Help Your Stakeholders Leave Their Rank at the Door: 6 Workshop Levelers

Image of a man in a suit with a megaphoneA well facilitated workshop can be an extremely good opportunity to bring stakeholders together, brainstorm and discuss potential ideas and requirements.  Great workshops are often creative, high-energy and fun.  They should provide stakeholders with equal “air time” to raise their views, concerns or requirements…  At least that is the theory!

However, we’ve probably all had experiences where the reality seems quite different.  Sometimes groups don’t seem to “gel” very well, and sometimes certain delegates look like they want to contribute but seem to be self-censoring themselves.  Perhaps their boss is in the room, and they are afraid of speaking out.  Or perhaps they lack confidence and are afraid of asking “stupid” questions.

The irony, I believe, is that the so-called “stupid” questions are the most important.  Often they are so fundamental that they’ve been overlooked, until someone is brave enough to raise them.  It’s important to foster an environment in a workshop that creates the permission to ask any relevant question, however provocative or obvious it seems.  This will ensure your workshop is most effective and uncovers the cold, hard facts.

When planning a workshop, it is worth considering whether you need to include workshop levelers in your agenda.  Workshop levelers are tools and technique that remove rank, prevent a single attendee from monopolising the conversation, and allow shy people to contribute without fear of having to speak out in front of their boss.  Here are a few notable tips that I like using:

1. Set the scene:  On the agenda, and at the beginning of the meeting, ensure that you create the permission for people to ask provocative questions.  Explain that all views are valid; we might not action every idea that is mentioned, but even some of the most “quirky” ideas might prove useful after subsequent discussion.

2. Leave rank and job titles at the door:  As part of setting the scene, let attendees know that when they enter the room, they leave their rank at the door.  Contributions from front-line staff are just as valid as those from the CEO (and, in many case, front-line staff are able to provide excellent insight into what real customers want).

3. Mix it up:  If you are running a larger workshop and you split the attendees into syndicate groups, ensure each group has a mixture of backgrounds and seniority.  This will allow cross-pollination of ideas, and will help prevent the delegates from slipping back and focusing on their own rank/job title. You may want to include a suitable icebreaker to help people to get to know each other better, and to break down the barriers of formality.

4. When appropriate, embrace anonymity:  Consider using techniques that allow people to make a contribution anonymously.  Allowing people to post stick ‘post-it’ notes with their ideas to a flip-chart will encourage even the most shy of person to contribute.  The output can then be discussed in total rather than identifying individual ideas.  (This technique needs to be used with care; anonymity can lead to a lack of ownership, but managed carefully it works well).

5. Facilitate fairly:  During group discussions and debates, don’t allow a single attendee to monopolize the airways.  If someone looks like they need to speak, actively invite them.  Say something like, “John, you’ve been a bit quiet – I just wanted to check you’re OK with this. Do you have anything you’d like to add?”

6. Recognise body language and trust your gut:  If someone looks uncomfortable or unhappy, don’t ignore it.  If you aren’t able to get to the bottom of their concerns during the meeting, consider following up with them after the meeting (perhaps over coffee).

There are so many more excellent techniques I could have mentioned, but these are six of my favourite.  I hope you have found them useful!

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