Session design tool kit

The Session design tool kit covers the basic principles of planning a session, and provides tools and techniques for scene-setting and warming up; diagnostics, problem-solving, planning and managing change.

The basic principles of planning a session are:

  • Know the purpose of each activity and make sure it contributes to the outcomes you want from the session.
  • Start with some brief activities which will make sure people are ready to participate fully. These might include ‘ice breakers’ and ‘focussing’ activities', which allow people to get into thinking mode. You could take the opportunity to set some ground rules.
  • Allow enough time for thinking and for everyone to have their say; don’t try to cram a big important discussion (e.g. “What does the new strategic plan mean for us?”) into too tight a timescale.
  • Vary the activities: mix small group work with plenary, thinking with talking, talking with more active problem-solving, detail with big-picture etc.
  • Give people time to recuperate: there should be one refreshment break (10 minutes minimum) during a morning, one during an afternoon, and at least half an hour for lunch. Participants should not normally be asked to do any work during these breaks, and of course refreshments should be provided.
  • Allow plenty of time at the end to bring people’s thoughts together, decide on next steps and plan follow-up

Varying the activities:

  • If you’ve spent some time in open discussion and intense listening, follow it with an activity in which people can be more active, perhaps writing ideas down on post-its and arranging them on flipcharts, or mapping out stakeholders.
  • If you’ve been asking people to focus on detail (e.g. contributing to a calendar of all the team’s activities, or deciding on the wording of a webpage), give them an opportunity to think about the bigger picture.
  • In between the starting and finishing whole-group activities, ask people to work in pairs, threes, and small groups. Usually, it’s a good idea to ask people to switch around so they’re not always working with the same people. The exception to this is where there’s a complex task that needs to be broken down between the group and then taken through several different stages of development.
  • Mix the hard messages with celebration: in awaydays, team members sometimes have to face up to difficult or unsettling change and what it will mean for them. Think about the impact of this and allow opportunities for people to reflect on their strengths and achievements, individually and at team level. This will strengthen their resilience and preparedness for change.

Tools and techniques

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Scene-setting exercises: These exercises are to do with the psychological ‘contract’ between the leader/facilitator and the group. They are designed to make sure that everyone is ready to participate fully, that the business of the day runs smoothly and is not disrupted, and that people’s expectations are known and (as far as possible) met.


Ice breaker exercises: These exercises are designed to ‘warm up’ the group, help them relax and get them to know each other a little better.

  • Postcards
  • You may not know this…[each person writes a fact about themself – facilitator reads them out and group has to guess who it is]
  • Fact or fiction? [two truths and one untruth about me]
  • Would I lie to you? [definitions]
  • Funny noises
  • Would you rather..?