Cure your sticky-note allergy: 5 skills for effective workshops

Have you had the same requirements-gathering discussion multiple times but still don’t know what to do next? Does your team shudder when they see you break out sticky notes in a meeting? (Hint: If you answered yes to either of these questions, keep reading)

Bringing together stakeholders to define your next product initiative can be a daunting and expensive task. To make sure you leave the room with actionable next steps, practice the following five skills for effective workshop facilitation.

  1. Own the agenda

  2. Identify the decision maker

  3. Practice active listening

  4. Collaborate with your team

  5. Resist the urge to jump ahead

Skills for effective workshop facilitation

How can you master these skills? Try incorporating each of the actions below into your facilitation practice.

Make a plan and check in

Everyone should know what is expected of them before the workshop begins. Make use of breaks during the workshop to check in with your team. Are they getting the information they need? Do you need their help in the next activity?

Identify the decision maker

Know the answers to these questions before the workshop: Who is funding the project? Who will sign the contract to authorize development? Who is responsible for acquiring and/or retaining the users of the product you will build together?

Use the decision maker to move the conversation forward.

If making a decision on the question at hand is critical to move forward, prompt the decision maker to indicate how to proceed. If possible, privately let the decision maker know you’ll be looking for them to play this role in the workshop before you begin.

Create a parking lot

If delaying a decision won’t prevent you from gathering requirements or completing your estimate, you can pause the debate by putting the item in a “parking lot.” Make an action item to follow up with the decision maker later so that the group can move on with the workshop.

Let the participants talk

You are the facilitator, not the presenter. Leave space for the client participants to speak. This will ensure that each participant feels ownership of the product definition and release plan.

Soak it up

The workshop participants are the experts in their business. This is your opportunity to learn more about their business, their clients and their challenges. The information you absorb will help you facilitate future conversations and shape the decision-making process.

Designate a primary note-taker

It’s much easier to keep the conversation fluid and keep the participants engaged if you are being an active listener and not furiously scribbling notes.

If you get stuck, let someone else try

If present, can a designer draw a user flow diagram or a quick sketch on the whiteboard that would help clarify the question? Can a test engineer phrase the question differently?

Resist the urge to jump ahead

During a typical workshop, we’ll start by understanding the business problem, user roles and motivations, and success metrics. If you skip the activities that allow you to identify this information, you risk building the wrong solution. Should you build a mobile app or a responsive website? Do you know yet if you’ll need native features for the solution to meet your goals?

Don’t offer up solutions too early

If you suggest solutions too early in the process, you risk offending a stakeholder by missing the point or shutting down the stakeholder’s contributions to the workshop.

Reign in conversation when others offer solutions too early

When stakeholders introduce solutions too quickly, it can make prioritizing work more difficult later. It can also lead to detailed implementation discussions, which can prevent you from getting all of the information you need.

Build the right product

Make the above actions a part of your regular facilitation practice and you’ll be better equipped to leave the requirements-gathering workshop with clear next steps and a shared understanding among all stakeholders on how to build the right product.

Still stuck? You can download a sample workshop agenda below. Plus, here’s our advice on lean requirements and defining an Minimum Viable Product.