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Using Priming Activities to Improve Workshop Outcomes

Anyone working in IT will have participated in numerous workshop sessions with clients, typically in the early requirements gathering phase of a project. With the best of intentions, we assemble all the key stakeholders and subject matter experts in a room and attempt to transfer years of accumulated knowledge about the business to the project team in just a few days (or sometimes even hours).

Typically in these sessions it takes a while for the business experts to get comfortable with the process, and for the team to ‘gel’ and become really productive. But in some workshops, I have found the team firing right from the start, and wondered what made the difference.

I suspect that it’s another example of the psychological ‘priming’ effect, studied by psychologists such as John Bargh and popularized by behavioral economists such as Dan Ariely. In numerous experiments, researchers have shown how performing seemingly trivial ‘priming’ exercises, such as word completion games, leads to significant changes in performance during the task.

One simple priming exercise I’ve used in the past aims to get the workshop participants thinking positively and creatively about providing more value to their customers:

Split the group into two, and ask one group to quickly brainstorm words describing what they do well for their customers, ask the other to document what their customers are frustrated about. The groups come together after five minutes and run through the results. Importantly, leave the two lists on display in the room during the workshop (on whiteboards or butcher’s paper) as a reminder to the team and to re-prime them during the sessions.

Try it, and let me know what works for you.