How do you design a workshop that is flowing naturally and invites for collaboration, conversation and learning? After an experience with a network gathering that I am supporting and facilitating, I would say start with defining conversation spaces.

In my first meeting with the organizing team, we started with content and got stuck. The team brought in many dimensions and aspects that needed to be included into the 3 day program. The preparation meeting ended in a confused, overwhelmed and dissatisfied spirit. After the meeting, I was sitting together with the organizer. We went through the notes looking where we had clarity.

There were several initiatives people wanted to share:

  • Learning journeys that had involved a majority of the network members and had results to share;
  • People wanted to visit partners;
  • Thematically, the learning journeys were linked to the partner visits;
  • People wanted to harvest key learning;
  • The network wanted to define and plan future network activities in the light of adaptation of the institutional network structure.

With this in mind we started drawing. We asked ourselves: So, what kind of conversation spaces do we have to create? What would be a meaningful way for people to contribute and learn together? What can we offer them? How do we make use of the precious time together?

On a large piece of paper, we were drawing conversation spaces. We drew a big circle for the peer exchange on the morning of the first day. We gave the first slot to the network members to share novel knowledge and know how, to connect to each other and get inspired. We drew another big circle in the afternoon for harvesting the leaning journeys. Day two was dedicated to partners with whom conversations could be held (we want to avoid by all means death by PowerPoint). Day three was used as harvesting, coaching and planning space.

After further discussion about how to deal with all the content, the definition of conversation spaces was for us a breakthrough moment. You might think ‘that is peanuts, what’s so novel about this’? There is an important nuance. In defining conversation spaces and not sessions nor building blocks, we put the user experience into the center of the design process and not the content. In conventional workshop planning the topic often leads and the facilitator thinks about methodologies. We turned it upside down, and started with people and purpose, what people actually will do together and which value they will create together.

Through this experience, I realized once more that as facilitator we are the guardian of collaboration and conversation. We help shift the focus from content to purpose, people and process. Our aspiration is collaboration.

Our result, the workshop flow, is quite simple and logic. Simplicity is – as so often – beautiful. I love beautiful workshops and I’m ready to deal with some messiness first.

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