Workshops make geniuses out of ordinary people

Working on an affinity diagram as part of the KJ Method
Working on an affinity diagram as part of the KJ Method, picture from

Much of the literature that one encounters about moderating a workshop is dedicated to the technique and mechanics of conducting a workshop. The technique itself is useful to learn, and certainly becomes an important part of any person’s repertoire of communication tools. At the same time, I tend to think of technique as one side of a coin. The opposite side, progress, is much trickier to achieve, and is certainly worth equal, if not more attention.

I have helped a lot of different teams in the past grapple with difficult problems, and I started off being quite wooden in the approach. Laying out strict agendas, leaving time for food/drink breaks, and giving out homework was about the extent of it at first. I would learn later on that these efforts would result in very little progress, which I traced back to two factors:

  • Inspiration – some participants felt that the literal points of the agenda were met, but the experience did not stick to them or push them further in their everyday lives or responsibilities.
  • Urgency – others felt that not everyone had the same level of buy-in or commitment, or perhaps that the ideas thrown out were not important or high-value.

And so, even when utilizing my favored KJ method1 to elicit mutual understanding and ideas, there was a key nuance that I had to work in: refraining from injecting my personality into the process. This means putting aside my beliefs about the workshop’s objective, ignoring my notions of the “right” way(s) of doing things, and instead acting more like a scribe. If anything, the power of the workshop really comes from the attendees themselves; if you lead them to water, they won’t necessarily drink.

I have seen that groups will come up with all sorts of ideas, many of which have surprised me with their ingenuity or unexpectedness. And once the group comes to a consensus, then the moderator’s job becomes easier. He or she now has the idea that everyone cares about seeing succeed. And turning that idea into reality is far easier if the group is inspired by their work, and believes that it needs to have been done yesterday.

1. For points about how to conduct a KJ method workshop, see: this article at by Jared Spool or this presentation by Vice Dean Karl Ulrich of Wharton, UPenn.

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