What’s your workshop’s PULSE?
As workshop facilitators, we impact the pulse of our sessions. We affect the energy level of the participants, the pace of the idea generation and iteration process. Also, we eventually impact the speed of implementation.
The P.U.L.S.E. concept aims to help you to plan your next working session in a way that assures lasting results. The acronym is composed of five ingredients that will make workshops work: The workshop’s Purpose, its Uniqueness to the participants, Learnings from and for each other, Solutions that matter and Effects that will change the game!
In a previous article, I introduced the acronym PULSE in the context of individual priority setting. The aim was to help you align your todo-list to your bigger goals and inner purpose. The concept refers to the physiological pulse that measures the heartbeat per minute. Depending on our body, mind and external circumstances, sometimes we seek a lower pulse while in other situations, an increased pulse fills us with positive energy.
In this article, I apply the concept to the design and planning of meetings (or workshops, which happen to be extended meetings). While some workshops require a calm environment that allows space to discuss sensitive issues, others need higher energy for fueling joy and creativity. The pulse of your working session will set the tone for success.
As a facilitator, you can impact the success of your session through rigoreous preparation. Decide on the PULSE that you want the session to follow. Then, design the agenda that matches it.
Simon Sinek’s famous TED talks raised awareness of the importance of why we do what we do. It is through inner purpose that we sell our ideas, products or services. Purpose brings things to life. Purpose is the initiator of the pulse. When we are on a mission, we are authentic, convincing, inspiring.
“Achievement happens when we pursue and attain what we want. Success comes when we are in clear pursuit of why we want it.” Simon Sinek
The same applies to the events we host. The event’s purpose defines why a specific group of individuals shall invest time and energy to come together. Once we give our workshops a precise meaning, everything else will follow: the guest list, the venue and even the timing.
If you aim to host a creative session where novel ideas shall flow, you want to invite a diverse group of people with the ability to add different perspectives and look at the challenge from various backgrounds.
A creative session needs a setting that invites curiosity, communication and movement. Evidently, the room for such a workshop will look different than the environment you create for a meeting where the board shall take impactful decisions. Finally, depending on the purpose of the session, you may want to vary the timing.
“Afternoons are the Bermuda Triangles of our days. Across many domains, the trough represents a danger zone for productivity, ethics, and health.” Daniel H. Pink
According to Daniel H. Pink’s research, decisions and negotiations shall be made earlier in the day. Since creativity peaks in the later afternoon, when conscious vigilance decreases, the time after 4 PM is more suitable for explorative sessions that allow the discovery of new paths.
Once you defined your session’s purpose, let your guests know. When they understand your expectations and their specific role in this context, they are more likely to show up prepared.
No workshop is alike, and don’t expect them to be. It is in the facilitator’s hands to turn the session into a unique experience. After all, it is the setting that will make the session unique and thereby memorable.
As a matter of fact, we don’t do the work in meetings or workshops. Instead, we exchange ideas and information, reflect and explore. Then, we return to work, implement the outcomes to execute more effectively. Therefore, any working session’s goal is to get the group to follow-up on what has been agreed upon.
Participants need to be intrinsically motivated to follow-up. They need to remember hat they have committed to do and treat this as a priority.
When we design our working sessions for uniqueness, we make the experience memorable and distinguishable. This will impact the participants’motivation when they leave the space and return to their daily tasks. The explanation is simple: With constant information overflow, we learned to ignore the average, the mundane. Instead, we react and refer to the extreme, the new, the surprise.
“It’s human nature to stick to the same room, same hour, and same general setup. But those routines can cause people to glaze over. Instead, find ways to introduce variety.” Steven G. Rogelberg
This does not mean that you have to design the extreme. Nor do you have to adjust the space or agenda to create unique working sessions. Often it is sufficient to host your workshop at a new location (in another meeting room, in another building, inside a co-working space or even outside in a park – whatever suits the overall purpose of the session). Alternatively, you may choose a surprising start into the event that creates a safe space and gets participants to open up.
The best way to create unique experiences though, is by offering a space that invites all participants to contribute all of their unfiltered ideas. Your meeting or workshop becomes unique if you provide the participants with a safe space which allows them to be present and contribute without the fear of judgement.
Priya Parker, a facilitator whom I admire, relates events to a Japanese tea ceremony “ichi-go-ichie-e” and explains: 
“We could meet again, but you have to praise this moment because in one year, we’ll have a new experience, and we will be different people and will be bringing new experiences with us because we are also changed.” Priya Parker
As much as each tea ceremony is unique, the authentic interaction and improvised idea sharing of your participants will make your session unique by definition.
Once you provided clarity on the purpose and the setting, it’s time to think about the learning goals. To assure that your session delivers the highest return on investment (where the investment is mostly your participants’ time), make sure that they leave the room smarter than they entered.
Learnings can take all different forms, and your goals will vary depending on the purpose of the workshop. It can be a “hard” goal, such as learning relevant information or a new skill. It can as much be a “soft” goal, such as improved team communication that will enable further collaboration.
Focusing on learning goals has another benefit: it makes your participants happy and will assure lasting effects of the results! Neuroscientific research shows that our brains release Dopamine when we learn something new. Dopamine release not only makes us feel happy but also motivates us to keep learning.
“Thus, answers to the question of happiness can be found precisely where you would least expect them: in learning!” Manfred Spitzer
So, before you start drafting the agenda, spend time thinking about the one learning with which you want participants to return to their desks.
All too often we wonder why our events are not showing the success we hoped for. We wonder and ignore the fact that we haven’t defined what success means to us. What needs to happen so that we consider the outcomes successful?
Before you prepare the agenda, ask yourself what has to happen for you to be happy with the results. Do you have clear outcomes in mind that you want to reach? Maybe you need the buy-in from participants, new ideas on a topic or a decision. In other cases, success simply means “sharing a good time”. This is a sufficient goal as long as you are aware of what that means to you and the attendees.
After you defined the success factors, communicate them to the participants. For our motivation, it is important to celebrate small wins. For doing this, it must be evident what we can celebrate and when. Clarity about the success factors of the workshop helps attendees understand their role and potential contribution. From there, everyone can derive how to follow-up afterwards.
“[…] every person, from the project manager to the CEO, has a different idea of what success means—and often that’s why teams don’t get projects done efficiently.” Ilya Pozin
In case you are not sure about the success factors or believe that the group shall define them together, you can spend five minutes to brainstorm with the participants on definitions of success or success factors. Surely, you will realise the different perceptions and expectations.
If for any reasons, success factors seem too ambitious or you worry that ambitious goals may demotivate participants, turn it around and do a pre-mortem exercise: Ask attendees to think of the worst-case scenario. Let them imagine leaving the session, frustrated about the waste of time. Ask them what would need to happen for this to manifest. In general, it is easier for us to think about what can go wrong. Also, the exercise takes the anxiety of failure away as it shows how mundane some of the risks are. You can then agree on actions the group will seek to avoid the most prominent risk of failure.
The last item you need for setting the pulse of your upcoming working session, is the Effect you are aiming for. An effect is a change caused by the session you organise. What difference shall the workshop or meeting initiate? Remember that in most cases, a working session is only one part of a larger project. You want to inspire participants to be more effective in their daily work due to the outcomes.
Are you looking for a behavioural change of the participants or a change in the way they work? Do you seek a change of mindset or a change in how things are done? Maybe you are even looking for an overall change in the market caused by your product innovation.
The effect must not be world-changing to be effective. Often enough a first baby-step will do. A first step will create momentum that you can use to keep the group engaged. To that end, you also may want to think of creating something more than meeting minutes. If you can translate the outcomes in something tangible and practical, the effect of your working session will also become visible to others and thereby keep participants accountable.
“Identify the small wins from your workshop that can keep participants engaged afterwards and make this a key part of your communication with them.” Alison Coward
Continuous communication will give the attendees the impression that the workshop was worth their time and provides a reminder for them to follow-up on what has been discussed and decided.
The nutshell to take home
As a facilitator or team workshops of business meetings, you carry the responsibility for the group to achieve results. The concept of the PULSE shall help you to think about main factors that will make your workshop work before jumping on agenda building. Before crafting the agenda, set your’s session’s pulse by defining the purpose, designing for uniqueness, deciding learning goals, success factors and the overall effect.
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 I highly recommend Dan Pink’s latest book When in which he explains how timing affects the outcome of everything we do and aim to achieve.
 Priya Parker wrote one of the most inspiring books about facilitation and the art of gathering.
 For effective brainstorming that keeps the group focused, set a timer and do not allow side talks and discussions during the first iteration. You can either have a silent brainstorm and invite everyone to share after the time is up or you can ask participants to speak out all questions that come to their mind as these might inspire the remaining attendees. In the latter case, make sure that everyone also writes down their questions so that you keep complete documentation. At the end, take five minutes to review the questions and answer the most urgent ones.