Imagine that you are facilitating a workshop, and that you have budgeted all the time you need for what you’re planning. Yet at the end of the session, you’re still rushing a bit to get through the last few items, and wishing you had another couple of hours. It is almost a given that something happens and the time you thought you had evaporates. And as they say, time is money — particularly when you’re trying to involve executives in the workshop as well (which I highly recommend if at all possible).

So what can we do to avoid these time crunches, or “curveballs”? I’ve seen a lot of curveballs in the many workshops I’ve led for clients, and while it’s not possible to avoid all of them, I’ve gotten better at anticipating them and managing them before they throw the schedule off.

Below, I outline some of the most common (and most destructive) curveballs that I have encountered, and some ways we can avoid them. The good news is that one solution can address pretty much all of them. The bad news is that the solution is another meeting. But the value of a brief, expectation-setting meeting with everyone involved a day or two prior to a workshop can completely shift the tenor of the workshop and dramatically increase the quality of the output. I typically recommend a 60-minute meeting, held a day or two prior to the actual workshop. I call them Day 0 meetings (because they come before Day 1), and I now insist on them for any workshops I run. They can be in-person or conference calls; the important thing is that they happen.

Thinking back on the biggest curveballs I’ve encountered in workshops I’ve facilitated, I realized they basically fall into three major categories: expectation mismatch, unclear goals and unclear objectives. Here is how I’ve used Day 0 meetings to avoid them.

Expectation Mismatch

This is one of the most common curveballs I have experienced. For a lot of stakeholders, a full/multi-day collaborative workshop is a new experience. They arrive expecting a long, boring PowerPoint presentation and are prepared to spend the day surreptitiously browsing the web, checking their phone messages or catching up on email while pretending to type notes on their laptop.

You can see the fear in their eyes when you tell them to put away their laptops and mute their smartphones as you drop a pile of sticky notes, markers, and poster paper in front of them. This change of mindset can be abrupt, and the transition period can eat up valuable time. This can distract them from fully engaging in some or all of the sessions.

By contrast, when participants have an idea about what to expect, they come in excited for the change of pace and fired up to participate. So setting expectations is a key focus of the Day 0 meeting. Here are the key points I cover:

  • Review the ground rules (I always include “no devices”).Sketch of usability testing setup
  • Go over a high-level agenda, and make sure people know when they’ll be expected to be present, as well as when they’ll be able to take breaks.
  • Show photos or even bad sketches of previous sessions (a picture is worth a thousand words!).

Basically, do anything you can do to make sure when they walk into the room the morning of the workshop, they know what they’re getting into.

Unclear Goals

When you ask participants what the goals for a workshop are, they may give responses like, “Improve product X’s experience for customers” or “Simplify flow Y on our website.” These may be worthwhile goals, but they’re not the reason participants have been sent to that room. If you connect the dots, inevitably all improvement initiatives ratchet up to one of the 5 strategic priorities executives care about: increasing revenue, decreasing costs, increasing new business, increasing existing business, or increasing shareholder value.

Understanding the connection between your short-term goals and these strategic priorities is critical to a successful session. Otherwise, you may well lose sight of the forest for the trees and recommend changes that will actually hurt the strategic priority. For example, with the short term goal of “Simplify flow Y”, one way to do this may be to remove a lead generation form at the end of the flow. While this accomplishes your short term goal, it actually hurts your strategic priority.

The solution is to keep addressing this connection early, in a Day 0 meeting, preferably with executive leadership present. I like to lead a collaborative exercise (typically a quick round of affinity mapping) around both the short-term objectives and the strategic priorities. Once the group has reached consensus, I give the executive stakeholder an opportunity to give feedback and redirect if necessary. Then, I provide an opportunity for participants to ask any questions they may have. Particularly if the executive will not be participating in the workshop, this may be the only time to get clarity on these critical points, so make sure not to cut the question period short, and only end it when everyone truly understands the goals, the strategic priorities, and the connection between them.

Once I get to the workshop, I write both the goal and strategic priority largely on a poster paper and leave it prominently on the wall for the duration of the workshop. This is particularly useful so I can refer back to it any time there is a risk of veering off track.

Unclear Objectives

Goals and objectives are often lumped into one bucket, but our experience has taught us that they are worth differentiating. While goals are akin to a flag in the distance that everyone is marching towards, objectives are how you get there. Another way to think about it: You will likely not accomplish your goal in the workshop itself, but you will outline the steps needed to get there. And this will happen before you’re allowed to leave the room.

For example, if our goal for a workshop is to improve the experience of getting a price quote online in order to decrease the number of people that call in for a quote, the objective might be to come up with 3-5 prioritized concepts, and a plan for prototyping and testing them with users. The scope of the objectives will depend on the timeline of the project and the length of the workshop, among other factors.

It’s important to identify who should ultimately be in control of your objectives. As yourself, who will be charged with picking up the plan and driving it forward after the workshop ends? In the Day 0 meeting, I will typically ask this person “What will we need to accomplish during this workshop in order for you to consider it a success?” Make sure that the participants hear it from this person’s mouth. Again, a period for questions and answers is essential.

The objective will also be written on poster paper during the workshop, and referred back to frequently. As the end of the workshop draws near, I will frequently point to the objective and ask the group, “Have we accomplished this?” Only when the Manager or Product Owner agrees that the objective has been met does the workshop end.

Anticipate Curveballs Early

These are three of the most common curveballs that I’ve encountered in workshops that I’ve run, but there are certainly others. As you sit down to plan your Day 0 meeting agenda, ask yourself: “What curveballs could I encounter in the workshop that would be most damaging? What would set me back the most?” Once you have a sense for the potential curveballs you need to avoid, plan your meeting accordingly, trying to reach consensus early on the most critical decision points. This relatively minor investment of an hour meeting a day or two prior to a workshop will be well worth it when participants show up enthusiastic and energized, with a shared understanding of what to expect. In my experience, the difference is truly night and day.