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Best Practices for Virtual Design Thinking Workshops in Professional Services

Due to COVID-19, professional services are currently facing unprecedented challenges. In view of this unique situation, it would be irresponsible for them to base their actions solely on their given knowledge and experience. If anything, it has become crucial to now develop a completely new understanding of clients’ acute needs and how to provide value accordingly. Design Thinking – arguably the world’s best-known innovation approach – offers a powerful framework for dealing with the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous conditions at hand.

With a strong focus on user needs, Design Thinking guides problem solvers through defining any given situation from a user perspective and coming up with new and meaningful products, services, solutions, systems and environments of value to their clients. In order to determine which of the ideas collectively generated are worth pursuing, the allegedly “most promising” are quickly tested with users in the form of low-resolution prototypes. In the words of Alberto Savoia (former Director of Engineering a Google Inc), this is extremely important in order to...

“Make sure you are building ‘the right it’ before you build it right.”

Such an experimental approach creates a new knowledge base of case-specific relevance for further business and design decisions to be based upon.

We understand that professionals, such as lawyers, consultants or accountants, typically find it particularly challenging to immerse themselves in lengthy workshops. After all, you need to be available for your clients, responsive and always driving for outputs to demonstrate your worth and keep those billable hours rolling. But in the face of the current Corona-virus pandemic, you also need to reconsider how that can be done – for both your clients and your own firms. Never before has the value contribution of PSFs been so rigorously challenged. As a lawyer, consultant or accountant you therefore thoroughly need to reconsider your business and value propositions by answering questions such as:

  • How to support my clients right now?

  • Which solutions are needed right now and in the emerging recession?

  • How to sell, enable and manage virtual engagement models?

  • Which solutions might be virtually or even digitally delivered?

  • What would a digital business model look like for a solution?

  • How to run my firm in a completely virtual or even digital world (like the one we have to live in right now)?

In order to help professional services respond to these questions, we would not only like to point towards Design Thinking as a well-suited approach for challenges with high degrees of uncertainty – but directly provide you with practical tips for running such workshops using virtual formats and collaboration tools in your firm. After all, given the current COVID-19 situation there are practically no alternatives to virtual workshops. And a dawning global recession may keep it that way for the foreseeable future. So, how can you keep minds at work and “in the zone” in a virtual Design Thinking workshop? How to keep those distractions low and bridge the lack of non-verbal communication? How to be creative and focused with everyone isolated in front of their devices.

Well, the good news: It’s really not that hard - and with a few simple tips, you can ensure the success of this experience. Here are our top 15 tips:

Before the workshop:

  1. Re-think your agenda assumptions and experiences to adjust for enough flexibility, maximum attention spans in front of a screen, helping everyone get other work done or take care of family and those in need. For example, run collaborative sessions late in the morning until noon, when everybody‘s mind is well rested, still energized and the first mails have been taken care of. You want to consider a longer break to give people space for their client work and assign someone to post-process, document or refine outputs. Consider reconvening in the later afternoon for another review and shaping the next item on the agenda or the setup for the next day. Be considerate of emerging client situations, which are hard to foresee for individual participants; especially in the current situation and for lawyers, consultants and professionals.

  2. Re-think participant lists - meaning how and when various participants, specific experts or clients can or should join the workshop – and for which parts. Virtual collaborations make it easier to include someone for only a few minutes or very specific topics or parts of the agenda. That makes it easier for professionals to minimize downtime for clients. You can also significantly improve the quality of the output by validating and testing as much as possible along the way.

  3. Prepare your tools: In any case you will probably need some video conferencing platform. Tools like Microsoft Teams or Slack offer even more collaborative functionalities. You may also want to add digital whiteboarding capabilities to have some interactive replacement for flip charts, analog whiteboards, paper, post-its and pens. MURAL and Miro, but also Microsoft Whiteboard are excellent examples. Whatever you choose, make sure all participants know which tools are going to be used and have time to familiarize themselves with these tools. Provide easy-to-consume handbooks, individual prep or dry run sessions or video tutorials. These are typically available for any tool by the providers themselves or on YouTube, etc. Make sure to align the usage of these tools with your IT department - especially when including client data, insights or participants.

  4. Send email invites to collaboration tools with clear instructions instead of just sending a link. This way you can avoid running into a workshop situation, in which you are collaborating with let’s say ten different individuals on a digital whiteboard while five of them are logged in with names such as “anonymous racoon” or similar pseudonyms. In order to smoothly facilitate a workshop virtually, it is good to keep track of who is doing what and address individual participants accordingly, e.g., when asking them to specify an idea that they wrote on a post-it during a brainstorming session.

  5. Communicate the specific expectations and the modes of collaborating virtually, e.g. using video conferencing, so that people come prepared (and dressed). Encourage participants to max out the video quality by pointing at apps with which participants can use with their smartphone cameras, and recommend camera stands (e.g. tripod, fixed selfie-stick, etc.). Provide a single point of contact, such as a Slack or WhatsApp chat, where your participants can reach you, in case they have problems logging in or questions that arise during a breakout session. This way, you avoid being contacted on a channel that you might not take notice of in time.

During the workshop:

  1. Break the ice and share something personal at the beginning of the workshop. Many of you will be working directly from home, i.e. in an intimate environment that you normally would not invite anybody into. Now, the organizer has invited themself plus a bunch of your colleagues. Make sure and try to share some fun facts about your surroundings, where you are sitting, share some of your (so-far) funniest moments, look in the camera and never forget the small talk. Building a relationship can be equally tough in person but use the advantage of getting a glimpse into your participants’ private environment. Many professionals have a hard time getting out of their client work mentally. Personal stories may provide this simple distraction and mental distancing, which is so important for the workshop to be effective.

  2. Timebox your activities thoroughly to ensure you leverage the advantages of virtual collaboration. Bio-breaks are evenly important when meeting online, as well as dedicated break-out sessions so that participants can work offline and in peace while accommodating their day-to-day workload. Make sure your deliverables are clearly described and do not get lost or pushed out of sight. Facilitation with the mission in mind is crucial here.

  3. Embed guidelines and videos to explain frameworks and methodologies. Finally, these come in handy and are often available for the most common frameworks and methods. Give yourself a break and move these onto your canvas to enable your colleagues to self-service and revisit as needed. Remember that many professionals have very deep subject matter expertise, but may have never experienced such a workshop nor the associated methods, frameworks and approaches.

  4. Regularly check-in with your participants. Much more important than in in-person meetings is to get explicit feedback. You are fairly blindsided when it comes to body language so you need to gather feedback proactively and frequently. That might sound odd at first, but an easy trick is to connect your feedback to timeboxes. Is everybody ok with the tasks, with the team’s speed, with the tools? Are there concerns regarding the deliverables, the timeboxes?

  5. Explore digital means of prototyping to make your ideas are more tangible and ready to test and validate. It might seem awfully complicated to collaboratively build something tangible in a remote workshop setting. Yet, there are many different ways of collectively realizing a prototype online: Your team can easily sketch a storyboard in MURAL or Miro by putting together pictures from the icon collection available. Such digital storyboards not only have the advantage that you need no sketching skills whatsoever, but they even allow you to move and exchange elements in no time. Use this to take your prototype to the next level: Take screenshots after each little change and merge the shots into a stop motion video. If you want to test your idea of an application or website, collaboratively build a click-dummy in Google Slides or Powerpoint. You could also put together a video explaining your idea, by having each participant record one scene with their phone and adding a voiceover. These are just some of many things to try and we encourage you to get creative on this.

  6. Rethink your business model assumptions and let go of the billable hour, timesheet entries and utilization ideas - at least during your workshop. These indicators and their underlying concepts have long been driving the business and operating models for lawyers, consultants, accountants and other professionals. But it is not by accident that new competitors are entering the market from a different angle. Designing the solutions for current and emerging client issues, virtual or digital delivery models and new ways of working should not rely on an outdated playbook. It may be helpful to include some insights on alternative business models and or even completely different industries to break away from this traditional thinking.

After the workshop:

  1. Ask for constructive feedback: Working together virtually to the extent we are experiencing today does take some practice and getting used to. In order to quickly adapt and improve your virtual Design Thinking workshops to the specific needs of different groups of participants, it is important to get their first-hand feedback while they still have the experience fresh in mind. When facilitating a series of workshops, it makes sense to even schedule a feedback session early on in the process so that you have the chance to make necessary changes in flight. To keep feedback super constructive, ask participants to complete the following two sentences: “I like… “ and “I wish…”

  2. Switch off your cam & mic right after the session - unless you want to end up as one of those funny stories that people will remember long after Covid-19 has passed… .

  3. Analyse & reflect how your workshop went based on your own experience as well as the feedback you gathered from your participants. Try to synthesize concrete learnings and develop ideas of how to optimize and simplify the parts of the workshop where things might have gotten complicated. Also, dare to share your thoughts and any questions you might not immediately find an answer to with colleagues and friends. You’ll be surprised how many of them are dealing with similar challenges at the moment and how much there is to learn from each other.

  4. Follow-up with key players for the next steps and refine responsibilities: We find that taking more digital ideas and designs into reality may be a particular challenge for firms, which have been running on billable hours or days. The equivalent of a “product manager” or “product owner” is often not or only vaguely defined - and leaders in many professional services firms still struggle with the concept, the increasing market pressure on their business and operating models and the associated changing economics of their firms. Defining and aligning the required space or playing field for new solutions to take shape and become successful is an important building block for the final success of your workshop outcomes.

We hope that these tips will help to guide your own workshops. Feel free to reach out to us for any questions you might have - or to tell us about your own experiences and additions to the lists above! We are looking forward to hearing or reading your comments!

Oh, and here are some further interesting resources on the subject:

  • Miro, one of the virtual whiteboarding tools mentioned in our article, offers a particularly nice library of helpful templates for your workshops.

  • MURAL created “The Definite Guide to Facilitating Remote Workshops” which you can download as an e-book (or order in print) for a variety of “insights, tools and case studies from digital-first companies and expert facilitators”.

  • Websites like or automatically generate very engaging questions that you can ask workshop participants to answer in a quick check-in session at the beginning of a workshop or after a break.

  • This Protobot (developed by Molly Wilson) randomly generates (very fun) product and service ideas that you can have participants prototype as a short 5-minute exercise before diving into building their own prototype. This way everyone can get used to the idea of prototyping and make themselves familiar with the prototyping tools at hand.

  • The digital version of SAP Scenes allows you to build digital storyboards, e.g. in Powerpoint or collaborative whiteboard solutions, simply by copying and pasting characters, objects and backgrounds into engaging scenes that explain your idea.

This article was originally published on April 21, 2020 on Sebastian Hartmann's LinkedIn Page.


About the Authors

Lina Krawietz (L) is Co-Founder & Managing Partner at "This is Legal Design" and Co-Editor-in-Chief at Rethinking Law. “This is Legal Design” is an innovation consultancy and think tank, specialized in co-creating the future of the legal industry with law firms, legal departments and public administration. REthinking Law is a Handelsblatt journal on legal innovation topics accompanying the digital transformation that the traditional legal profession is currently facing.

Stephan Kaufmann (M) is Advisor to Service Firms / Global Technology Strategy at KPMG. Focussed on the particular challenges of business and professional services (e.g. technology services, legal advice, consulting, asset management, facility management, design, marketing and public relations etc.) he provides holistic turnaround, transformation and strategy advice.

Sebastian Hartmann (R) is the Global Head of Technology Strategy at KPMG. He is also advising other leading professional service firms, e.g. law and legal services firms, creative agencies and technical design, engineering and assurance companies as well as other players in adjacent and typically knowledge-driven fields.

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