Using assignments to guide work

What happens when a team arrives at a breakout to do some work? The typical pattern is they have a conversation about an assigned topic. The product of that conversation is some artefact which is shared with, then critiqued by, the other participants. How do they know they’re having the right discussion about their topic? How do they know which artefact to produce?

There are two ways to answer those questions. Have a facilitator in the breakout or use an assignment.

Using a facilitator

The first instinct for many people planning a workshop is to have someone facilitate each breakout session. The facilitator’s job is to ‘guide’ the conversation, to ‘draw out’ the underlying issues, to make sure everybody speaks, etc.

A facilitator-per-breakout has challenges that mean I do not prefer it as my method of getting work done in a breakout.

The most obvious challenge is that it doesn’t scale. With each new breakout, you need another person to be the facilitator. That, very quickly, gets expensive and also limits how much you can ‘flex’ and adapt your design. What happens when you decide you need another breakout but don’t have anybody to be the facilitator?

That said, the real issue with facilitating the breakout has nothing to do with logistics. Most workshops have, at their core, a need to have a group of people take ownership for the work produced. If the group leaves the workshop and they don’t feel like it’s their work it is unlikely they will implement what they agreed to.

Look what happens when a facilitator is ‘running’ the breakout. The participants’ sit back’. Their understanding of their job is to contribute to a conversation. The facilitator has been briefed on the required outcome and is expected to capture the work. If anybody, it’s the facilitator that ‘owns’ the work. If we were to draw a RACI matrix for the work being done in the breakout you could put the facilitator as both the Responsible and the Accountable person, and the participants as Consulted.

For this reason, my default position is not to use a facilitator to run a breakout. Instead, guide the participants’ work by using assignments


When using assignments to guide the work in the breakout, the participants arrive in the breakout and find a set of printed instructions attached to a whiteboard. Those instructions tell the participants what they need to do and how they need to do it.

The components of an assignment

Assignments typically have three sections to them:

  • An introduction
  • A set of questions
  • Logistics information

The Introduction

This section sets the context for the work. It describes what the output of this breakout needs to be at a high level. My assignment introductions may include something as simple as:

Your assignment is to work as a team to \

The output might be:

  • Define our customer experience
  • Design our go-to-market plan
  • Develop a set of guiding principles
  • etc

The first sentence should be as direct and clear as possible. The straightforward language unequivocally states the team’s job. It makes it clear to them this is your responsibility. Even if the participants don’t know how to do the work yet (we’ll get to that) they know what they are there to do.

Surrounding that statement is prose that will provide additional context for that overarching instruction. For example, an introduction might read something like:

A customer’s experience of our product is a crucial differentiator in our industry. It is the difference between products (and companies) that win and those that disappear.

Your assignment is to work as a team to define our market-winning customer experience

By the end of the introduction, a participant reading this should be clear on what the team need to do and why it’s important (if they don’t already know).

The questions

Some participants may read the above introduction and know immediately what they need to do. Some may read it and have no idea what is required.

Following the introduction is a set of questions that describe how to do this assignment. These questions are a ‘double click’ into the topic. Any topic of sufficient complexity will have thousands of aspects which could be a focus of the conversation. The questions narrow that focus. They say ‘four our purposes, when we say TOPIC we mean THIS’.

Guidance for questions

Most of the time I want to write open-ended questions. Closed-ended questions have a finite set of possible answers, whereas open-ended questions invoke a discussion and provide no set answers. Closed-ended questions presume doing this work is a kind of multiple choice activity. They close (sorry) down creativity and exploration, then replace it with a multiple choice activity.

A group’s journey through a workshop often follows a similar pattern to a ‘diamond’ in the Double Diamond Design Process Model

That is the group goes through phases of ‘divergence’ and ‘convergence’. In the divergent phase of the diamond, the group explores possibility and generates potential solutions. In the convergent phase, the group analyses those ideas and chooses the solution.

I tweak the language of assignment questions to match the phase of my workshop. In the divergent phase, I use phrases like:

How might we…

in the questions. This is subtle, but it creates an environment of exploration. It gives the participants permission to explore and play.

When the workshop enters its convergent phase, I will shift the language to:

How will we…

as I now want the teams to be decisive and make choices about the work.

Why do assignments work?

In a way, it seems strange that assignments work. For most people, the expectation is that without a facilitator the group won’t progress anything. The assignment seems like a risk.

In my experience, the only time I’ve seen participants reject an assignment is when they have felt they couldn’t do it. Either they didn’t have the right people, they were missing critical inputs or both. That situation is rare, though.

On nearly all occasions, the group engages with the assignment. That doesn’t mean there isn’t struggle. There often is. There may be some confusion from the participants about how to get started. Which part of the assignment to tackle first.

Those early moments are crucial for building ownership. When the group overcomes its initial struggle, it is a powerful moment for them. The momentum shifts and they become excited about the work. What’s more, this is their victory. This victory means greater engagement, and greater ownership, of the work – and that is precisely what you want to achieve.

You might also ask if the participants are working via assignments then what are you supposed to be doing? My guidance is not to leave the group to entirely fend for themselves. I walk around the breakouts and observe how the teams are going. My first guiding principle is to try to be as non-interventionist as possible. If they are struggling, I make a note to check back in soon. If they continue to struggle I may intervene and clarify the assignment. I do not facilitate their breakout.

What does this mean for you?

The obvious outcome I’d like you to take from this article is to try using assignments to guide the work of your participants in their teams. However, if that feels too risky, then start with at least writing the assignments. Even if you never use them, the act of writing them out will challenge and expand your thinking about what exactly the purpose of a round of work is.

That said, if you’ve written them – why not try them? 😉

Vacations: Productively exploring compromise

Designing Workshops: Feedback