Designing Workshops: Working in parallel

One of the jobs of decision-makers is to define how they would like their environment to change. This change might be the organisation's new 5-year strategy, a new organisation structure, or even a new agreement of how a team will work together.

A common way of describing change uses three elements:

  • Why we’re making this change
  • What the change is
  • How we’re going to do it

nb: I’m going to be referring to these terms a lot during this article, and things might become, well, confusing. When I am referring to them as nouns, I will style them as I have above to distinguish them from their original uses.

The topic of workshops is often about clarifying and aligning on a particular change.

The three elements map to sub-components of the workshop topic. For example, when a group is brought together to discuss a Team Charter, the mapping might be:


For a new product:


If the group does well, the three elements will be seamlessly integrated. You could take any of the elements and quickly understand how it 'fits' with the other two. There will be an internal consistency to the description. The description will ‘flow’. It will ‘make sense’.

In recent times it has become fashionable to use a set sequence to describe a change. You start with why the change is being made, describe the change (i.e. what) and then describe how the change will happen. Doesn't that feel like the ‘right’ way to describe a change?

Extending that idea to how to design a workshop and the Sequential Conversations approach emerges as the obvious choice. This diagram is taken from the previous article:


It might very well be that why, what, how is the best way to describe a change. However, it's rarely the best way to define a change.

When a group comes together to discuss a change, the flow is more like:

  • Somebody starts with what - ‘We’re here to discuss X’
  • There may be some additional commentary to clarify what X ‘actually’ is (more what)
  • Somebody may then some ask questions about why – ‘What are the benefits of X? How does it map to the strategy?’
  • The group explores where this idea (X) fits within the context of the organisation and its ambitions (continuing the why)
  • Someone else then asks when the change is going to occur, e.g. ‘When are we launching?’ (how)
  • …but that depends on some other detail of the scope (more what)

The conversation moves all over the place amongst the three elements. We discuss one element, then jump over to a next, then back to the first. Maybe we dive into the third and then back up to the first. It doesn’t follow why then what then how.

This leaves us with something of a challenge. If the way we naturally build doesn’t follow the sequence we use to describe it, how do we design useful workshops?

The two most powerful tools we can use are parallel work and iteration. Let’s look at parallel work.

Working in parallel

With parallel work, we modify the structure from this


to this:


In practice, this means the group doesn’t work as one large team. Instead, the group divides into smaller teams. Each team then works on one sub-component of the change. At the end of their work, the group comes back together to inspect what they have collectively built.

Wait a sec…

A typical reaction to this idea is that this won’t work. A team working on a what or how element can’t do that until they understand the why. Right? Maybe not.

People have pre-existing context

It’s more-often-than-not that a group comes together and already has some sense of shared context. At the very least, the invitation to the workshop will contain some elements of what and why the workshop is being convened. This means the group can work on different elements in parallel.

If that pre-existing context is light, or you’re worried there isn’t enough, add some sessions before the group starts building to create the shared context (chatrooms is useful for this purpose). You can use the time you’re saving not having Sequential conversations to do this.

Something like this:


The three elements interact

The three elements sit at various distances from ‘the real world’. When we’re talking about why we’re often dealing with abstract ideas and concepts. We might be speaking an emotional language. In contrast, when we’re discussing what and how we’re ‘closer’ to reality. Now we’re working in the realm of tangible things.

The why, the what, and the how do different jobs. Speaking about why may motivate people to act, but knowing what to do and how to do it is just as important. Both the what and the how give shape and, crucially, clarity to the why. Without them the why is meaningless.

If we move sequentially from why to what to how we make decisions in a vacuum that prematurely exclude vital, potentially critical, insights from the other elements.

For example, it’s not uncommon to have a group using Sequential Conversations to believe they’ve committed to what they’ll do and then have that work undone once they begin exploring how they’ll do it. They might go 'back' and fix it – but only if there is time left in the workshop. What often happens is that ‘loopback’ means they run out of time. They finish the workshop - but don't finish the work.

Parallel work solves this problem. The three elements evolve together. At the end of a round of parallel work we have positions on the why, the what and the how of our change.

The pieces the teams have built won’t neatly fit together – but there will be important ideas and insights spread across the elements. Some of those ideas will be in conflict with each other and choices need to be made.

The sharing at the end of the round of work is not the place to resolve those issues. It’s the place to surface them via feedback from the rest of the group. What next, then?

Working hand-in-hand with parallel work is iteration. The thing the group does next is another round of work. That, however, is a topic for another time.

Closing thoughts

Dividing a topic it into its what, why, and how is only one way to get a group to work in parallel. There are potentially limitless ways to divide a topic/problem.

For example, if you were working on a new product, you might focus on the what and work across the Customer Lifecycle. You might also have a round of work focussing entirely on all the sub-elements of how a group will bring a change into being.

The illustrator and educator Glen Vilppu has this maxim about learning to draw:

There are no rules, only tools.

The same applies here. Parallel work is a tool you can use to design better workshops and help your participants produce better outcomes.

Designing Workshops: Iteration

Tips for remote facilitation