Tips for Innovative Workshop and Program Design

After many quiet months, I am excited to share that I am in the early stages of establishing a Service Innovation Lab for a large public sector organization. This has me reflecting on my previous experience building organizations, labs and programs centred around professionally-facilitated workshops. Specifically, I am thinking about how to enable the co-creation of workshops designed to facilitate alternative approaches to policy, product and service development, and programs for organizational transformation.

In my reflections, I’ve identified eight lessons I’ve picked up along the way to help anyone designing for these purposes. These apply to co-designing an organization, program, lab, or workshop series.

1. Theoretically framed agendas support coherence.

One of the most valuable things I learned from my team at NouLAB was framing agenda design with Theory U and Breath Pattern. Theory U is a change management method that enables collaboration and innovation by offering an approach to moving from a narrow individual to a broader, collective way of seeing the world. This approach improves system awareness by encouraging empathy and promoting introspection among group members. If you have ever used the Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing frame, this will seem familiar, but on “super serum.”

Theory U has five movements: co-initiation, co-sensing, presencing, co-creation, and co-evolution whether designing a one-day workshop or a multi-month program, using theory U or other models to frame your agenda can help you choose your activities wisely and achieve flow with participants.

Breath pattern is like a double diamond in that it recognizes a divergent phase and a convergent phase but with a messy middle phase, which we call “emergence.” As it turns out, this overlays Theory U nicely (not to mention an excellent complement to the five-day sprint).

Using Theory U and Breath Pattern to frame the design of transformative workshops and programs

Each day, week, or month in a workshop series or program repeats these patterns like a fractal.

These models might not suit your needs. That’s perfectly fine. The point here is to find a frame that works for your purpose and use it explicitly in the design of your workshop or program. This could include a narrative flow (using the hero’s journey) or metaphor. Being on the East Coast of Canada, we were partial to water metaphors at NouLAB.

2. Spacious workshops are productive workshops.

Early in my facilitation practice, I would “over-design” workshops. I would make them heavy by adding more and more content, more “teaches,” more activities, and more guest speakers. All that additional content and preparation did not result in a better experience for the participants or the facilitators. People wanted more time to work, reflect, and discuss. They needed just enough information and insight to try something.

Overloading the agenda took away from the value of having focused, collaborative work time. Like Hemingway’s endless search for the perfect sentence, our goal as facilitators is to design the lightest structure to achieve the most significant change.

3. Predictability eases the discomfort of uncertainty and (un)learning.

Like the cocoon, we need to provide a structure that facilitates an otherwise painful transformation. The role of the facilitator is to create that framework, set the tone, motivate participants and ease the flow-through activities. Multi-day workshops can achieve predictability with repeated patterns that become familiar to participants. You might think about this as a late-night show format. While content changes, there is a predictable opening, recurring segments, and a straightforward closing.

The segments a team might deliver are “teaches” (either by the facilitator or a guest), activities at a table or in Miro, solo reflection, group discussion, plenary sharing and feedback sessions. Establishing a relatively predictable pattern eases the innate discomfort of transformational work.

4. Short feedback loops produce capital.

Defined intervals that culminate in something participants can show and get feedback on produce a Return on Investment and contributes to predictability: they know what is expected of them and when.

Including executives in show-and-tells gives them a first-hand understanding of the process and the outcomes. It also gives them ownership of the result. Including practitioners in these sessions adds an element of peer review.

Through regular peer review and executive feedback, teams can proceed confidently. Every interaction with executives, practitioners, and users is capital gained that can be invested in future iterations and change efforts. The focus on delivering something makes otherwise abstract lessons and processes concrete and practical.

5. Transformational design is recursive.

A fractal is a similar pattern across scales, where small parts resemble a whole. We need to apply the same practices and principles to designing these workshops as we teach in these workshops. In the first instance, the users we are building for are the facilitators and partners who will be delivering and iterating upon this program into the future. Creating products that are easy to use by future facilitators is as essential as developing a program that is useful and easy to use by participants; a pattern we hope is repeated in “home departments” and in the delivery of services to the public — related concepts to explore: homomorphism (Conway’s Law) and prefigurative social movements. When transformation is the goal, our designs need to reflect the desired future organizational dynamics and avoid reproducing its undesirable ones. Each workshop is an opportunity to break the dependent path, and begin creating alternative pathways for the organization.

6. “Geek Swag” makes a fleeting experience last in a tangible way.

When I think about my best experiences as a workshop (or training) participant, they always involve some material takeaway: a binder or portal access to resources, templates, slide decks, a workbook, or a contact list of new relationships. All these things supported me in applying and sharing what I learned in some way long after the program.

As workshop designers, UX research with your cohorts can generate insights and ideas that converge into tangible, valuable products for future cohorts. At the Government of New Brunswick, we created a workbook for this purpose. How might we better understand the context of participants before and after the program? How might we equip participants to continue applying what they learn after the program? How are they using what they have learned? What are the unmet needs?

7. Time-Limited Variable Scope is a powerful frame.

Pressures from leadership often mean you have a smaller than ideal time window before a program’s launch. To optimize your design and development time, establish a cadence, a regular repeated pattern of activity. Plan for design/development cycles that fit into the window of time you have. At the end of each cycle, you should have, at the very least, a workshop agenda, participant guide and facilitator’s guide. Ideally, each process will conclude with the deliverables above and a deck/Miro board/confirmed speaker. Like in an exam, what do you do if you get stuck or don’t have an answer? Please leave it blank and move on to the next question. Sometimes you might fill in a blank with “speaker TBD” “or “activity TBD).” That’s ok. Just maintain your velocity and expand or collapse your scope to fit into the time you have.

8. Embrace impermanence and think long term.

Let’s conclude from the team member’s perspective. Uncertainty and scarcity have been ever-present in my career. From year to year, the existence of my organization, let alone my job, has never been a given. While this has been stressful, it has also been a gift: It forced me to learn how to play a long game, escape the myopia of a bureaucratic context, and think beyond the organization’s lifecycle.

What was certain is that I always had one year. I had one year, a team, and a small budget to get something done. What can we accomplish in one year? What would we do if this is our last year that’s different if we were trying to maintain an organization for multiple years? We design a year in a way that we feel meets our mission and focus all our energy on that; on the legacy we could leave behind and the lessons we could take forward with us wherever we go next. By focusing more on delivery and less on maintaining the organization, we counter-intuitively generated more resources and support for the organization or program.

Whatever organization you are working in is not the last organization you will work for. What do you want to create that will live on even if the organization doesn’t? What will create value for participants well after the program has finished? What might we develop that will serve as building blocks for each of us whether or not we continue to work in this organization? Whether you stay or go, there’s shared value from this perspective!




Innovation strategy - Professional facilitation - Transformative design - Systems leadership

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Nick Scott

Nick Scott

Innovation strategy - Professional facilitation - Transformative design - Systems leadership

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