Activity impact analysis: a pretty decent way of prioritising ideas in a workshop

I was leading a strategy workshop last week about increasing the effectiveness and business benefits of our subject groups (communities of practice).

The participants were full of ideas and pretty soon the wall was covered in post-it notes. Overwhelming.

To add to the flood of creativity, one person Gillian couldn’t come at the last minute and had sent in about 30 excellent ideas in advance. Plus I’d asked some open questions in two separate group meetings before the workshop day, got lots of good comment and wanted to incorporate their ideas too.

How can you make sense of such a lot of ideas? It really isn’t possible to do everything that was suggested.

The challenge was to get the group to do some work together to categorise and prioritise. With nine people in the room I wanted to get everyone’s brains working on different parts of the problem simultaneously. I did a few things slightly differently to how I’ve done this in the past, and was very pleased with the way it worked. One participant, Amanda, said “Great productive day. I really enjoyed it and loved the process you took us through.”

So this blog post is partly to remind me of how I facilitated the workshop this time, to reflect on why it worked, and to pass on the ideas to others who might be running similar workshops in future (I might talk about some of the ideas that came up another day). Here’s the workshop process in essence:

  • Stimulate discussion and catch all the ideas on post-its
  • Collect them on flipchart sheets in 4 special starter categories
  • Everyone does Reach-Depth-Length activity impact analysis simultaneously
  • Pair up to assess the effort axis

Stimulate discussion and catch all the ideas on post-its

Just before the workshop I went through Gillian’s notes and the notes from the other group meetings, and made each distinct idea into a short phrase in Word, set to two columns, 20pt text. This made it easy to print, cut up the ideas, and glue to some post-it notes just before the workshop began. Some of the people who arrived early helped with the scissors and glue.

Once the meeting began, we had a set of slides which summarised various aspects of the “as is” and “to be” vision for subject groups. After each couple of slides I gave space, and sometimes an open question, to get the group to think what could be done about that thing. When conversation dried up, I moved on to the next stimulus. This seemed to give the workshop pace and direction without being too forced. I sense that the participants remembered much more of what was presented because they were thinking what to do about it, rather than just listening passively.

When an idea came up in discussion, I pushed the person talking to summarise it on a post it. Sometimes several ideas tumbled out all at once, and I jotted them down myself rather than breaking that flow. Sometimes I had to be quite pushy to get the conversation to move on from one attractive idea to the next. I think I was forgiven for that (most of the time).

Collect them on flipchart sheets in 4 special starter categories

Working through the ideas shared before the workshop helped me to crystallise what the “starter categories” should be, and they evolved a bit during the workshop. Our categories were

  • Core: specific activities that the core team would be able to do
  • Subject specialists and L&D: things we hoped some of our key subject group participants would do
  • Tech: improvements to the technical solution
  • Problems and opportunities: valid issues where it wasn’t clear what the activity would be to resolve it. This evolved to include risks and other items where it wasn’t clear what the activity was.

Beforehand I put flipcharts on the walls to collect post-its in these categories. The ready-made post-its went up in advance, but I didn’t draw particular attention to them. As each new idea came out, I encouraged the person with the idea to place it on the correct category chart. Here are some of them. The categories weren’t as evenly filled as I had expected, but that didn’t matter.

Everyone does Reach-Depth-Length activity impact analysis simultaneously

We only had time to do the next stage of impact analysis with the “core” section of specific “doable” activities. I asked Tom to distribute some of the post-it notes to each person in the room, and each person to calculate an Activity Impact score to each post-it in the following way. It really forced them to think and do some maths!

For each activity suggestion on a Post-it, I asked them to score it from 1-3 for Reach, Depth and Length, and then multiply that together to get an Activity Impact score. This idea came from Richard Millington at Feverbee, though I can’t find the exact place on his site. [Actually they didn’t get it first time, I needed to explain the method more clearly. So I’ve improved the slide above and the wording.]

  • Reach is simply asking “How many will be affected“. “A few” scores 1, “Quite a lot” scores 2, and “A big lot” scores 3
  • Depth asks “How significantly will they be affected” [New wording, I didn’t explain this quite right in the workshop]. “Superficially” scores 1, “Fairly” scores 2, “Profoundly” scores 3
  • Length asks “How long will it last“. “A moment” scores 1, “A while” scores 2, “A decent long time” scores 3.

Having created instant chaos, I realised that this was an unfamiliar way of doing things and talked everybody through doing the first one simultaneously, thinking through one question at a time till we all got the hang of it. There was initially a bit of groaning about having to multiply until they realised the sums weren’t too hard.

They were all sat at the table thinking and writing sums on the post-its, and I was standing up collecting the post-its and putting them on the whiteboard-wall in horizontal rows according to their Activity Impact score. This is what I thought it might look like (scroll down to get a flavour for what it actually came out like):

So this process banded the post-its into ten levels of impact, and it happened much more quickly than I expected – about 10 mins. I was pleased that each idea went through someone’s brain another time and I felt that was much better than “high medium low” banding, not because it was precise, but because:

  • It was more logical thought and less instant opinion and feeling
  • It was then easier to deal with a row at a time because they were of reasonable length.

At this point I drew swim-lanes on the board to make the horizontal rows really clear, and in preparation for the next bit of apparent chaos.

Pair up to assess the effort axis

Priority is not simply “What has the most impact” because then lots of impossibly difficult things would be highest priority. Priority has to take into account effort and cost as well as the impact.

So the next step in the workshop was to get the participants to sort each row in terms of effort: low, medium, high and very high.

I picked people to lead the each of the first 5 rows, and asked them to choose another person to work with. Their task was to

  • Remove all the post-its from their row, (remembering which row it was!)
  • Put them back on the row, banded as low, medium, high and very high

Here’s how I showed the idea on screen

And here’s what it looked like in reality. It was crowded round the whiteboard, but people worked quickly and I think it was successful. I realised I needed to encourage them to decide whether a postit in a particular column should go to the left or right of any that were already in that column. This again happened much quicker than I had expected (only about 10 mins).

Once we had finished sorting most of the rows (the bottom few didn’t matter too much), I wanted to explain the point of the exercise.

I waved my hands in the air to show the rough shape of the line I’ve drawn on the photo here. Items above the curve have a high impact to effort ratio, and that’s where we should focus our efforts.

So then I talked through each row of post-its from the top, adjusting some of the positions. I think we got through 5 of the rows before we hit the end of the workshop. A tip from James was not just to photograph the board in sections, but to take a short video panning across it. So that’s what I did (even though you can’t see it here).

Going further

So that’s my reflection on facilitating just one workshop.

If you’ve seen or done a similar approach, and have additional tips, I’d like to hear them too.


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