Preparing for your First Index Card Planning Workshop

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Organising your first Index Card Planning workshop might seem like a daunting prospect, but it doesn’t have to be.

The beauty of planning using Index Cards is that, after the first two or three events, everyone knows what they need to do and they tend to just get on with it. However, you have to run your first two or three sessions. Here’s what you need to do to make your first workshop a successful one.

Agree the format and attendees for the workshop with your Sponsor

Success starts with a Sponsor who is committed to the method, so you need to get them involved in the workshop early on. For most facilitated workshops it’s important to design the workshop around the particular objectives of the Sponsor. Since the objective of the Index Card Planning workshop is the same each time – to bring the team together so that they understand the goal, jointly plan the project and start working together as a team – it’s ok to skip this design phase. What you do need to do though is confirm who the attendees will be and agree on the Sponsor’s role before and during the workshop.

If this is your Sponsor’s first Index Card Planning workshop, take them through the proposed agenda, explain the outputs from each stage and relate it to the project documentation that will follow.

Having gone through the format of the workshop you need to agree their role in it. They have three main jobs:

  • To motivate people to attend the workshop, so that you get all of the key people in the room
  • To attend part of the workshop themselves so that they can explain why the project is important and to make it clear that the initiative has their backing, and
  • To get out of the room once they have set the scene, so that the remaining attendees can get on which figuring out a solution to the problem.

So, who should attend? Your workshop is best suited to no more than a dozen people, so you have to choose wisely. You’re best off having the team leaders, department heads and other subject matter experts. Together they are responsible the fate of dozens of projects and for managing resources across all of them. It is they who really determine the fate of projects, since their agreement is needed to assign people to projects, recruit additional resources when they need to and keep resources on key projects. Often they will have subject matter expertise on the project area so their insights are particularly valuable. For example, a head of the BA function may have experience of several different methodologies, know which work best in particular situations and be able to select the right approach to suit a particular set of challenges. Once they’ve attended the workshop they will have a clear idea of the resource commitments needed from their area and be better placed to brief the person who they appoint to the role.

People like this are often busy on multiple projects, so you need to make their investment in the workshop pay off. I’ve often had participants decline in the belief that their time would be “better spent at their desks reading the project documentation”. I’ve successfully argued that the purpose of the meeting was to produce the documentation that they were expecting to read, and that if they wanted to get the most out of a few hours they would be better off in the room making decisions about the project rather than trying to challenge decisions that they had no input to. It works pretty much every time.

Go through the list of likely attendees with your Sponsor and decide who you will need at the workshop. This won’t always be easy as you are having to limit yourself to a dozen people, but choose the people or roles that have most to gain from being in the room. Let your Sponsor know that attendance should be made mandatory and get their backing to postpone the workshop if people decline the invitation. It will be the Sponsor’s job to ensure good attendance.

Once you’ve decided on the attendees and got your Sponsor’s commitment to the workshop, identify suitable dates, based around the Sponsor’s diary. Get at least three potential dates from them and get them to block them out in their diary. You’ll come back to them with a confirmed date once you’ve had a chance to check the availability of the other attendees.

Book your venue

Once you have three potential dates for your workshop you can go ahead and book your venue. The main considerations here are:

On-site or off-site?

Whether you have this on-site or not, your venue needs to fulfil the following requirements:

  • Be located no more than a 20-minute journey from your offices. If you have people who are not all co-located then this should be near a main railway station and easy to get to from major roads.
  • Has a meeting room large enough to cater for a dozen people, set out in board room format, with enough room to walk around. You don’t want people crammed into a small room with scarcely enough space to breathe, let alone to swing a cat.
  • Ideally, has natural lighting and air conditioning, or better yet, windows that you can open to let fresh air in.
  • Has a ceiling mounted projector.       Again, this is an ideal, but having a projector fixed to the ceiling is good for two reasons.       First, it means not having to move it around during the workshop. Second you can leave it on to display instructions etc
  • Can provide refreshments before and during the workshop. I have been to several venues that were ideal, except they couldn’t provide flexible catering. It’s amazing how much difference the lack of a cup of coffee makes. I would also stay away from “make it yourself” catering for drinks. You will always find someone wanting to wander off for another cup.       Instead, have it delivered early and let people know there will be timed breaks.

Provisionally book each potential date with your venue. You may need to provisionally book several venues.

Arrange your workshop

Now you have your Sponsor’s backing and a number of dates, book the workshop with the attendees. You’ll need about half a day for the workshop. Find the date that best suits the majority of the attendees and book that date. You could try to book several dates but in my experience it just causes confusion. Instead pick one date and stick with it. If your target participant can’t make the meeting then get them to send a delegate in their place instead.

Send out the following with your invitation:

  • Directions to the venue
  • A brief description of the aim of the project. This should be limited to the name of the project and the programme that this project is a part of. One sentence that describes the business benefits, or if this is an enabling project, the capability that this is delivering
  • A summary of the Index Card Planning approach, for those who may not have attended before. This should include the expected outcomes from the workshop.
  • The proposed agenda for the workshop, but without timings.

You could spend the next day or so working through who can attend and chasing up those who have not replied. Save yourself the trouble and just send a list of those who haven’t yet committed to your Sponsor, so that they can persuade people to attend.

Once you have a majority of attendees on board, confirm your booking with the venue and cancel any other provisional bookings.

Send out reminders to the attendees

It’s worth sending out a reminder two days before the workshop so that you get people prepared and also avoid any no-shows on the day. Remind people that attendance at the event by them or someone from their team is mandatory. If they are unable to attend themselves they need to confirm the name of their stand-in.

If you find that several key people cannot attend then you’re better off cancelling the workshop and holding it some other time. No-one will thank you for doing so but you will not do anyone any favours if you press on with a workshop at which key people are absent.

Once you’ve confirmed that everyone who needs to be there will be, create name badges for the delegates. You could ask them to write their own name badges, but not everyone does and when they do you can guarantee that several will write their names in so small that they are hard to read. Experience has shown me that you are better off writing these out yourself. I usually create them the day before, so that I know that I have them packed and ready.

Confirm the domestic arrangements on arrival

Aim to arrive one hour before the planned start of the workshop. On arrival at the venue check whether there is a fire drill planned for the day so that you can advise the attendees. Also confirm the location of fire exits relative to your meeting room. Confirm the timing for the delivery of any refreshments; you should have tea and coffee ready when the delegates arrive, plus more refreshments for about 90 minutes after the start of the workshop.

Prepare the room

Check that the room is laid out as you need it, in board room format, and that you have sufficient chairs for all attendees. Check and adjust the room temperature and make sure that you know how to adjust the heating if you need to.

Check that you have enough flip chart paper and pens. You’ll have your own pens anyway but you’ll need to have sufficient flip chart paper for the exercises and for capturing actions.

Plug in your laptop and put your presentation on so that you have a welcome message for your delegates when they arrive. That way you’ll confirm that the projector (and the remote if it is ceiling mounted) is in good working order.

Next, prepare the RAIDD sheets and put the sheets up on the walls. In addition to Risks, Issues, Assumptions, Dependencies and Decisions I also like to put another sheet up for Constraints. Just having a sheet on the wall helps to get people thinking. I also prepare one additional flip chart sheet that explains how to create the plan, step by step. Again, I normally do these the day before so that I can put them up on the walls straight away when I arrive.

Create a signing in sheet for the delegates using a sheet of flip chart paper. Turn it on its side and create three columns, as follows:

  • YOUR NAME
  • YOUR ROLE
  • WHAT YOU BRING TO THIS PROJECT, PERSONALLY

Put this near the door so that people can sign it as they arrive.

Lay out the Name Badges on the meeting table but nearest the door so that attendees can pick these up as they arrive.

Take a few minutes to relax

Now that you’ve got the walls decorated, have your projector on and working, and have coffee standing by, you’re ready for the workshop itself. Before the workshop participants arrive take a few minutes to clear your mind so that you are relaxed and ready.

When your delegates arrive they will know that you’re prepared and that will help to get them in the right frame of mind.