July 9, 2012 Focus area: Scaling Agile

How to do great workshops: the vision workshop

In the past two years, I have conducted numerous workshops, dealing with so-called business requirements. The question always was something like: "can you please facilitate a workshop, to help us get ready to start building". Because of my Agile/Scrum background (Power of Scrum - Amazon), this mostly was meant to do shortcycled delivery of a large project or program. 

In the first of these series, I will focus on the vision and strategy workshop. In most workshops, something along this line needs to be setup anyway. Also, I was asked on twitter by @ulrikapark how I would do such a vision workshop in three hours :-)

The way I have done these 'vision' workshops, is maybe a bit strange when looking at the requirements. This asks for creativity, out of the box thinking, dreaming, so one would expect a diverging, 'all is allowed' kind a style. The style I use is the opposite: time-boxed, activity-based: 

Tell everybody to write down any goals and demands for the customers of the company, or even ideas they have to fulfill these goals and demands,  in 3 minutes. The goal of this is not be complete, but to have first of all a lot of input, and second of all, clear everyones' mind. People tend to stick to their own goals over the shared one, this exercise makes them let go easier (it is now part of the vision). I let them do this on sticky notes, which are put on a a0 paper.

Categorize those sticky notes together on affinity. So for example, 'faster delivery', 'beautiful design', 'breaking with trends'. 

Withing the 'clouds' of sticky notes with goals and desired and demands, rank them in ' dreaminess'. Put the explicit type activity sort of things low and the dreamy visionary types high inside each cloud. 

Start the why-why-why exercise on the lower level sticky notes in the clouds to get to the dream behind the activity. For example, I once had an item stating 'flexible workflow'. That did not sound very visionary, of course. When I started to ask why, the first answer was 'because customers want it'. Again, why? 'because they want to be able to have their own unique workflow'. Again, why? -sigh-... Because ehhh 'every client is different, and they have the right to be so, we should follow them'. This actually hit a belief: 'we believe that our clients have the right to be different'. This became a strong part of the vision we formulated. 

By now, you are probably about half an hour to an hour into the workshop. That all depends on the pressure you put on. Set sharp timeboxes, use eggtimers helps to focus. This of course depends on the group of people; if it only consists of 'thinkers', it will go slower. Another blog on that, actually, will follow in this series.

Now that we have per affinity group the beliefs in place, we can write a couple of new sticky notes, with those beliefs on them. Put them on a new a0 paper, and write them under them, in a nice form, the belief: 'as <company x>, we believe that <belief>

Now review the storymap. Is it boring? If it reads like 'just any company', the group has not been creative yet, so you need another round. In this round, you keep asking for the reason behind the item: why did we write it down, why does it make us different? This leads the group almost always to some sort of unique dream of why they exist.

If it is energizing and everyone is feeling rather good, challenge it, to help internalize and strengthen. A debate form can help polarize opinions, which is good at this moment. 

Wrap it up. 

Now this sounds a bit 'militaristic', so why did it work in almost all cases? I think it has to do with the converging facilitation of a divergent mind. People in a vision workshop need to dream, diverge, open up. There is nothing more safe for them to do so than a workshop master with a keen eye on process and structure, timelines etcetera. In other words; by strict facilitation, people dare to dream. 

Has it failed? Yes, once, out of approximately 25. I once had a group of  about 16, and they failed to get any nearer to a vision in two hours. I think it mainly was due to a very boring room, an unclear idea of why they needed a vision, and they were not made ready to 'play'. After that one, I figured I'd always start with something playful, weird, at the start, whenever I feel the greyness of the contenders. And ask, before the workshop: Why are we doing this workshop...