Playing with workshop dynamics

I’m having a lot of great experiences consciously adjusting workshop dynamics to fit my objectives. Take a workshop recently carried out with about 180 managers of a large German bank: a net sum of 2 x 1 hour to work with them on their future within the context of a huge conference. Not much time really. And yet – as it proved – more than enough to get really meaningful results, as long as the dynamics carried us through. Let me describe the sort of dynamics I’m talking about and how I try and steer them when I want a large group of people to take over control and responsibility for coming up with results quickly and in multiple constellations. Let’s take a typical World Café setting, with about 20 tables of 8 participants each. Results are written real-time on pre-prepared „table cloths“ and will be synthesised after the sessions:

  1. Welcome participants warmly, moving through the room and slightly louder than usual as they enter the room, urging them to take a seat as quickly as possible.
  2. Usher the last participants into the room at the same time as closing the door.
  3. Start talking whilst walking towards the stage.
  4. Use a microphone.
  5. Your introduction reflects your excitement: this topic, these people, this context!
  6. Your mimicry, gesticulation and tone is sightly more expressive than otherwise.
  7. Participants have to know exactly what they are supposed to do NOW and why. Don’t overburden them with the detail of what they’ll be doing in the second and third steps. Assure them that you’ll give them all further information they’ll need when they need it.
  8. You suddenly introduce a long pause, looking slowly at all participants…….and say something emotionally expressive and hard hitting (i. e. why it’s so important that this group is here today to discuss this topic).
  9. Immediately afterwards you hold the silence…
  10. …and then say something light, (i. e. gentle humour, which surprises) and send participants off to work with the following:
    1. clear and brief instructions (use visualisation – i. e. slide/flipchart)
    2. main question for discussion
    3. if relevant: main rule (i. e. no right or wrong)
    4. information that I’ll be walking around and am available for any questions at tables
    5. thanks, good luck, etc.
    6. main question for discussion (again)
  11. When getting people to finish: provide a countdown (verbal: „another 5 minutes“…“2 more minutes – please make sure nothing gets lost“, etc. and/or visual with a conspicuous backward-running clock on the screen)
  12. If getting participants to change tables and add to previous results, slightly change the focus/objective of each round, so the content is continuously built upon and develops not just in quantity, but also quality. Make sure participants are making decisions (i. e. to prioritise ideas) within a set amount of time.
  13. The change itself can be crucial in getting people to really feel and enjoy the dynamics – a bit like a surfer on the crest of a wave. Let me give you my own words: „Think of the amount of ideas developed in the first round – the best way to share and multiply these is to change the constellation of the groups. You now have the opportunity to develop the discussion (on TOPIC) with a whole new group – look around the room and focus on one of the other tables – you know which one – and now don’t look back, don’t look left or right. Just walk straight over to your new table and make sure you take your seat before someone else does!“
  14. Introduce brief and colourful water-testing rounds, in which you stick your microphone into 4-6 participants‘ faces and ask for some authentic accounts of what’s going on and what’s surprised them during the discussion. Talk whilst walking – that increases the dynamics and focussed people’s attention.
  15. Introduce competitive elements – preferably with reference to other groups „not there“, but also – gently – between tables.
  16. Keep your closing words short and emotional. Use words like „Wow“, „amazing“ and „really/very“ if it’s authentic and justified. Take out the high speed for a sincere thanks and close with something either emotional or funny. The shared experience of the high-speed, dynamic workshop is the final note!

Perhaps it’s got something to do with adrenaline? Our ability, chased by dinosaurs, to quickly adapt, decide and motivate others to move. I’m sure it’s easier to play with dynamics in a fairly homogenous setting – more or less mono-cultural. As soon as we’re international, we have to deal with intercultural differences in time-feeling difficult to reconcile (i. e. Anglo-saxon participants are far less excited about working through the night than Danish. French far less willing to accept an 80% „good enough“ solution than Dutch. Without wanting to over-generalise and stereotype, this observation has proven true over and over again.)

It also won’t do to over-do speed. That can be really annoying, stressful and counterproductive („more haste, less speed“). It’s good for a brief period of time, but won’t do for a whole day, let alone a process. Introduce a space for something entirely different (i. e. a piece of theater or a volley ball match) if you have to rush. It’ll make people fitter for action!

More comments on speed and taking it slowly are appreciated!

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