How to design a winning workshop: Step 4 of 5

Jackie Colburn
5 min readDec 5, 2023

Most workshop design is centered around problem solving, from finding a better way to build a service or feature, to completely innovating a business’ offerings (and everything in between). Because of this reality, idea generation sits at the heart of most collaborative sessions. And that means facilitators have the unique responsibility to empower participants to unleash their creative potential.

So, how do facilitators make the most of the team’s time together? What can we do to help them reach the outcomes they desire? And how do we keep the group focused on the right things?

In today’s installment of my series on intelligent workshop design, I’m sharing my favorite activities for idea generation — the ones that elevate brainstorming sessions from mere discussions to the kind of collaboration that produces actionable, viable possibilities.

What’s the point of idea generation during a workshop?

During this portion of a workshop, the goal is to help the team explore different possible ways that they might solve the problem at hand.

Ideally, activities in this portion of your workshop will allow participants to work both independently and as a team, share knowledge, and explore different perspectives.

This is the time to get your sticky notes ready! (You know you love them.)

Activities that drive idea generation during a workshop

There are many activities aimed at guiding teams through ideation work, but I’m going to focus on some of my favorites for their ability to consistently produce results time and time again.

1. Rapid Idea Generation

You can’t overthink things when you’re moving quickly. That’s why I love the Crazy 8s exercise from the Design Sprint book. It’s a rapid idea-generation method that allows ideas to emerge when people aren’t limiting themselves by overthinking. To start, I ask people to choose 1–2 ideas they’re working on as their focus — ideally something that’s core to their concept or that’s not quite working yet. Next, have each of your participants fold a piece of paper into eight sections then fill all eight squares with a sketch. Give the group eight minutes, then go pencils down. It really forces people to get out of their heads and away from self judgment.

Facilitation Tip: There’s a common misconception that drawing and sketching are activities reserved solely for designers and artists. Demystify this false narrative before a day of collaboration by cultivating confidence among participants with an exercise I like to call “you can draw!” detailed here.

2. Lightning Demos (aka Analogous Inspiration)

This exercise helps build confidence in idea generation and gives participants authorship over the creative process. l ask team members to curate a visual aid — like a mood board — to serve as inspiration for idea generation (within Miro or Mural). The visual usually includes examples from products, services and experiences that can inspire the team’s solutions. It’s a nice way to foster creative ownership amongst participants, and it’s also an excellent starting place for the sketching process. Having visual examples to refer back to is helpful when they’re just starting to draw out ideas. As the facilitator, I also include a few suggestions to get the group going and typically share some unexpected examples to show them that inspiration can be drawn from unlikely places.

3. The 3-Panel Prototype Exercise

This activity is a great option for teams who want to better suss out how an idea might work or come to life. I also use this method in the Design Sprints I run to support the final solution sketch. To follow this method, have each participant fold a standard piece of paper into three sections the long way. The goal is to have them detail a picture of their idea — whether from a brainstorm or elsewhere — by using each panel to sketch out the flow of the customer/end user’s experience. Three panels/steps is enough to get people thinking through an experience, but not so much that they’ll be overwhelmed trying to figure out all the details. I also love that the shape of the panel mimics a mobile view, which is particularly helpful if your team is working on a digital product.

Bonus Activity: Voting Exercises

Ending a workshop with tons of options at play can feel overwhelming for participants. While voting exercises aren’t necessarily about generating ideas, they’re super important to conduct in tandem with brainstorming so you can help the team focus and align on the most promising options.

The first step is to hone in on the group’s favorites. I like to do that by leveraging dot voting or anonymous number voting. I’ll break down the two versions in a moment, but the key takeaway is this: each person will get 2–3 votes to cast on their favorite ideas. The ideas with the most votes get to advance to the next round.

  • Dot Voting: Give each person 2–3 sticky dots to “spend” on the ideas they think should move forward. Prompt the group to mentally select their favorites before commencing the vote, then have them stick their dots on the ideas posted around the room or virtual whiteboard.
  • Number Voting: Number each of the core ideas up for selection, then ask the team members to cast votes for their top 2–3 by writing the numbers on sticky notes and handing/sending the ballots directly to the facilitator to count and share rankings more broadly.

From here, you can identify the top ideas based on voting results and pull them forward for further evaluation. You’ll notice that both of these methods leverage an aspect of anonymity, which is important for reducing the performance anxiety and power dynamics associated with team evaluation of individual ideas.

Facilitation Tip: Timing for idea generation + voting will depend on how many activities you plan to cover, but it’s generally safe to assume that this will be one of the proportionately larger chapters in your workshop arc. For example, if you’re in a 1-day session, you’ll likely spend a couple of hours here. If you’re in a multi-day workshop, it could take the better part of a day.

Idea generation is often the most complex yet rewarding portion of a workshop. Teams can sometimes get overwhelmed by the problem at hand and the pressure to solve it, but uncovering possibilities happens more easily with the right guiding activities.

Remember, as the facilitator, it’s not your job to have all the answers, but it is your job to create the right environment for designing a way forward. And that starts with intentional workshop design and activity selection.

Tap the little mail icon below to receive notifications when I publish new articles (which happens about 3x a month). In the meantime, check out the earlier parts of this series, including:

  • Part 1: How to ground the team and set expectations
  • Part 2: How to understand the customer and their needs
  • Part 3: How to refine and align on the problem the team wants to solve

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Jackie Colburn

Weekly resources for facilitators and leaders. Learn tips and methods to run better workshops, accelerate teams and uncover new ideas. www.jackiecolburn.com