design thinking, engagement, inspiring, Leadership

What I Learned in Transforming a Design Thinking Workshop to Virtual


Flight cancelled. Coronavirus spreading.

I love facilitating Design Thinking workshops but found myself grounded and a team left disappointed. Happy to hear the precautions IBM had taken but struggling with how I could still help this team remotely.

Working in a transformational role, I catch myself when the word “can’t” surfaces in my mind.  To transform, you have to believe you can get there before you figure out how. Even though I knew this, I found myself thinking, “I can’t possibly facilitate this remotely? Discussion with twelve people over a hot topic that requires ‘employee buy in’ and developing unknown solutions over the phone?” I was tempted to delay but my fellow IBM leaders challenged me to take it on. “You’ll figure this out.”

Encouraged, I started where I start with any challenge and decided to use Design Thinking for preparing the virtual workshop.The virtual workshop had to solve the team’s problem, using Design Thinking tools, but just as important was the team’s experience during the workshop. If the team wasn’t engaged, then embracing and sustaining change would be difficult.

The situation was calling out for using the persona, a Design Thinking tool that represents the person you are designing or creating for. In this case, it’s a way to represent what the team is thinking and feeling. It’s a way to meet them where they are. I quickly sketched out a persona, representing the team’s thoughts. Everything from the huge stress of the Coronavirus weighing on the world down today to a virtual workshop being boring. Let’s face it. We’ve all dialed into meetings and thought, “ this is going to be boring!” And we can forget things like the compulsory need to multitask or think about other things we should be doing. With this person in mind, I planned the workshop not only to provide a framework to solve the team’s problem but also to engage the participants in unique virtual workshop experience.

Here are the top insights I learned from delivering the workshop virtually:

  • Change starts with you. Not you the team member. But you the host of the workshop. Just like in an in-person workshop, the team gathers energy and enthusiasm from its facilitator, that mindset is even more important when virtual where it’s easy to be distracted. In planning the workshop, I decided to think of myself as a radio show host and carefully planned messaging. Some of the messaging was outlined to address my persona’s thoughts. Some defined how to clearly step thru activities. Not that it was all about entertaining but let’s face it, jokes, fluctuation in voice delivery, stories, interactive activities, breakout sessions and a quick paced agenda all help to keep the team engaged.
  • Tools makes a difference. At IBM, we often use MURAL (a virtual whiteboard) for preparation in Design Thinking sessions. This tool allowed the team to participate virtually in the same way they would in an actual room. In fact, as part of the messaging, I often referred to the “in-person” workshop so that team members could relate to the instructions. For example, “there are two diagrams, similar to two flip charts on opposite ends of the room. The break out teams should focus on their area to complete the activity.” At a glance, you can see this tool can replicate what you might do in a room with a team and a pile of stickies.



  • Facilitation is key but what does that mean? The tools are one piece but critical is the use of an outside coach to help guide the team. And it starts with the simplest of things: team rules. What does the team agree they will accept and not accept? What do they expect? The team rules not only align the team on expectations but act as a mechanism to keep the participants accountable. In my workshop, the use of rules was instrumental in keeping everyone on task and accountable. It’s not to say that rules were always followed but they were useful. In particular, when someone tried to back track the team because they missed an earlier part, I used the rule of actively participating to move the team forward.



Facilitation is also key in crafting the collaboration of viewpoints from the team. I found myself taking notes on comments from the participants. Why? Because I could thread the journey to bring them together. It also allowed me to call on them at any point time which also set precedence for staying active in the session. But more importantly, it helped ensure everyone’s voice was heard and that the team collaborated toward the end goal.

  • Reflection is where we end every workshop. It’s so important to learn from what you can do better and continue what worked. MURAL , of course, made it easy for the team to generate stickies on what worked and what could have been better. This was another way for me to check in with the team on how the virtual process is growing. While there was a lot of positive, there were still some stickies that the team could be more open to change and less reactive to others’ opinions. This signals to me that I have more work to do as a facilitator to improve the virtual session. One of the solutions I quickly implemented after these comments was to let the team slack me during the session. In this way, the team member who might not feel comfortable saying something on the phone with a large group could bring me their concern so I could address during the session.


What’s the common quote about innovation?  “Necessity is the mother of innovation.” So true. I would have never done the preparation work or tackled this session virtually had it not been for COVID-19. And that’s not to say that anything replaces human interaction and in person team collaboration. I know that, but preparing for this session virtually challenged me to be creative in accomplishing the same end goal virtually and allowed me to examine the facilitation skills I would use in an in-person workshop in a new light.

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