hold the workshops in places you wouldn’t hold regular meetings. Get better coffee and nicer biscuits – do whatever you can to make sure people see it as something different. You need their brains to be open and active from the start.
3) Frame the problem in the most generic form you can
The broader you frame the problem the better, however, it must frame the problem itself, not just some generic scenario.
“Workshops to discuss features to deal with GDPR” will only ever have one outcome, try something like “Workshop to discuss GDPR implications and impacts”. The 2nd option will stop the technical minded people taking over the workshop as it’s where non-technical people have the edge.
Key to framing the problem is setting out who runs the workshop. Set yourself up as the facilitator that asks pertinent questions to keep things on track but make sure the subject matter experts are leading through the session.
4) Recognise peoples natural tendencies and force them to think differently
I am the worst case for this. I naturally want to take over and get super excited – and need to be told to be quiet before it even starts!
Setup the workshop in a way that means the least controlling/vocal are heard right at the start and then asked for input throughout. Ask people who are subject matter experts about things that are completely unrelated to draw them out of their world. For example, ask the security expert what they think about the logo, do anything you can to draw people out of their natural tendencies.
5) Do not be afraid of arguments
I don’t mean friendly disagreements. If people are passionate that’s a great thing, but control it so it never gets personal.
Someone in the room will usually be sitting quietly listening to both sides, coming up with a middle ground that no one thought of.
Don’t be afraid to push people into opposite corners so that they really fight their case, just make sure you listen and summarise both sides in a positive manner that focuses on the key points of both, ideally in a way that shows they actually agree.
6) Keep bringing it back to the defined problem (no matter how much you want to go down another track)
The thing with working in this way is that it’s really easy to get excited with ideas and you have to allow exploration to avoid people shutting down. This is great because frankly, the group may see things you’re blind to, however, it’s extremely important to make sure you bring it back to the topic and ask them how their point, view or idea directly relates.
Do NOT chastise them for going off track, you want open minds to come up with innovative solutions.
7) Bring people back to the beginning and rerun through what you have discovered or agreed
Several times during the workshop, revisit the topics you have previously covered to see if they still hold through.
There are multiple reasons for this, firstly to verify the validity of what came before as frequently you will find that things that appear critical earlier in the conversation have become unnecessary or trivial because of later discussion.
However, it may also point out a major gap in the solution when viewed with the earlier thinking. Worst case, you keep everything aligned and reinforce the thinking so everyone leaves with the same understanding.
8) Remember to not have a detailed structure
What works in general meetings kills workshops. Project plans, detailed agendas are structured flows are all the death knell of great solution workshops.
I would highly recommend that you keep project managers out (unless it’s a pm related problem) until the end when they come in to understand what’s been agreed. If they are needed refer to point 4, keep them as quiet as is practical, they are naturally going to want tangibles when you want ideas and a different way of thinking.
Above all, the aim is to come out with a smile and with the feeling that your brain got a workout. If everyone feels like this, you’re probably 98% of the way to the solution you need.