Designing Design Workshops IV: Make Space for Failures, Not Feats
When I run innovation workshops for corporate clients— you know, of the HCD variety — I almost always follow up with office hours to check in on team projects and answer lingering questions. Because of this, I would end most workshops with a presentation of ideas and prototype plans, with the expectation that participants would attempt something afterwards. A workshop’s goal usually falls into two categories: to help participants reflect on how they would use design thinking in their current work processes and/or to help them incubate an idea that improves their day-to-day work, business, or bottom line.
This is, of course, ideal — something I propose on paper, what I hope I will have a chance to do with the participants. Most of the time, it goes like this: participants have a great time with icebreakers and reflect with enthusiasm, fall back on their assumptions during the empathy/problem definition exercises, brainstorm ideas through the lens of buzz (AI! platform! circular economy!), give a beautiful presentation, select the most probable and feasible ideas to prototype, and report back to the facilitator (me) afterwards that the progress is going well because — surprise! — they’ve already been doing said idea since before the workshop.
While there’s nothing wrong with this journey per se— after all, a workshop is also an escape from the daily grind of corporatism to learn, think, and do differently. Though if no risks are taken (i.e. someone trying out a new idea), a part of me feels like it is a missed opportunity, an underutilization of space, time, and attention.
Every time I hear this journey, I can’t help but feel like I have failed as a facilitator. If there are no measurable change afterwards, my scarcity mindset imagines a world where we no longer trust workshops as a medium of education. Why is this happening? And can I do something about it?
Workshops as Future Nostalgia
In the context of Thailand where I work, I may point to the zeitgeist of showmanship as a cause of this journey. It is a virtue to do performative acts of doing something “right” that “looks good” in front of peers and superiors. Which, in corporate settings, means de-risking all discussions of insights, ideas, feedback and falling back on existing trends, buzzwords, bold ideas published on the front pages magazines and dissected in podcasts.
Nothing is uncomfortable, but also nothing is quite as innovative as we expect. This is not a criticism of the work culture, perhaps more a lamentation of how things could be. I understand that each participant has many, many, many responsibilities at work defined by KPIs and quarterly results so it is an uphill battle to take them out of these expectations, especially on weekdays when, you know, businesses are going on. Given this, I have found it more helpful to re-orient my thinking around the intent of a space:
Are we designing workshops as a place for play or for performance?
A space for play would allow for creativity as much as failures, for participants to say random things and not be judged for it, to try things out with their hands over theory. While a space for performance would be innovation theatre, where praise and applause is the main reward.
I would argue for a playful workshop, where participants can step out of their comfort zone, bring up insights that are otherwise discouraged in weekly meetings, think about ideas that seem counter-intuitive, and create bonds with their colleagues to go out and do something new together. Play first, KPIs later. The results would be emergent at the very least, and be a catalyst for change.
Better yet, thinking about the infinite time span post-workshop, I often wonder:
What if workshops can produce memories that participants can refer back to to inspire change in the future?
The real heroes of this story are the memorable moments that come from the workshops, which serve as a repository of potential for change that people can look back to. The things we do in the workshops — improv imbued with specific takeaways, tips & tricks on user interviews, prototyping with our hands — these can all become visual and visceral reminders of the lessons of the day. Like core memories from Inside Out. So in the future, we put nostalgia to work to surface insights on what to do at work. How these memories might be come back to life on a regular work day is perhaps an exploration for another time.
Small Steps Towards Playful Space
While I’m sure there are books written about play and workshops design and process transformation that I have yet to explore, I can share a few things that I’ve started doing to create these memories for future nostalgia:
- Setting expectations about the relevance of the workshop’s outcome to their work. I usually state clearly the lessons that participants will learn (e.g. techniques, frameworks, theories) and the outcomes that we expect from the application of said lessons. This is something I repeat at the end of the program, from the point of view of the participants, highlighting the relevance to their work: After this workshop, you will know how to define problems based on the needs of your target users. After this workshop, you will know how to gain feedback early and often, regardless of the ideas you are proposing.
- Breaking the ice with intention. I would choose exercises that promotes psychological safety and embodies the lessons of the portion of the workshop they precede. This might be a game (fun! interactive! there’s a winner!) that helps define a concept like the difference between a need and a want, or a role playing improv exercise that lets people “lose” or “fail” prior to ideation. It helps if people laugh.
- Making examples out of debriefs. I am the kind of facilitator most comfortable with emergent reflections, so I take care to listen and pick examples from the group that exemplifies the concepts or lessons taught during the workshop. Taking an example from the participant’s or a team’s work, especially if it’s a wild idea or something out of the ordinary, I believe, helps the whole class remember it more (kind of like the Ikea Effect).
If I’m being truly honest, these techniques are barely enough to change the way workshops are run and experienced, both during the allotted time and in the aftermath. I believe we can do more to make room for play and failures — and leave our egos and masks behind — because at the end of the day, the workshop is itself a tool. A time-intensive, business-friendly tool that is woefully underutilized but has the potential to change more than a few, influential minds.
I would love to hear what’s worked for you!