Who should be at your workshop?

When you’re planning a workshop one of the first questions you’ll probably consider is ‘who should be there?’ Having the ‘right’ people at your workshop will often be the difference between success and failure.

There are many factors to make sure you’ve got the right mix of people. In my experience, the two biggest mistakes I see people make when choosing their participants is having too few participants, and/or selecting their participants too narrowly.

Both mistakes lead to the same problem – not enough 'coverage' of the issues to be discussed. Coverage can mean two things:

  • Vertical coverage is about depth into the issues – either we’re too far into the detail and can’t make the right decisions, or we’re too far from the detail and are making decisions without insight.
  • Horizontal coverage is about breadth across the issue and its relationship to other issues or initiatives in the organisation. Without horizontal coverage we may make decisions that conflict with other decisions, or duplicate other work.

Furthermore, when you don't have coverage a lot of the decisions the group are there to make either become provisional decisions, or worse, get deferred until after the workshop (because we need to do more work) making the whole endeavour pointless.

Here are the groups to consider next time you’re planning a workshop to ensure you have enough coverage of the issues.

Invite the people doing the work.

We’ll start with the most obvious group – the people doing the actual work. This might be your team, or your team and some other teams, or subsets of all of those. This group knows what work has happened before the workshop and will be responsible for doing most of the work afterwards. The expectation is this is the group who will be implementing the decisions that emerge from your workshop.

Invite senior people

Another obvious group to invite is senior (relative to the problem) people from your organisation as their perspective provides horizontal coverage.

Senior people can provide resources to help you with whatever you’re trying to do and have the legitimate authority to make decisions. You need to have them on board so that they will provide those resources and make those decisions.

Senior people also have symbolic (and political) value. The CEO is a Very Busy Person. If they are taking time out of their day to come to your workshop, your workshop is now very important.

Invite subject matter experts

If there is a perspective about a particular activity or technology, then somebody who knows a lot about that activity or technology is an excellent choice. Do you need to understand how that legacy system exports its data? Invite the people who support that function in the legacy system.

The subject matter expert is ‘living knowledge’. They often know the history of the organisation and why things are the way they are. They may not have decision-making authority (like the senior people), but they have deep insight into how the organisation works (i.e. vertical coverage).

Having those people in the room means the other participants can engage them directly without needing to do follow up work. This decreases the need to make provisional/deferred decisions.

Invite customers

I use the term ‘customers’ broadly. I’m not just talking about the people who purchase/receive your organisation’s goods and services. It is also ‘internal’ customers. It is the group the workshop participants are designing for.

Why customers? Think about it from your perspective. Have you ever used a product or service and wondered (perhaps angrily) why the designers made certain choices? Maybe you’ve even thought to yourself 'whoever designed this is out of touch with my needs.' If you had been given the opportunity to work with the people who designed the product they may have made better decisions.

The same applies here. Having your customer in the room means your participants can develop genuine empathy for the customer’s needs and design for it. As I've said [elsewhere], empathy isn't transitive. You need to experience the emotion first hand to be moved by it.

If you can’t have customers at your workshop for the entire duration, consider hosting a [Fishbowl Conversation] with them to get that voice in the room.

Invite challengers

One of the risks of getting a group of people together to design something is the danger of ‘groupthink.’

[Groupthink] is a:

…psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.

Many techniques exist to combat groupthink. One is to have people who are deliberately there to challenge the ideas and thinking.

These people are the ones who have the permission to say “This might be a dumb question, but…”

Anybody else?

Those are the groups I like to consider when I’m planning, and I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch. Let me know your thoughts below.

Collaboration Tools: The Whiteboard

Building empathy: The Fishbowl Conversation

Building empathy: The Fishbowl Conversation