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A focused work session can help your project reach the finish line

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

April 20, 2022

When faced with a monster project, figuring out how to tackle it in the fastest way is likely at the top of your priority list. So, what are your options? Allow us to introduce you to a technique known as the facilitated work session.

A work session is a concentrated meeting that brings key team members together to hash out a solution. If used correctly, it can help you gain clarity and focus — and take a giant leap toward the project finish line.

What is a facilitated work session?

Although there are many variations, the most common meeting format involves people coming together to discuss a project and create a list of actionable tasks to follow up on. A facilitated work session goes a little differently.

In a work session, key people with specialized skills gather together to accomplish a task with a specific outcome. So, rather than a “talk first, take action later” format, a facilitated work session helps your team produce deliverables during the meeting.

A facilitator (more about this role in a bit) keeps the meeting on track and ensures everyone is clear about the objectives for the session. Having someone to oversee the meeting’s progress is helpful when you’re dealing with a complex project with lots of moving parts.

Here are the key features of a facilitated work session:

  • Highly structured: there’s a strict agenda, and everyone knows their role.
  • Action-oriented: the goal is to get things done, not just talk about them.
  • Facilitated: a designated facilitator helps to keep the meeting on track.
  • Lean: attendees should have a stake in the project and skill sets to help the team produce deliverables.
  • Collaborative: everyone is working together to achieve a common goal, with each participant taking on the role of expert. The facilitator isn’t the leader; they’re neutral and solely focused on managing the meeting.
  • Discovery-oriented: you don’t have all the answers when you start. The goal is to work together to find the appropriate solution to your task.
  • Focused on accountability: because everyone works collaboratively and has a role to play, there’s a shared responsibility to make measurable progress.

What does the facilitator do?

The facilitator’s role is to keep the team on track and ensure everyone has the chance to contribute. They also help identify any areas where there might be disagreements or confusion.

What are the benefits of a facilitated work session?

Here are a few reasons you might want to use a facilitated work session.

  • You need to make decisions, and you need them fast. A facilitated work session can help you move through a decision-making process quickly while allowing everyone a chance to have their say.
  • You need everyone on the same page. If you have a team working on a project, a highly focused meeting can clarify the objectives, deliverables, and timeline.
  • You need a solution to a problem. By gathering people with different skills and perspectives, you’re more likely to come up with innovative solutions.
  • You need a team consensus. If there are a lot of stakeholders involved, it can be challenging to get everyone on board with a decision. A facilitated session can help build consensus by allowing everyone to share opinions and gain insight into which options are feasible (and why).
  • You need to manage scope creep. Scope creep is a common byproduct of having a lot of people involved. Facilitation encourages the team to make meaningful decisions and progress on the spot, motivating everyone to refine the project objectives.
  • You need to accelerate the project lifecycle. By bringing together key stakeholders at the beginning of a project, you can ensure everyone agrees on the project goals and timeline, avoiding surprises later on.
  • You need to improve communication. Everyone has a chance to voice their opinion, which can help strengthen communication among team members.
  • You need to improve team dynamics. Collaborating on a solution allows your team members to get to know each other better and build trust.
  • You need early feedback. Getting stakeholders involved in the early stages of product development increases the likelihood that you’ll create a final product that meets the customer’s needs.

When should I use a facilitated work session?

Should every project and task utilize the facilitated work session format? No. So, how do you know when it’ll be beneficial or not? If one or more of the scenarios below apply to you, a work session could be just what you need.

  • There are too many stakeholders and a lack of clarity.
  • You want to keep a complex project focused and on track.
  • The project has a tight deadline with little or no wriggle room.
  • The project involves cross-departmental teams or a wide variety of skill sets.
  • You want to accomplish something new, and working collaboratively makes sense.
  • The project requires experts who aren’t part of your team and/or aren’t available full-time.
  • Your organization is reviving a project that previously failed.
  • Scope creep is already happening, and you need to slow it down.
  • The project will result in changes that need consensus before they’re approved.
  • Your team is geographically dispersed, and face time is limited.

Timing is everything: when to run your work session

At what point in the product lifecycle should you run a work session? You have a few options, each with its benefits.

1. The Project Charter Work Session

A facilitated work session is often most effective at project kickoff. During this meeting, attendees will discuss the project’s objectives and work together to create a project charter. The meeting usually lasts for one or two days, and at the end of it, the team should have a clear understanding of what they need to do and who is responsible for each task.

2. The Sprint Planning Work Session

In the pre-sprint meeting, you’ll review the backlog, choose which items to work on, and develop the sprint goal.

3. The Sprint Review Work Session

In this meeting, you’ll review what the team accomplished during the sprint, identify any areas for improvement, and demo the product to stakeholders.

Top tip: this kind of retrospective work session also works for non-sprint projects.

4. The Risk Assessment Work Session

At the beginning of a project, it’s important to identify and assess risks. In this work session, you’ll run a risk assessment, formally work out their impact on the project, and develop mitigation plans. By the meeting’s end, you should have a risk assessment and a comprehensive risk breakdown structure.

5. The Work-In-Progress Work Session

As a project is underway, there will be times when the team needs to regroup and assess progress. In this work session, you’ll review completed work, identify any areas of concern, and make plans for moving forward.

How to run a facilitated work session in 8 steps

Follow these steps, and you’ll be on the right track.

1. Choose the right people

As we mentioned, it’s important to choose attendees based on their skill set and stake in the project. You also want a good mix of people to get different perspectives on the project.

2. Make sure everyone is prepared

Before the meeting, send out an agenda and any relevant background materials. This will get everyone on the same page and ensure the meeting runs smoothly.

3. Be flexible

Flexibility is key when running a facilitated meeting. Things you didn’t plan for will inevitably come up. The important thing is to be able to roll with the punches and keep the meeting moving forward.

4. Choose the right format

There are a variety of formats you can use for facilitated work sessions. It’s essential to choose one that meets the needs of your team and project.

5. Make sure your tech is up to the job

For remote teams, having the right technology is essential for a productive meeting. Make sure you have a video conferencing solution that can handle the number of participants you expect and that everyone on the team knows how to use it.

6. Define the objective

Outline the purpose of the meeting and how you intend to tackle the problem. What do you hope to accomplish by the end of the session? Be as specific as possible.

7. Create an agenda

Making an agenda will help the facilitator monitor the meeting’s progress and keep things on track. Be sure to allow some time at the beginning and end of the meeting for attendees to chat informally.

8. Find a facilitator

It’s important to find someone who is neutral and has experience running facilitated work sessions. Their job is to keep the meeting moving forward and ensure everyone has a chance to contribute.

The meeting begins with an introduction from the facilitator, who sets the stage for what’s to come. Next, the attendees introduce themselves and their roles in the project. Then, the facilitator leads the group through a series of exercises or activities designed to help the group achieve its objectives. Team activities may include brainstorming, problem-solving, and/or decision-making.

9. Follow up after the meeting:

At the end of the meeting, the facilitator summarizes the discussion and outlines the next steps.

  • Summarize the session (including accomplishments if you’re in the final session)
  • Outline the next steps and overnight assignments
  • Discuss what will happen in the next session(s)

After the meeting, send out minutes or a recap of the team’s discussion. Above all, you want everyone to be clear about the next steps and establish accountability for follow-through.

Work sessions: 5 tips for success

  1. Remember to clarify responses and ask open-ended questions to elicit full responses.
  2. Keep the conversation moving through active listening and thoughtful responses.
  3. Document your results as you go to help guide you after the work session.
  4. Use virtual whiteboards with integrated video chat so remote team members can get involved.
  5. Follow up on tasks in your project management software. Not only does it help your team stay on track with targets and milestones, but you can also use it to set tasks, organize workflows, and find the shortest route to the project finish line.



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