A technique for gathering information, often used for its powerful group dynamics.
The purpose of conducting user workshops are:
- to assemble key people involved in a project, at one place, at one time, to maximize time and effort
- to collect information in this group environment to build a predefined set of deliverables, and accomplish a set of objectives
- to gain multiple view points, share information, increase understanding, and reach consensus
The benefit of conducting user workshops are both quantitative and qualitative.
Quantitative benefits include:
- greater productivity in producing deliverables
- reduced elapsed time by eliminating the need for serial interviewing and iterative follow-up
- reduced errors in communication and in documenting business rules and model specifications by involving knowledgeable participants together
- reduced total cost
Qualitative benefits are often more important and can include:
- improved decision making through the use of Facilitation techniques
- increased ownership and greater consensus through participant involvement
- increased communication between participants
- increased deliverable quality through documentation techniques and tools
- more effective project teams
Workshops, such as "JAD" (joint application design), were first used back in the 1970s. Changes in technology and the applications of group dynamics continue to improve the effectiveness of the technique.
There are five key features or characteristics that make the workshop technique valuable: structure, flexibility, facilitation, interaction, and acceleration.
- Structure & Flexibility: Each workshop is unique. Differences in objectives, deliverables, organizational culture, and participants will affect each application of the technique. Agendas are adjusted according to each unique situation to provide structure. Facilitation skills and techniques ensure flexibility. Structure and flexibility lead to workshop success.
- Facilitation & Interaction: Workshops are led by a trained facilitator to balance participation and manage participant interaction. Through this interaction, consensus-based decisions are made regarding all workshop deliverables. Facilitation ensures that group decisions can be made within an allotted time period, and these decisions reflect all viewpoints. A skilled oscillator will know the steps of creative problem solving and the tools/guidelines and dynamic balance of divergent thinking and convergent thinking to support the workshop.
- Acceleration: A structured yet flexible environment, properly managed, using facilitation techniques, and supported by a set of tools, results in greater productivity. The time required to collect, analyze, and document information is greatly reduced. Deliverables are constructed and reviewed throughout the workshop, and agreement is reached before the workshop is completed. This avoids the potentially time-consuming feedback loop ("the right of infinite appeal"). Deliverables can be used as input for the next phase of any project, thus reducing the amount of work to be carried out by the project team.
The user workshop technique can be used for any project situation in which:
- something more than a simple meeting or round table discussion is required
- a quick turnaround of information is required
- there are multiple sources of information that must be tapped and multiple viewpoints which must be shared
- there are personal or political conflicts, or barriers to project success, to overcome
As the task cross-reference list indicates, there are numerous uses of the workshop technique.
All workshops will share common variables and bottom line principles. Workshops should always be:
- visibly sponsored by management
- based on pre-workshop activities
- moderated by an impartial facilitator
- controlled by a structured agenda
- conducted in a neutral, "safe," and/or off-site facility that is well equipped
- documented by a variety of tools to dynamically capture and/or display workshop results
- followed up with post-workshop activities
These principles highlight the need to treat the application of the workshop technique as a subproject within a project. In addition to the resources and time required to conduct a workshop, pre-workshop and post-workshop activities must be planned to ensure success. All workshops can be structured using this three stage model:
- To collect information, explore, ideas, analyze information, make decisions and build consensus.
- Prepare for workshop
- Conduct workshop
- Conduct follow-up workshop activities.
In conducting the workshop, minimize external pressures on the team participants. An off-site meeting may be deemed appropriate. Most importantly, it is essential to create an environment of fun and new possibilities during the workshop. Each participant should have the opportunity to demonstrate an ability to contribute to the task at hand.
Every workshop is unique in its focus, but there are steps that are common to any workshop. The facilitator of the workshop is responsible for pre-workshop activities, conducting the workshop, closing the workshop, and post-workshop activities. The level of facilitator involvement will vary. In preparing for the workshop, it is recommended that the following pre-workshop activities are used as a checklist.
The pre-workshop activities set the stage for the workshop and consist of:
- planning and scoping
- research and review
- participant selection
- briefing and training
- workshop structuring
- workshop room preparation and other logistical arrangements, including obtaining materials and supplies
These activities typically take up 30% to 60% of the total time and resources required to conduct a workshop.
To conduct the workshop, it is recommended to follow a three-stage process of opening the workshop, performing the work, and closing the workshop. A workshop planner similar to the table shown in the example is often useful in structuring the agenda. Some facilitators create a more detailed script to assist them, and the scribes prepare and execute the session. A modular approach is recommended for achieving balance between structure and flexibility. For each module, estimated time frames, topics, approaches, techniques materials (such as flip charts), and purpose should be documented.
Each module has a specific purpose and a specific set of deliverables or outcomes. Each module and corresponding sub-modules are allocated a time frame that accommodates change. This model provides a basic structure and supports a degree of flexibility to achieve workshop objectives. Workshops of varied duration can be executed based on this modular structure.
Build a workshop plan, considering the following tips:
- Use information collected during the planning and scoping, and research and review activities to determine the appropriate exercises to select.
- Use your understanding of the organizational culture to modify the agenda to reflect the appropriate amount of review time and the amount of time required for workshop closure.
- Use your experience with methods and tools to estimate the amount of time required for concept review and orientation.
- Use other workshop experiences to estimate the total time required.
- Develop the agenda to reflect the appropriate balance between the "process" used and the desired "content."
- Construct agendas which are easily modifiable; that is, build in buffer time to account for issues, hidden agendas, and consensus building.
- Allow sufficient workshop start-up and closure time each day (e.g., up to 40 minutes may be required for completing these modules).
- Allow 30 minutes each day for coffee breaks (e.g., mid-morning break, one or two mid-afternoon breaks).
- Less time will be required for lunch if brought in and served buffet style; however, time for business and relaxing must also be considered (e.g., allow participants the opportunity to return phone calls, check messages, "get fresh air," whether during lunch or at the end of the standard business day).
- Additional time for team affiliation my be required for some teams; allow extra time for an occasional ice-breaker activity.
- Limit ice-breakers to no more than 15 minutes and intersperse them to break the set, build rapport, energize, or motivate.
- Vary information collection and analysis activities, using both serial and parallel (total team and sub-team activities) exercises.
- Be creative and experiment; build on lessons learned.
Based on these considerations, the maximum amount of time that can be allocated to the work module is about seven hours (out of an eight-hour workshop day). The remaining hour is allocated to:
- two 15-minute coffee breaks
- minimum 15 minutes for start-up time
- minimum 15 minutes for closing time (allowing for a "break for business")
Building a full work agenda into the remaining time is aggressive, but can succeed, if structured properly and if;
- the objectives are clear and understood
- participants have been prepared
- participants are workshop "pros"
- tools and models are backed up and managed frequently
- there are no hidden agendas
- issues are managed effectively
User workshops vary in their duration. Half-day sessions to five-day sessions can be managed by this three-module structure. Regardless of duration, the workshop itself only accounts for 30% to 50% of the resources required.
Activities may be conducted to bring proper closure to the process, build ownership and commitment to workshop results, and prepare for a subsequent workshop or project task.
Activities may include:
- deliverable review, validation and production
- management reporting and commitment building
- participant follow-up, issues resolution, and expectation management
- workshop evaluation
- next step preparation
Post-workshop activities typically account for 10% to 30% of the resources for a successful workshop. The success of workshops is largely dependent upon the various participants involved in the process and the roles played during each of the three stages. Specific roles, responsibilities, and level of participation must be determined during the preparation activities.
Many factors will impact the success of applying the user workshop technique in project settings. These critical success factors, in general, include:
- commitment to the three-stage model and process of applying the workshop technique
- thorough preparation by all participants
- tight control of the workshop through the agenda and the use of facilitation techniques
- working to consensus and gaining commitment to results
- experienced facilitator (and scribe)
- well equipped facility
- managed expectations and proper follow-up