Workshopping Innovation: How We Taught Design Thinking

Written by Genevieve Leclerc on August 9, 2018

It is one thing to commit to a pathway towards innovation. Bringing people along the road with you, however, can be an innovation project in itself. The process of teaching a new framework, or inspiring your team to embrace a different methodology, is its own opportunity to create and discover.

Recently I had the chance to design and facilitate a two-day workshop on design thinking and innovation for international association executives during the Montreal Association Networking Forum, a networking event organized annually by Tourisme Montreal. This year, Tourisme Montreal wanted to provide attendees with an opportunity to learn how to use effective innovation methodologies, such as the increasingly popular ‘Design Thinking’ method, to map out the future for their associations and design pathways to achieve it. With only two days to play with, this called for me to develop a shortened #designsprint: a tall, but ultimately immensely rewarding, order.

The workshop was conducted in an interactive format, in which attendees were required to participate actively both in a larger group setting and in smaller discussion groups led by a pair of co-facilitators.

Below is a run through of the workshop, and the responses it inspired in our association participants. The workshop was a chance both for the participants to get to grips with the framework, and for me to explore the potential of this kind of interactive opportunity as a learning process. If you are interested in using different forms of problem solving in your operations, I hope you can make use of the findings of this exercise.


On the first day, the preliminary discussion featured an introduction to the workshop format, and a brief tutorial on Design Thinking methodology and the five phases included in this design process.

Each of the five phases were then explored over the next two days, during which the participants were taught theory alongside practical exercises. They were provided custom-made activity cards for each of the activities, along with references for further online resources and tools.

Design Thinking Phase 1: Empathize / Discover

In this early phase, participants were tasked with discovering the issues to be addressed during the rest of the workshop. It was unsettling at first not to be given set topics, but participants soon warmed up to the concept that this was really about uncovering what their most painful issues were, and providing a safe but structured space to tackle these with their peers. Following a period of sharing in a peer-to-peer interview setting, we asked them to recount in front of the larger group the stories that were captured during the interviews. Through a facilitated brainstorming session, the group determined key insights in order to uncover the major needs and pain points of our participants.

Design Thinking Phase 2: Define

The group was then asked to create clusters from the issues uncovered during Phase 1 by collating the notes with related thoughts. We created short issue statements for each cluster, and presented them to the group for review and short discussion, making sure everyone was aligned on what the general issues were. Then we asked our association executives to vote for the top 3 issues they wished to retain for the rest of the workshop.

The top three issues were:

1) Rethinking association business models to prepare for the future

2) Engaging with current members to increase retention

3) Enabling associations to develop and implement innovation with current resources

Design Thinking Phase 3: Ideate

The ideation phase of the design process is where attendees truly put on their designer hats, and framed questions that opened up the thought process on the specific issues developed in the earlier phases. By asking more questions about a specific topic, we broaden and deepen the discussion, instead of jumping blindly into solution-mode (as most strategic planning processes do). The reframing of inputs into “How might we… (HMW)” questions, inviting more insights and exploration, is a critical phase of design thinking. Participants were prompted to think of each issue in broader terms, and generated dozens of new insights and ideas on the three issue statements.

We then separated the participants into 3 small groups, and each group took one cluster with all the HMW questions that were generated. They were presented with a set of tools that would allow them to discuss and sort through the ideas for possible solutions. This would lead them to select one single HMW question, and the chosen question became the Design challenge that would serve for defining opportunities for action in Phase 4.


We started the 2nd day by engaging the teams in a fun prototyping exercise, the Marshmallow Challenge. This kicked off the activities by getting creative juices flowing, and it set the tone for the subsequent exercises.

Design Thinking Phase 4: Prototyping

The participants resumed working in their small teams to prototype a possible solution for their selected Design Challenge. Each team worked under the guidance of an entrepreneur co-facilitator, and were given popular strategy-building canvases to work with, such as the Impact Gaps Canvas and the Methodkit Project Canvas. They came out of this phase having identified a vision for their potential solution, described it, specified who it was meant for, what resources were needed, how it would be rolled out, etc. They had basically constructed, on paper, a quick-and-dirty business model for a new service for their peers, responding to a challenge they had themselves identified in an earlier phase.

Design Thinking Phase 5: Testing

Finally, the three teams were prepped by their facilitator to pitch their idea to the larger group in a pitching session. Each team chose one of 3 presentation formats and delivered an on-point short presentation to test their idea and collect feedback from their peers. The teams rivalled for creativity and we saw our association executives turn into formidable presenters!

This experiment offered the association executive participants actionable knowledge and tools that they could share with their colleagues and use for building strategies in their own organizations. The partners who participated relished the chance to collaborate with associations in tackling real-life challenges faced by our industry stakeholders. I would highly recommend creating a learning pathway like this to inspire a human-centered design process amongst your own team - and to have fun doing it!