VMOST in Practice – Ten Top Tips

When everything you see needs to be improved, where do you start? Well, you start with a VMOST.

This is a fantastic tool for getting your stakeholders to agree on a common direction, because done properly, it enables everybody’s thoughts – at whatever level they happen to be – to be captured and contextualised. Nobody gets overlooked or left behind – everyone’s contribution is equally valid.

I’ve had a variety of different experiences with VMOST workshops, so here are ten top tips drawn from those experiences aimed at those considering using the tool for the first time:


1) The invite

If you want your workshop to deliver the desired outcome, you need to make sure the attendees are primed to help you. The workshop invite is your opportunity to do this.

Let them know what you’re going to do (but not how you’ll do it – more about that later), what you want from them, and why they need to be there. Sell it to them as an efficient use of their time to get an outcome that will move things forward. Everyone has a common interest in the initiative delivering, even if, at this stage, they’re not even sure what the initiative is.

And the likelihood is, you’ll probably need some help with the facilitation. A good rule of thumb is to have one facilitator for every 6 attendees. A productive workshop takes a lot of energy to achieve – so get a colleague or two to help you.

Your biggest enemy here is the meeting. This isn’t a meeting, it’s a workshop – the clue is in the word – you want them to do the work. You’re facilitating their work into a usable format for the initiative. They’re the boss(es), figuratively as well as, for some of them at least, literally!


2) Room setup

This can be a critical factor in the success of your VMOST workshop. My organisation’s best meeting room has a huge conference table built into in its centre. So when the workshop delegates turn up, the room is set up for a meeting. People sit down, flip open their laptops, get comfortable, and start tending to their inboxes.

But if that happens, it’s too easy for the workshop facilitator to lapse into managing the canvass – writing and placing every Post-it. Great from a legibility point of view, because it means the Post-its can be placed neatly on the canvass in perfectly perpendicular rows and columns, and the words they display remain meaningful and legible.

But crucially, it can encourage the view that the output belongs to the facilitator, not to the delegates in the room.

A far better method is to get the delegates stood up around the canvass – remove the chairs if need be! And to get them to write the Post-its themselves, and not to think too much about what they’re writing. The thinking should be directed towards the sentiment the Post-it conveys, and where it fits into the overall direction.

Another tip here is to get them to write in capital letters to ensure what they’ve captured is legible! Illegible Post-its can really upset your rhythm!


3) You need time

A VMOST workshop for a reasonably-sized initiative will take at least 2 hours to run – probably 3. But for you as the workshop facilitator, it’s a day’s work at least.

Book out the meeting room for an hour before the start. You’ll need that time to set up.

Because of the likely room set-up in point 2, you need to establish this as a workshop, not a meeting. So put brown paper on the walls, and make sure there are plenty of Post-Its and pens available for people to use. A well-chosen selection of biscuits also gives this a sense of an ‘event’, and signals your commitment to making it work!

If you show that you’ve put the effort into preparing the workshop, it’ll be easier to get the delegates into the right frame of mind to get the outcome you need.


4) Explaining the tool

It seems logical to introduce the workshop by explaining what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it. However, this is not advisable – because it put too much focus on the tool itself – at the expense of the outcome you’re looking to achieve by using the tool.

Imagine you called an emergency plumber out to your house to fix your boiler. On arrival at your doorstep, the plumber proceeded to explain to you that he was going to use his new ‘extra-wide jaw wrench’ to get at the water-valve assembly. You’d probably be thinking “I don’t really understand – or care – just make it warm please!”.

The likelihood is, that’s also what your delegates are thinking.

Use of a tool like VMOST works best when it’s done ‘by stealth’. It is, at its essence, a method for taking the unstructured thoughts of a room full of people with different perspectives, and building a framework to enable each of those perspectives to be reconciled – in a way that everyone can agree on. Which is quite a feat!

So start by asking people to capture their thoughts on the Post-Its, and get them to physically stick them up somewhere – anywhere – on the canvass.


5) Starting from the top

Starting with the vision is a mistake I’ve made a couple of times. Although this is how you’d read the finished article, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it’s the best place to start.

If you do start here, the vision is likely to be “pretty much what we do today – only more so”, and the missions, objectives, strategies and tactics then become the means to describe how the organisation is going to stay the same. A wasted opportunity.

Most people are not visionaries – and it’s difficult to encourage radical thought in the workplace.

One colleague of mine is actually courageous enough to start his workshops with something that has nothing to do with the topic of the workshop – but designed specifically to stretch people’s minds, so that they apply their new cognitive dimensions to the task at hand. See what you think here:

https://vimeo.com/50227054 (Junaid Zia Chughtai, 2012)

But whether you choose to do this or not, don’t start with the vision – start by capturing the attendees’ ‘unqualified’ thoughts to get the ball rolling.

You can find homes for the thoughts in the next stage of the workshop.


6) Do it in stages

So you should by now have a cloud of Post-it notes on the canvass.

The next stage is to start to split out the different levels. Some of the words might relate to how something might look – so sound more like desired outcomes, which would naturally sit at the Vision level.

Other words might relate to actions – which might end up being Missions, Strategies or Tactics, depending on what they represent when the Post-it author has explained what they meant by it.

Anything with numbers in it is likely to be either an objective, or something you can build an objective from.


7) Sharpen it 

Take the Vision section. You’ll probably have a number of different Post-It notes, each containing single words or phrases that describe a place or a result. Gather these together at the top of the canvass, and challenge the room to try and articulate as many of these words as possible into a statement.

This is your Vision statement, and it describes what the outcome of the initiative looks like.

Next, look at the Post-its with numbers, or quantitative phases on them. These are your Objectives.

What you’re left with is a cloud of potential tasks – the things that actually need doing. And the likelihood is, there will be quite a few of them left once the vision and objectives have been extracted.

So get the room to group the Post-its together into similar themes.In each theme, pick out the Post-It that best summarises the theme. If there isn’t one – challenge the room to think of a name for the theme, and capture it on a new Post-it. These are your Missions.

Continue to follow this method to group together the Post-Its within each theme. When you have a logical grouping, choose the Post-it that best describes it – or if there isn’t one, capture an additional Post-it to summarise each new grouping. These are your Strategies, and they contain groups of Tactics.

8) Get someone from the group to summarise where you’ve got to so far

So you’ve created a VMOST – and in doing so, you’ve done what diplomats the world over have been trying to do for centuries! You’ve reconciled everyone’s viewpoints – at least, on what you need to do, why, and how it fits together.

Now you need to make sure they own it – and a good place to start is to ask one of the delegates to walk it through.

The next workshop will be to size and scope which tasks you’ll deliver when, but for now, you’ve reached a natural breakpoint. You’ve reached a point where everyone’s agreed, so if you leave it here, you’ve set the right conditions to get the best out of your next workshop.

9) Take photos

Another natural tendency to try and avoid is to immediately rush back to your desk to document the output in a neat Visio diagram and send it out.

Whilst this undoubtedly helps to cement the output and crystallise the activity, you risk claiming it by putting your creative stamp on it.

So don’t forget to to take photos of what the room has achieved. And if you can get away with it, take a couple of ‘action’ photos of the delegates too, in order to remind them of the forum in which they agreed the direction of the initiative.

You want the delegates to own their output, so include it in a form they’ll immediately recognise.

10) Don’t get disheartened

The truth of the matter is, some workshops go well, others don’t. But if you didn’t feel a workshop went as well as you’d hoped, that doesn’t make it a failure. On the contrary, there’s always something to be gained by undertaking this process, even if you need a follow-up.

But remember this – there’s no such thing as the perfect workshop – there are too many unpredictable variables. But that doesn’t matter – the value is in making a concerted attempt to define the initiative – to start a productive conversation. And that’s the hardest part!