You’re facilitating a workshop and the attendees bring up an important thought, idea or topic that you had not originally incorporated into your planning. Since the topic broached is relevant to the work you want to include it, but are unsure how to keep the workshop feeling organized. You can try the following tips to keep the workshop flowing.


Tip 1: Build in time and space for unplanned topics

This workshop may be a rare opportunity for participants to meet and talk to others. They’ll want to chat about their world with others who understand the problems and nuances of their work. Build in time and space for participants to speak about their work tools, blockers, challenges, etc. It’s also a golden opportunity for project teams to listen in on those conversations that can be insightful to us in moving the work forward and deepening our understanding of the problem space.

Tip 2: Bring a parking lot capture off topic thoughts

Hold a space (and a time) for revisiting for thoughts, questions or concerns coming up throughout the workshop that may be best incorporated in a future meeting. This can be done using a posterboard in person or a virtual whiteboard if the workshop is being facilitated online. Having a parking lot allows participants to surface things that may be better suited for a longer discussion later on during the workshop or during a future session.


Tip 3: Convert thoughts to action items as needed

If an unexpected action item arises based on chatter among participants or is stationed in the parking lot be sure to include it along with the other action items. Who should handle it when? Is it feasible now? Even if it isn’t, address rather than ignore.

Tip 4: Value the unplanned conversation

Value the unplanned conversation as you would a planned activity in the case that it’s contributing to our knowledge about the topic. Time the participants spend chatting amongst themselves about the problem is not wasted time. Allowing participants to freely use the space to discuss whatever is at the top of their mind in relation to the project. By listening closely and taking notes, the team will learn more about the problem space, top of mind priorities, major blockers, and other tidbits that might surface in a casual conversation with another SME (Subject Matter Expert). Take notes of what you’re hearing!

Tip 5: Schedule shared/group activities toward the beginning

Schedule the activities that require the entire group to participate toward the beginning of the workshop. Schedule activities that are easily completed asynchronously toward the end of the workshop. This will allow you some flexibility in accommodating unplanned but fruitful topics of discussion while having participants complete solo activities asynchronously or in a future session.


Tip 6: Schedule time to meet again as needed

Ensure you schedule any follow up sessions or establish that you’ll reach out to do so in the case that you do not finish the entire workshop. If the unfinished activity can be completed asynchronously, now would be a great time to remind participants to finish the activity on their own and provide a deadline.

Tip 7: Debrief with your team

Meet with your team after the workshop to debrief and talk about any insights that surfaced and how they might inform the direction of your work. Bring the notes you took as you listened to the SMEs speak amongst themselves, your action items and the parking lot. Discuss how you’ll incorporate any relevant findings.


Using these 7 tips will help you incorporate unplanned but important topics of discussion while maintaining a structured and organized workshop. Acknowledging thoughts and ideas from participants but using your own discretion in regards to how and when to dive deeper into those conversations keeps the participants feeling heard. It gives you as the facilitator the ability to maintain the structural/organizational integrity of the workshop.