Architects of Air: 5 Tips for Adding Structure to Workshops

If you think about it, the kind of workshops we go to, and run as facilitators and learning practitioners – our strategic planning meetings, our team development sessions, and brainstorming events – are not traditional workshops. The walls are not lined with physical tools, and in the room there are no hydraulic lifts and pneumatic drills, engines and massive circuit boards in sight. (I am working today with a group that is learning about how to do public private partnerships between vocational schools and companies in the heavy duty construction vehicles industry in post-conflict countries – all aimed at decreasing youth unemployment. The event has sparked my thinking…).

When we are doing this work, we walk into empty rooms. There might be chairs and tables, but the tools we use are for the most part invisible. We are lucky when something has been written down on paper, but this is not always the case.

These more ephemeral workshops can involve long hours of people talking. They can go here and there and all over the place (not our workshops of course, but those other workshops). And it is up to us, the hosts or the facilitators, to create a structure that helps us to use our invisible tools to create things, fix things or get some very specific things done.

The more “in the clouds” the discussion has the potential to be (whether a very broad or theoretical question, a visioning exercise, and even learning something specific from masses of experiences), the more creating a clear structure will help keep people on track and focused on the goals and products desired. And the more they will trust a process and goal that might seem daunting or slightly incomprehensible at first.

What are some of the ways a facilitator can help create structure, or make it make it much more visible, from a wide open space of 8 hours and an empty 10 m x 8 m room?  Here are 5 things I did during this workshop:

1.Created a physical schedule – I did this to help me structure my introduction to the agenda, I left this in the room and referred to where we were in the schedule after every break, and it helped people to see the flow and trust the process, that we would get where we needed to go in the end. Everyone had an e-copy of this in advance, but my experience is that people use it (the electronic version) before the event to see if they really want to attend, but during the event, people stop looking at their agenda’s (unless they want to know when the break is!)

2. We are here: This might seem silly to you, but this little marker, that I move every time we go from one session to another, helps mark our progress and march through the agenda.

3. Structure the time with sound: I always carry a bell, or use my iPhone if I have a microphone, to help signal when things are changing, when activities are done, when groups need to change or when the break is over. This just helps to signal boundaries on activities that help people hear and trust that timing is being measured.

4. Number things: In these kinds of workshops I tend to number everything. I number the questions that the speakers will answer, number the tables for group work, number the sessions on the agenda. It helps as shorthand which can give time savings, it helps see the length and scope of things, and it helps give structure to the space or discussion.

5. Make Templates: Help structure the capturing of data, by making flipchart templates, A3 templates, A4 templates, listening cards, etc. – you can even border the paper, to create containers for the many ideas that come from the groups’ work that will help shape the products you want to generate. It gives the feeling of structure (and also gives structure, keeps people on track and makes sure you are all answering the same question, and not some memory of a question you read orally 10 minutes ago).

In our workshops, we structure the wide open spaces of our minds and imaginations, our words and ideas, to help us get clearer about, and achieve, our goals.

In the end, we facilitators are architects of air. I love that idea!

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