Tips on running staff reflection workshops

One of my pet bug-bears is project evaluation for the sake of it, as a tickbox exercise.

Done well, there’s so much value that can be mined at the end of projects. And yet I see some organisations just evaluating on the basis of funders’ requirements, with no thought to how they can genuinely learn from the experience in a practical way going forward.

Rather than just focussing on ‘what we’ve done’, I champion an approach that identifies lessons learned and implications for future projects. I want to ensure that good practice is recognised and embedded in organisations, and we avoid duplicating mistakes.

Benefits of a staff reflection workshop:

A staff reflection workshop can be a really useful way of capturing transferable lessons. Done well it can:

  • Be a safe space and valued opportunity for participants to have their voices heard
  • Help to deepen understanding, collaborative working and relationships amongst the participants
  • Enable team members to bounce ideas off each other
  • Uncover a wealth of insights and ideas
  • Be the basis for a best practice guide for future projects
  • Give participants a sense of buy-in and ownership of the best practice guidance
  • Be a method to help team members reach consensus
  • Act as a type of closure on a project for participants
  • Be fun and engaging!

But a session needs careful preparation and facilitation so that it remains constructive and productive and doesn’t degenerate into a whinge-fest, go off tangent for a long period of time or is dominated by a minority.

I have organised and facilitated reflection workshops for a range of different organisations, where participants have comprised members of different internal departments, teams and different organisations.

Here are my top tips for running a constructive team reflection session:

1. Have a clear purpose and scope

Be clear on the purpose of the session and what outputs and outcomes you want. Communicate this to all participants to ensure everyone takes part from the same starting point and to manage expectations. Everyone should know what the session seeks to do, what it’s not going to cover and what their role will be.

2. Participants

Encourage all the key project contributors to take part so that the session reflects a broad range of perspectives. People are busy and booked up, so plan ahead and explain the value in the session and how the outcomes will be used.

Be mindful of any hierarchy in your organisation or clashing personalities that may limit someone’s ability or confidence in speaking and sharing their thoughts. Seating arrangements could help with this, as could the choice and ordering of exercises (e.g. start with something that involves smaller group discussions and/or writing ideas on cards or Post-It Notes.

3. Structure

The structure will depend on many factors including the session purpose and length, and the number of participants. Aim for a balance so that you have time to cover the key ground but still allow enough flexibility and slack for discussions and contributions that are relevant but perhaps not expected.

People are more likely to speak up once they’ve already spoken, but for some people the first time can be difficult. So see if you can start with a simple round-the-table introduction or ice-breaker that’s appropriate for your group. For example:

  • everyone introduces themselves if they don’t already know everyone in the room
  • ask a short question about the project like ‘What was your role in the project?’ or ‘What is your favourite memory of the project?’
  • or ask something unrelated to the project (as long as it’s something everyone can answer).

A ‘car park’ is a good idea to set up. It captures any points participants raise that aren’t directly relevant to the discussions at that point in time and therefore risk being a tangent. You want to ensure that the discussion remains focussed, but you don’t want to lose the point raised or the motivation of the person who raised it. You can therefore suggest it’s added to a sheet called ‘car park’ where you ‘park’ ideas that you can come back to later on. Then make sure you do return to those ideas later on…

4. Tone

Set the tone of the session. Make it clear that it’s not about apportioning blame or pointing the finger at anyone. It’s not about dwelling on mistakes and issues, but rather identifying how the team can learn constructively from the project and bring this forward in the future. It’s also a useful environment for sharing perspectives, findings and ideas as not everyone experiences a project in the same way.

5. Logistics

Space and timing are important. If a project has been particularly difficult or political, a new and neutral venue can be useful. 2-3 hours is a good amount of time (with a comfort break) and if you need more time, a lunchbreak which allows people to get some fresh air and move around a bit can help provide a boost if attention and energy is flagging. Drinks and snacks are always appreciated!

How seating is arranged will depend on numbers, room size and the structure of the session. Sitting in a U-shape, boardroom style or smaller cabaret-style tables tends to be more conducive to working co-operatively compared to theatre or classroom style.

6. Timing

If a session is done immediately after an event or straight after a big project deadline, it can be harder for participants to think about the bigger picture as they are still so entrenched in the nitty gritty of the project. But if you leave it too long (several months), you may find that some participants can’t recall the detail and some may already have moved on (both mentally and in their roles) – so find a balance between the two.

7. Ground rules

Agree a set of ground rules before you start, for example:

  • Respect each other’s points of view
  • One person to speak at a time
  • There are no right or wrong answers, you are looking for people’s perspectives
  • Having a ‘car park’.

8. Format and exercise ideas

The format of the session needs to be tailored to the session’s purpose. I tend to base sessions around the Institute of Cultural Affairs’ Focussed Conversation Method and Consensus Workshop Method.

For staff reflection workshops I’ve drilled it down into 3 ‘whats’:

  • Identifying WHAT happened in a project
  • Agreeing the implications of this – the SO WHAT
  • Then coming up with answers to WHAT NEXT? How can we apply these findings and implications in future?

For example, participants identify strengths and challenges of a project, then come up with what this means – what are the implications of these points and how can participants build on the strengths and mitigate against the challenges happening again in the future? I often start participants in smaller groups and end with a discussion as a whole group.

Space permitting, I love using a ‘Sticky Wall’ because:

  • it captures everyone’s ideas visibly on the wall so you can get the whole picture as the discussions play out
  • you can move cards around and group them once they are up
  • participants can put up cards with their ideas themselves, which gets them moving and people find fun!
A ‘Sticky Wall’ in action

9. Facilitation

An impartial and experienced facilitator will develop the workshop itself, act as an unbiased guide, pace the session appropriately and navigate any issues. Participants will also know they don’t have any biases or agenda. Get in touch if you’re interested in finding out more or would like to discuss a staff reflection project.

However if your budget doesn’t stretch to professional facilitation then make sure you agree on the structure, ground rules and timings. Appoint someone to act as a facilitator, perhaps someone from another department or partner organisation who doesn’t have such a vested interest in the session.

I’d love to hear other tips for similar sessions – what works for you?

If you’re interested in finding out more about the facilitation tools I mentioned, I highly recommend the Institute of Cultural Affairs’ Group Facilitation Methods course as a starter. They have rates for charities and freelancers and you can buy a Sticky Wall from them too.

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