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Matt Matheson

How having 4 walls can set you free… (A creative workshop structure)

We’ve been doing a lot of facilitation for our clients here at NM recently and in the past, I’ve found that I was going back to the drawing board for every ideation workshop I was running. From our experience, great workshops have the following needs:

  • The need for participants to listen and learn, and to be heard and to contribute
  • The need for flexibility, fun, energy, improvisation and visual stimulus
  • The need to create something specific out of something broad and meet an objective by the end of the session

To this end, Tom and I decided to produce a simple model that takes the best bits of a number of workshops we’ve been involved in and wrap them up into one lovely, jubbly package that we call ‘The 4 Walls’. It is based upon the principles of Theory U and has been proven to work well on a number of occasions – twice with the innovation team of a major UK broadcaster and likewise with the PR and Content teams of one of the big telecommunications providers.

In essence, the idea capitalises on the improvisation principle of creating the environment to help you achieve your goal. We set up 4 walls for the workshop – 2 of which always remain the same and two of which are changeable depending on the goal for the day/the client needs. Throughout the course of the workshop, teams work their way through the 4 walls (populating them as they go) with the goal of presenting a solid idea in the ‘reality zone’ at the end of the day.

Here’s how a typical workshop to generate PR ideas might run. And of course, you’d want to add your ‘teas and wees’ break and lunch and motivating, physical exercises to keep the energy up throughout the day for longer sessions.

Precursor – checking in

If we’re spending a day together in a room it’s important we understand where each other is at so before we formally start, we come together in a circle and one by one answer the following questions:

  1. How do I feel?
  2. What is my goal for the day?
  3. What is one positive thing that has happened recently?

Some people may be sad or distant, others ridiculously excited due to an up coming festival – it’s important for everyone to know how each are feeling in the present. Asking everyone for one positive experience that happened recently fosters an environment of positivity and breaks the ice much faster.

1) The Information Wall (fixed wall)

This is where we start the day and is where all the ‘information’ is held. Here people have an opportunity to explore the topic for the day and get the ‘brain food’ they need to set them up for the later sessions. Some of the things that might be present here:

  • Any presentations that might happen to provide the brain food needed for the day
  • Any information that might be relevant, stuck onto the walls
  • A Q+A session with questions and answers stuck onto the wall
  • An area for reference information for the rest of the session to be captured and stuck on a wall
  • This wall is ‘live scribed’ throughout the day as new insights or learnings come up

2) The Themes Wall (changeable)

It’s here we start going into ideation or creative mode – prior to this, a Yes, And exercise takes place to create some energy in the room whilst conveying the importance of suspending judgement during brainstorming.

For a PR workshop we decided that ‘themes’ might be a good thing to explore e.g. what themes, topics or events might provide interesting PR opportunities. This is changeable depending on the goal for the day; you might want to focus on audiences here instead of themes. Likewise, if you were working on an internal collaboration program, you might want to spend time exploring the needs of people in your business or barriers to engagement.

At the Themes wall, we do the following:

  • Split the group into random teams and using specific coloured index cards, ask them to come up with themes that a PR campaign might be built around
  • When the time is up, each team presents their ideas by sticking them to the wall and talking the other teams through them – Belgium chocolates given to those that present as an incentive to get up :)
  • Once all teams have shared, a facilitated conversation takes place to identify themes, passion points and other observations
  • All new information during the conversation is documented in a different colour and added to the wall

3) The Ideas Wall (changeable)

It is here that we ask people to really think big, as if there are no restrictions of budget, time, etc: It’s easier to tame a wild idea than it is to make a weak idea good. Again, depending on the theme for the day, the topic of the brainstorm can be changed to meet the needs of the client. This activity takes place with the insights gained from the previous two sessions held at the Information Wall and the Themes wall, which are always visible.

  • We shake up the groups again so teams are changed up and refreshed before asking them to come up with ideas that inspire them, again suspending judgment – these are recorded onto a different colour card.
  • Once the time is up, the teams present again with small prizes for those willing to come forward and present
  • Once all teams have shared, a facilitated conversation takes place to identify themes, passion points and other observations
  • All new information during the conversation is documented in a different colour and added to the wall

4) The Reality Zone (fixed)

This is where the wide thinking converges into something more detailed and concrete, taking into account the information from the previous activities. The teams have access to all 3 previous walls and use this information to craft a new idea before applying objective thinking to that idea.

  • Teams are asked to form into ‘real’ teams, i.e. the groups that they could realistically work on an idea in their normal working environment
  • They take inspiration from the themes and big ideas and name an idea that they will then develop
  • Using a planner sheet that contains blank spaces for information such as ‘what is the essence of the idea in a nutshell’, ‘what resources will you need’, ‘who will be the audience’ etc., they then spend time honing the idea
  • Once the basics of the idea are formed, they apply objective thinking by filling out the back of the planning sheet – this provides the opportunity to wear the ‘de bono thinking caps’ when analysing their idea
  • The teams then present back to everyone their formed, objectively analysed idea
  • If needed, a competition element is added here with a voting mechanism to allow the winning idea to win

Each time we have run the format, we’ve had positive feedback and achieved the outcome we desired – a filled out planning sheet for numerous ideas with next steps, a clear owner and an understanding of the scope of the idea. Additionally, we scribe and share the wealth of information gathered throughout the whole day of activities.

This isn’t all that’s important – with regular changing of teams, peppered exercises throughout the day, light competition mechanics and good feeding and watering of people – the teams left happy and energised. This is arguably as important, if not more, than the ideas they come up with themselves.

Feel free to play around with this – and let me know how you get on.

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