How facilitating workshops makes you a better designer

Futureproof your career by leading collaborative working sessions with your team

If you’re a Product Designer, chances are you’ve probably heard about workshops, sprints, and the need to facilitate them.

Before understanding what facilitation is and how to build facilitation skills in service of your craft and career, we need to understand workshops.

What is a Workshop? 

//Workshops > meetings//

A workshop is a session geared towards making effective decisions without sacrificing team alignment. In short, intentional structure ensures solid decision-making, while avoiding the usual pitfalls of teamwork, such as asymmetrical knowledge, team politics, and differences in working styles.

How is it different from a meeting?

Chances are, if you’ve ever been in a meeting with designers, developers and managers, you know the following scenario too well:

A cross-functional team gets together in a room, and members start throwing out ideas. The juniors in the room don’t feel comfortable sharing their ideas, the loudest (or most senior) person in the room dominates the entire conversation, and by the end of the meeting, everyone understands the job to be done differently.  

Workshops fundamentally change the way collaborative work happens. 

They replace the unstructured open-discussions with exercises and activities that minimize groupthink and bias and foster structured discussion and uninterrupted ideation. 

That’s why established companies and startups use the power of workshops to help their team do meaningful work, faster and effectively. 

And every workshop has a facilitator - the person who runs (or facilitates) the workshop.

So, what does a facilitator do?

Definition from Dictionary.com

As a facilitator, your job is to help a person, or group of people transverse a problem space.

You guide others to work together in a structured way to solve problems quickly, all while creating an environment where ideas can flow and decisions feel easy.

As a facilitator, you’ll be collecting relevant information, identifying underlying challenges, ideating possible solutions, and ultimately helping the team define and commit to the next steps. 

Having a foundation in facilitation helps you throughout the entire design process.

It helps you to gather requirements, constraints, and expectations from stakeholders at the start of the project, have more fruitful collaborative design sessions and have streamlined processes for iteration.

What makes a good facilitator?

  • Good listener: Facilitating is more about listening to the conversations. It is important to keep your thoughts, ideas and comments to yourself and let the participants express their ideas. 

  • Unbiased Perspective: One of the worst things you can do is be a biased facilitator who drives the discussion to a preplanned conclusion. Leave your preferences behind when guiding the conversation to make sure the discussion is developing as organically as possible.

  • Collaboration: Collaboration can be frustrating. And all too often there’s the temptation for people to take on the role of the teacher and to lead, rather than the role of facilitator and to guide. a good facilitator knows that they’re the guide, not the hero. They’re in the room to help the team do their best work, not to show off how smart or cool they are.

  • Timing:  A good facilitator knows when a discussion has gone off-topic and needs to be brought to a close -- this is where you can stop listening and feel comfortable interrupting for the sake of the group.

How to get started with facilitation?

Let’s be real about this: the first time you try this, you’ll probably suck at it. Hopefully not, but it’s likely. Lean into the discomfort as it’s the only way to improve. With enough practice hours, you’ll become a pro in no time.

Here are a few tips to get started-

Start small

Especially if you work in a more conservative team, convincing them to run a multiple-day workshop can be challenging. The good news is, you don’t have to go all-in right off the bat. start with something small first. Volunteer to be the person in the room who captures information as other people speak and facilitate the discussion by including workshop-features like timeboxing or ideating sessions.

Show, don’t tell

Effective storytellers use this technique: “Show, Don’t tell”

In a workshop, the best way to convince your team of the value of workshops is to let them experience first-hand how effective this way of working is. Run a smaller workshop and tackle a small but annoying challenge that has been on your team’s agenda for ages. After they see how much work can get done within an hour, they’ll inevitably want to experience more of that.

Set the right expectations

Letting your team know exactly what to expect will set your workshop up for success. 

Don’t declare workshops to be the transformation vehicle that will change your entire company. 

Emphasize to your team that workshops are NOT a process change at your company. They are a plug-and-play tool to solve problems. This will ease some worries and tensions as your co-workers might not know exactly what to expect. 

Reframe your offer

If your organization has never run workshops before, you’ll need to reframe how you talk about them. Instead of presenting it as a big, complicated event, present it like the time-saver it is.

Fill your toolbox with multiple tools

Another important thing you can do to maximize your effectiveness and improve facilitation skills is to fill your toolbox with multiple brainstorming, debriefing, and prioritization techniques. Become familiar with different techniques  Experiment. See what resonates with your users/colleagues.

Final thoughts

Learning how to lead collaborative discussions boosts your career prospects.

One of the best places to start is by volunteering to facilitate a session to kick off a new project, or to suggest that you try a mini-workshop when people are finding it hard to reach a decision. Once you’re seen as someone who can come in and help others do their work better and with less friction and uncertainty, you’ll be sought after for every project. 

Become the catalyst for getting work done better; the growth opportunities will follow.


Share