Moderating workshops
Last modified on Fri 15 Dec 2023

You’re the leader during the workshop. Think of yourself as Gandalf. You’ve been given a hotchpotch of different experts, and it’s up to you to help them find the way to the end goal. You’ll need to leverage their strengths and overcome gaps in their knowledge or skills. The success of the workshop is your responsibility.

This means you must be assertive and clearly show you know where the group should be headed. You may not know what the end deliverable’s final shape will be, but you’re in the know about the steps needed. Workshops come in many flavors, and each workshop will have its own specific twist to it. Still, there is one simple principle when moderating workshops: double diamond structure.

Double diamond has four phases:

This structure looks a bit like 🔷🔷, and that’s where it gets the name. Your workshop agenda should make sure everyone understands the problem space and everyone provides a potential solution for that problem.

Keeping track of time

Workshop is a constant fight against time. You’re either too fast or too slow. Go too fast, and you’ll miss out on important insights and potential ideas. Go too slow, and you won’t have deliverables ready on time.

That’s why it’s your job to keep track of time and remind participants about the timebox dedicated to each exercise. In a live workshop, you should have our timer that’ll buzz once the allocated time has passed. On remote workshops, use FigJam’s time – you can even play some elevator music as participants are working.

Be nimble in your approach. Sometimes it might be worth your while to extend some exercise because you are getting valuable insights. Sometimes it might be okay to shorten an exercise. Important thing: keep your workshop goal in mind. If this change doesn’t affect it, go for it.

Steering back

You’re Gandalf, and sometimes Gandalf had to remind everyone of the goal and the purpose of their undertaking. The same goes for you. If some participant is steering away from the main goal of the exercise and the workshop itself, it’s on you to steer them back.

Be respectful but assertive, which is, of course, easier said than done. Here are some tips how to bring the group back to the topic at hand:

In some workshops you might have an ally on the client side that can help you with steering the group. Establish a backchannel with them, like a Slack DM or an email only the two of you are in, and ask them for help. Your ally will know best how to approach people not abiding by the agenda.

If everything else fails, reach out to the project sponsor and ask them to get involved. Having someone from the C-suite reach out to the client team can help resolve these issues quicker.

Parking lot

This is the go-to method for avoiding fruitless discussions. Create a parking lot for ideas that are not related to the workshop goal. Whenever the workshop team starts discussing non-workshop-related things, you stop them and tell them you’re “parking that discussion for now.”

Parking means writing the main points down on sticky notes and adding them to an actual parking lot on the board – be it live or remote. Participants need to see you marking their comments so they feel heard. Otherwise, it might feel like you’re just shutting them off.

Ask them whose action point should a specific sticky note be and make a note of that. Once you’re done with the workshop you either add these parking lot comments to the report or you can send out a dedicated parking lot email to all participants where they can find all those ideas clearly documented.

For extra points: follow up on the notes related to our team even if they’re not strictly within the workshop’s scope and goal. Clients value such proactive behavior and it will show them we’re in it for the long haul.

Day recaps

In the heat of a workshop, over communicating is your secret weapon. Participants must be 110% aware of the progress, the next steps, and the workshop goal.

Daily workshop recaps are the best way to achieve this. Besides keeping your participants in the loop, it’s a way for client decision-makers and budget-holders to have a sense of progress.

A good daily recap should communicate this:

Keep this email lightweight and skimmable. A few sentences for each of the points above should be enough, and bold the key pieces of information to ensure people notice them. Yes, just like we did in this paragraph, you observant cookie, you.