How to Prepare for a Large Workshop
For years, I've been using variations of this checklist to guide how I prepare for large workshops. It goes without saying that no two workshops are the same.
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It can be stressful to prepare for a large workshop, there is just so much to think about!
For years, I've been using variations of this checklist to guide how I prepare for large workshops. It goes without saying that context is everything and that no two workshops are the same — some of these items might make sense in your situations, others might not, but it could still be useful to have a somewhat comprehensive view of the work that needs to take place to prepare for most workshops.
Would love to hear about how you prepare for your workshops in the comments section.
Big Workshop Prep Checklist
- Ensure that a date and time are set for the workshop, and a big enough meeting/conference room is booked (if face-to-face).
- Ensure that the 'purpose' of the workshop is clear and that the objectives of the workshop CANNOT be achieved by any means other than a workshop/meeting (e.g., the purpose can't be achieved by simply sending emails or collaborating asynchronously on a Miro board, etc.). This purpose should be shared by yourself (the facilitator), the sponsor(s), and the attendees of the workshop.
- Ensure that workshop participants are identified and invited. It should come as no surprise that having the right stakeholders in the room is essential to the success of any workshop or meeting. In addition to the core project team/working group, invite representatives from teams/departments/units, etc. that are affected by or will affect your initiative/project and who are familiar with it.
Take your time to explain the purpose and flow of the workshop to the people you invite ahead of the workshop.
- Ensure that those invited have confirmed their attendance or nominated someone to attend on their behalf.
- One way to ensure that the right people come to the workshop (esp. if you're unfamiliar with the context of the initiative and don't know who exactly to invite) is to add a simple checklist, encouraging people to attend only if they answer 'yes' to all the questions in the checklist (or, maybe to only one of them depending on the meeting/checklist). This way you'll guarantee that only those who should attend do, and it makes it easier for someone we invited (or, for example, received a forwarded invite) to decide whether they should attend or not.
- Ensure that the project/initiative's 'elevator pitch' is shared with the participants (ahead of the workshop). Make sure to share the key, high-level information about the initiative, such as a description of the problems it intends to solve, the opportunities that lie in solving them, the scope of the change, etc. with the participants (e.g., as a 1-page Lean Canvas). Even though everyone attending should already be familiar with the overall objectives and initial approach of the initiative, it never hurts to share a high-level description of the What, and Why ahead of the workshop to ensure that everyone has a well-rounded view of the challenge at hand.
- If necessary (e.g., for really large workshops), organize a short session ahead of the workshop with workshop participants to answer questions about the workshop, discuss expectations, etc.
- Make sure that logistics are sorted out. Make sure there are enough post-its, glue, sharpies, etc. If the workshop is to be conducted face-to-face, arrange for refreshments and light snacks to be provided during the workshop (no sugar though as it hinders creative work, and this exercise is heavy on creativity). For online workshops, make sure that you design your board (e.g., on Miro) ahead of time, that attendees are familiar with the tool that they'll be using, etc.
- Ensure that workshop participants are given their homework and that they understand what they need to do to prepare for the workshop. For example, I like to help the participants of upcoming workshops get into the requisite mindset by asking them to contemplate certain questions ahead of the exercise (for example, the following are two common questions I like attendees to workshops intended to explore potential risks to contemplate ahead of the workshop):
a) how would you define “failure” in the context of this initiative/project?
b) imagine that the initiative had failed, and you were asked to write a brief internal memo explaining what happened to people in the organization. What would you write?
- Decide (obviously ahead of the workshop) on how you're going to visualize the progress of the event/session/workshop (this is relevant to all-day or multi-day workshops — at any point, people need to know where they are now, what they've accomplished so far and what is yet to be accomplished).
- Think ahead about how you will keep energy up throughout the session. (especially relevant to all-day workshops). You need energizers and fun icebreaker-style activities to use during the session. Every two hours or so (e.g., after breaks), or whenever you feel energy levels plummeting, engage the group in a fun energizer. Also, be generous with breaks.
- Do aworkshop 'pre-mortem' ahead of the actual workshop: What could possibly go wrong (like, horribly wrong)? What are your nightmare scenarios? What to do then? I absolutely love this exercise, and it saved me more times than I could count. It never hurts to think ahead about what could possibly go wrong, and what you would do in that scenario.
- If this is a really large/critical workshop, and especially if you've never done this sort of workshop before, think about how you can de-risk the situation (e.g., by doing a dry run). If possible, rehearse with a handful of attendees (or people in the same position as attendees) and for a fraction of the original workshop's duration, test some of the riskiest/untested parts of the workshop (e.g., your facilitation techniques, tool/technology, powerful questions you intend to ask, etc.) Use the trial mini-workshop to test the riskiest assumptions with a small group of people you trust.
- And remember, every 'serious' workshop needs a workshop team: to help you to:
- Prepare the backlog of tasks to be done in prep for the workshop (invitations, logistics, etc.).
- Determine whom to invite.
- Gather data to be shared during the workshop (stats, charts, etc.)
- Come up with the 'checklist' of questions/conditions that help an attendee determine if it's worth their time to attend.
- Determine what work should be done ahead of the workshop — remember, pre-work is pretty much everything that DOESN'T need to be done with everyone else.
- Refine the workshop's purpose.
- Help you role-play the critical/risky parts of the workshop (the 'mini-workshop' I mentioned above).
- Help you figure out what pre-work is reasonable and get the message out for attendees to actually do the pre-work.
- Help with logistics in general.
Make sure that you assemble your workshop team and you start collaborating with them as early as possible.
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