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High-performance design of workshops and conferences:

Iterative, interactive, and participant-driven.

A living illustration of high-performance teams

A better way of managing workshops and conferences

The problem with workshops and conferences

You know the problem. You’re intrigued by the workshop or conference, but you’re not sure what precisely it is going to be about, or whether it’s what you really want, or whether it’s addressed to your level of expertise. You’ve read the brochure, and you know it’s the general area that you’re interested in, but that doesn’t really tell you whether it’s going to focus on your specific issues at the right level of detail.

You decide to take a chance and you sign up, to some extent blindly. But when you’re there, you find that the instructor has come with a set agenda, intent on getting through it, come what may, even though it isn’t exactly your agenda. Sure, there’s some good stuff from time to time, but the workshop dwells on some material you already know quite well, but slides over some key issues you really want to learn more about.

You’d like to talk to the instructor about your issues, but somehow a full opportunity never seems to arise. The other participants are interesting, but it’s hard to meet them all, or maintain contact. Suddenly, it’s over, and yes, it was quite good, and you’ve got some learning from it, but it wasn’t precisely what you came for. You leave, feeling only partly satisfied.

Can we do better than this? As a matter of fact, we can.

Participant-driven workshop design

On Tuesday afternoon, June 9, 2009, a massive storm hit Washington DC. I was due to fly into Washington from Nashville that very evening. So instead of arriving home at 8 pm, I ended up getting to bed at 1am. As I still had to fine-tune the one-day workshop which I was giving first thing in the morning, this turn of events was "interesting".

The problem with the workshop the next day was that I had a number of possible presentations, but I had received conflicting information as to what the participants wanted. It seemed that some wanted to go in one direction. Others wanted a different slant. And the organizers had yet another opinion. How to reconcile these different views? I had been wrestling with the issue for some days, and still hadn’t been able to resolve it in my mind.

Undaunted, and grabbing a few hours sleep, I decided to make a virtue out of necessity. To begin the Wednesday workshop, I introduced a component where the participants themselves got to fine-tune the design of the day. I gave them a big menu of possible things we could work on and said: you decide what you want or don't want. This worked really well. They deleted one item and added some more items: I would never have guessed this in advance. What I'd been told they wanted, they didn't want at all!

What's more, the process was very quick and light. I showed them how to make priority decisions using a technique called planning poker. Planning can be fun? What a weird idea! Well, it's one of those weird ideas that work. You have to experience it to accept it. And this provided a perfect opportunity to use it in real time to solve a real-life problem, and to experience how effective it could be.

In fact, it worked so well, I discussed it with Seth Kahan, with whom I was about to do a two-day Masterclass on Thursday and Friday. He caught fire with the idea, supported it with enthusiasm and we jointly took it a step further and incorporated participant-driven design more systematically into the event.

Seth has a particular talent for “turning suits into people” and engaging people’s hearts: he applied these talents with brio to re-designing the flow of the workshop and energizing the participants. We bounced ideas off each other, and one thing led to another, until we had a whole new way of organizing the workshop. The ideas kept flowing. He would come up with a new insight, and I would catch it. The synergy made it a much better event than if had been doing it alone.

As a result, the participants ended up adding five items which were not even part of our original plan. We had no idea they wanted these things! The workshop itself became a living illustration of the principles we were trying to teach. The result: universal delight! Everybody got exactly what they wanted. And more.

  • "This was the best course I have ever attended! The information presented was exactly what I need at this moment in time. I can't thank you enough." A participant
  • "This was a wonderful two days. Thank you so much! I can't wait to share this with my colleagues." A participant
  • "Loved the diversity of interaction."A participant

  • What was interesting was that we kept probing what people wanted and we kept learning new things. It wasn’t like you ask people once and they tell you what they want and then you know what they want and so you give it to them. They tell you what they think they want and then they find that, actually, they have had enough of that and they want more of something else that they hadn’t even thought of at the outset. Their own perception of their needs kept evolving.

    And multiple feedback mechanisms proved effective too. For instance, I hesitated whether we should also do a written interim evaluation at the end of the first day, in addition to the group planning process. Would that be overkill? It turned out to be very helpful. It was very light—just a one page sheet inviting people to write anything that hadn’t been mentioned in the group planning process. Some people had nothing to add. But other people wrote some things hadn’t been mentioned in the group sessions. And we learned that one participant wasn’t getting what was wanted. As a result, we were able to weave those issues into the design of the second day.

    The basic idea here is: why not apply the high-performance methodology we are teaching to the design of workshops and masterclasses themselves? Why not make the workshop a living illustration of the very principles we are trying to impart? Why not demonstrate that light and agile planning processes can be fun? Duh! Why hadn’t I thought of this before? What have I been thinking?

    The principles involved

    The goal is to delight the client. With a traditional workshop or conference, the object is to provide a service, i.e. to hold a workshop or conference. In the participant-driven design, the goal is to delight the client, whether by holding the workshop or by any other means. The workshop itself is no longer the goal. It becomes a principal means to achieve the goal, but not the only means.

    Repeatedly ascertain what the client wants and doesn’t want: By survey, by telephone, by planning sessions in the workshop itself, put the client in charge. Let the client drive. Participants can say they want more of this, and less of that. And they can change their mind, as the workshop unfolds. They can say they have had enough of this, or even to drop it altogether. Or they want a lot more of something else that has just occurred to them. In one workshop, a major component was completely dropped. In the other, five new components were added to the original design.

    Work in an iterative fashion: Iterative design offers multiple opportunities to find out what the clients want, and to delight the client before, during and after the workshop. Instead of only focusing on what happens during the workshop, iterative design offers multiple opportunities to delight the client, in multiple ways. Also the iterative design of the workshop itself, going first quick and shallow, then slow and deep, enables additional items to be easily added to the agenda. Thus in the Masterclass, The participants wanted all twelve of the original components but eventually added five more components: this was accomplished with ease, given the iterative design.

    Have the design of the workshop embody the ideas being taught: by participating in the workshop, the clients not only learn about the idea, they also experience the ideas that are being taught.

    Pair programming: Many of the innovations wouldn’t have happened without the interaction with my partner and colleague, Seth Kahan. Working together, particularly with someone as energetic, insightful and creative as Seth, leads to much greater productivity

    Radical transparency: The techniques taught in the class enable the class to participate in the decisions as to what the workshop focuses on and to see how decisions are made. The participants experience radical transparency.

    Planning processes that are light, quick and fun: Using planning poker showed people how a large number of people can quickly make complex priority decisions in an engaging manner.

    Measurement of results: The processes enable the organizers to know in real time whether clients are being delighted and where the trouble spots are, so that they can be fixed during the workshop, rather than appearing in the final evaluations when it is too late to do anything about it.

    The components of participant-driven design

    Preparation that informs and delights

    The work before the workshop or conference is aimed, not merely at preparing the workshop or conference but also to start to generate benefits and learn more about what the client want—and don’t want. This includes:

    1. Holding a teleseminar introducing the content and also begin to give preliminary benefits

    2. Surveying the participants before the Masterclass to get an initial take on their perceived needs and adjusted the design to fit those perceived needs

    3. Telephoning any participants who indicated in the survey that they wanted to be telephoned to fine-tune the content to meet their needs.

    4. Sending advanced written materials for those who wanted it. Some participants said they had no time for preparation. Reading the materials was optional and the workshop did not presume familiarity with the materials.

    Workshop architecture: iterative, interactive and user-driven

    The architecture of the workshop is designed to reflect the content of the workshop: participants experience the content of what we are teaching on high-performance teams through the very process of the workshop. The design is iterative, interactive and user driven, including:

    5. Implementing an iterative design: we covered the ground several times, first shallow, then deep.

    6. Enabling the group to reprioritize the agenda at several points during the workshop

    7. Enabling the group to add or subtract agenda items to or from the agenda: we added five new items, on the fly.

    8. Providing one-on-one sessions with those participants who wanted it

    9. Enabling a participant’s issues to be discussed by the whole class for those participants who wanted that.

    10. Agenda was a varied mix of lecture, video, discussion, games and interactive exercises. In particular, the class played the Penny game, which was a metaphor for the content of the Masterclass.

    Evaluation and follow-up that continues to add value

    11. Interim written evaluations were conducted at the end of day one, as well as a written evaluation at the end of the Masterclass

    12. We also got participants to write a letter to themselves, dated three months from now, and we will send those letters on September 12.

    13. In the evaluation, we asked the Fred Reichhelt question: how likely is it that you would recommend this class to others?

    14. We created a webpage with all the materials from the class

    15. We created an on-line discussion group after the Masterclass, which people said they wanted.

    16. The Masterclass was recorded (with the participants’ permission) and recording shared with them on-line


  • Two-thirds of the participants were delighted and all were fully satisfied.
  • 100% of participants are likely to recommend the Masterclass to colleagues.

  • Future improvements

    We began the Masterclass with a basic “spine” of the workshop in mind, with twelve proposed components. The participants of the Masterclass wanted all twelve components but eventually added five more components. We added these to the “spine” of the workshop, so that the underlying structure of the workshop was still apparent, at least to us. However there was so much change, at the end, some participants flagged that they would have preferred more visible clues as to how the new components fitted on the “spine”. This indicates that we should in future maintain a map of the structure of the workshop that shows how the pieces fit together on the spine, and have this map constantly visible, and updated, so that participants can know at all times that “we are here” and “we are going there”.

    Got a suggestion for further improvement? Let me know about it here.

    Experience the power of high-performance design

    If you'd like to try out a high-performance teams masterclass based on these principles, check out Washington DC on May 27-28, 2010.

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