A couple of years ago, if you had told me I would be down on all fours in front of a room, letting one of my workshop participants lead us through a series of cat-cow stretches, I would have laughed in disbelief. And yet here I was last December in Singapore, joining my participants in doing just that.
In 2015 I set an intention to travel more, and to move from consulting in design thinking to enabling others to use the tools of design thinking for themselves (“teaching how to fish”). Some 65+ flights later, with opportunities to coach workshops across the US, Kuwait, India and Singapore, the universe said yes.
One byproduct of this experience is that – with that much floor time – I had the opportunity to make a lot of mistakes as a facilitator. And learn from a number of talented colleagues and participants along the way. Thinking back on what I’ve learned in this last year about teaching (or coaching) design thinking in a workshop format, here are four of my most favorite take-aways:
Lesson 1: It’s all about managing energy
No matter how brilliant the material is – or how mellifluous I think the sound of my voice may be – keep it a one way conversation (i.e. me standing and talking) and before long I lose the room. Eyes glaze over. Cell phones magically make their way into hands. Content starts to get lost in the ether. Solution? Get the participants more involved. For example, rather than asking a question to the room, have participants ask it of each other. In pairs. Or in groups. If it’s a deeper dive into a topic, have participants do some research and present their findings to the room. At times, a front-of-the-room style presentation makes sense. And most times there are other – more engaging – options to draw upon. Other tactics to keep participants engaged (without wearing them out): think of the days’ activities as sprints; keep work focused and tight, then work in ample breaks. Play music during breaks (and some longer activities) to lighten the mood. Beverages are great! And yes, when necessary, do a round of stretches (or other warm-up or improv exercises) to shake things up. My goal for the day: a room of participants who feel like they’ve just played a great game of (insert your favorite sport here): energized, spent, and feeling that the day has flown by.
Lesson 2: Want participants to take risks? Go first.
When leading workshops I often ask participants to present out a concept poster. And I used to push them to go big. Sell it with conviction! Pretend your life depends on it! Every once in a while I’d get a brave volunteer or two who’d be willing to go big – and get a little silly – in front of their colleagues. Inevitably, though, we’d fall into the (understandable) pattern of a typical boardroom presentation — polite, buttoned up, “acceptable” for the workplace. No matter how hard I pushed participants up front, the end result was often the same. One day I coached with an instructor who did something different. He had made his own (fake) concept poster – and he went first. Eyes blazing, mouth foaming, he gesticulated and stomped while selling the heck out of a totally nonsensical product. I was entranced. Stunned. Laughing out loud. With that much energy injected into the room, the next team couldn’t help but hit it out of the park. And the next teams followed suit. My take-away? If I’m asking participants to do something out of their comfort zone, start by modeling it myself. Hear me roar!
Lesson 3: Being lazy can be good
When setting up for a session, I like to hang up the set of templates we’ll be using and pre-label them, as a way of creating a visual reference of our work that day. I once supported a coach who had a different idea: have the participants do it. The scandal! Here I was, being paid to co-run a design session, and I’m having participants do the dirty-work? Here’s why he was right. First: if my intention is to teach participants how to facilitate others, what better time for them to take their first steps in that role than when I’m there to provide feedback? Second: giving these tasks to participants frees me up to do other – more valuable – things, such as connecting individually with folks in the room. Or noticing the patterns that are emerging (Are people engaged or distracted? Are teams collaborating or is one person running the show?). Being “lazy” can extend to bigger tasks as well, such as asking participants to present out a design method they’ve researched — as they say, “the best way to learn something is to teach it.”
Lesson 4: Less tree, more forest
Dawn was just beginning to break and I was (literally) screaming into a pillow. Here I was, a couple hours away from leading a two day workshop for a client, and I had two competing agendas – neither of which I had led before, and neither of which I totally understood. Panic had struck. Not sure what to do next, I stepped away from my laptop and made a couple choices. First: I decided I needed a pep talk. Second: I admitted to myself that there was no way I was able to follow either agenda, as they each had a lot of intricacies that I didn’t have time to understand. My final option? I’d have to throw away the script, and use my gut. To prepare, I laid out a high-level structure for two days that I could make sense of and that I thought would offer value to the participants. I dressed down (long t-shirt and sneaks) so that I would be comfortable, and I kicked off our session with our chairs in a circle. Conversational. Making eye contact. Feeling out where the interest was in the room. The session ended up going great. In fact, one participant even requested I come back to help run another session at their company. Would I use this preparation style for every session? Not unless I want an aneurysm! When running workshops I’m often stressed because we’re a few minutes behind schedule: I’m caught up in making the day go as originally planned, rather than focusing on the needs of the room. This episode was an unexpected gift – a stark reminder of the value of being present, having fun, and not letting the details get in the way of delivering the big picture.
If I’ve learned one additional lesson from this last year it’s that failure is my own best coach. I’ve bored, confused and frustrated more than my fair share of participants and co-instructors. It’s wanting to avoid these moments – and experimenting with new solutions – that has kept me engaged in this practice, and allowed me to be less fearful and more present in the workshops that followed. When things do come together – a workshop can be as energizing to me as (I hope) it is to the participants. And, after all, isn’t that the goal?
If you’re about to set off on coaching your first design thinking workshop — (try and) have fun! If you’re an old hand at this, I hope some of these tips are a helpful reminder of the options at your disposal.
// As published on LinkedIn.