Workshops are quickly becoming the new meeting; often pointless and without direction. However, when used with planning and consideration you can avoid workshop fatigue and uncover the innovation you seek. Knowing how and when to have a workshop is a critical skill. We’ve all sat through at least one meeting that was a relatively fruitless exercise where most likely the core reason for meeting could have been simply an email or phone call.
The desire to co-design, collaborate and work together is like never before and is both admirable and encouraged. If you’re like us, we are very pleased to no longer be bound to the shackles of our desks! So don’t get us wrong, we both admit that we have a penchant for small sticky pieces of paper and drawing on glossy walls.
As we shift further into the age of the knowledge worker we are witnessing an increase in the need to shift and synthesise knowledge. A well designed workshop can be a powerful way to traverse through complex problems and problem spaces, whether you are in the discovery, ideation, or evaluative phase of your process - and also a fantastic way of introducing or testing a new process or method with a team.
More recently we've noticed workshops are becoming a great excuse to use collaboration as an escape into a catered nirvana of post-its and sharpies where not a lot of value is created. Let's not forget these catered trips into collaboration can be an expensive exercise, asking ten people, including multiple c-suite executives to a three hour workshop can cost upwards of $10,000 in man hours alone!
For workshops to be truly fruitful not only do you need clear design and intent, but the correct attendees and a diversity of opinion. It is through this rich diversity of experience and thinking that we can deliver the most impact; where the cost of holding a workshop pales in comparison to the problems re-framed, new ideas uncovered and relationships forged across stakeholders.
To workshop or not to workshop
There are a few ways to determine whether a workshop is necessary and there is a logical way to traverse the needs of stakeholders and how you’d approach these in a workshop. Most gatherings tend to fall into one of the following categories:
A strategic conversation  - a high level discussion to decide upon a direction or articulate intent, or;
A brainstorming session - deciding on or considering options for the chosen direction or intent, or;
A workshop - exploring and unpacking one particular aspect of our chosen problem space.
Like any recipe, the key to its success is the ingredients within and how they’re combined. Baking a cake is a futile exercise without the core elements, and so too we can assume a workshop is equally futile without its basics being addressed. So how do you gather the right ingredients to make your workshop really matter?
Gather with intent - Be clear why you are inviting people to a workshop and it’s aim. Use tools such as the ‘Focal Question’ within your workshop to further collaboratively define the problem you wish to address, and ensure that all participants know what they’re there to achieve.
Before gathering your stakeholders into a room you should ensure that you both know why you’re meeting and what you want to achieve. This could be in the form of some simple bullet points shared before, and doesn’t need to be an in depth agenda of items and activities.
Be prepared - Workshops often bring a number of people together across an issue, with differing perspectives or one part of a large puzzle of the information. Consider a small pre-reading pack to allow people to get across the foundational information you are spring boarding from when you start the workshop, and make the most of the precious time you have together. Remember, they’re expensive and people are time poor.
Facilitated - Just like a good meeting has a chair, a good workshop should identify a facilitator. Whilst we always recommended to have a facilitator that can be relatively neutral in the situation, this is not always possible. The role of the facilitator is not to solve the problem for the participants but should be able to guide the process, evoke people to question things they hadn’t considered and help others uncover new ways of bringing their knowledge together without overpowering or dominating the situation.
Be designed - You are in fact designing an event, so plan it that way. Take time to consider the flow of the day, the pacing and the tools or activities used. Selecting the right tools or activities is crucial to being able to explore the issues at hand and having some knowledge of alternatives is always useful if something just isn’t working.
Be playful - Let’s be honest, the best part of a workshop is you breaking away from your desk to use your brain in new ways. So don’t spoil the atmosphere or cramp people’s thoughts by making them sit down, a large portion of your workshop should be standing, interactive and encourage active discussions. Try to have fun in a work kind of way - introduce interesting exercises or moment of silliness that get people interacting in different ways to help those creative juices flow.
Synthesised for output - A workshop doesn’t end when you leave the room, and this is often where people go wrong. Ensure you are equipped to record the results of your workshop throughout the day and be prepared to go away and further synthesise the information uncovered or develop ideas for testing.
Photos are a great way to catch those pesky post-it notes stuck to walls and iPhone video apps such as Replay are great for capturing the energy and tone of the day for quick distribution after the event to maintain the enthusiasm. Outputs should be physical, so ensure you have planned time to review all the photos, butchers paper that contain the hard work and synthesise and code this information into a form of review with artefacts or actionable outputs.
There is nothing worse than spending eight hours at a workshop and never hearing anything further about it or finding those post-its were buried in a draw never to be seen again.
So before we kill off workshops with love like the latest chart-topper firmly on repeat take a moment to consider ‘Do we need a workshop?’ Remember that workshops are a journey, some are journeys of discovery and others are very intentionally journeys to unite differing perspectives around new ideas. By collectively sharing these moments you can find new ways to look at problems and develop solutions that did not exist until you all choose to walk into that room and share your knowledge.
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Moments of Impact