Workshops won’t save you

With the corporate push for collaboration and co-creation, more and more business challenges are met with a response of “Let’s have a workshop!” There is always hope in this statement, a hope that the workshop will just ‘fix’ the challenge at hand.

Here’s the thing…



Let’s look some things that need to be true for workshops to be an effective step in the longer story arc of problem solving:

1. Define the role of the workshop

Too many workshops are trying to resolve too many things. We want a workshop to get us through everything and quickly get us to the end. It doesn’t end well when we do that. We set unrealistic expectations for ourselves and our participants, forcing assumptions and leaps. Are you trying to determine where you are and what you should be doing? A strategy workshop. Are you trying to determine how to best tackle a well-defined and understood opportunity? An idea generation workshop. Are you trying to determine if your concepts are on the right track? An evaluative and iterative workshop. Are you trying to determine how to tackle a complex, well-defined problem? A planning and road-mapping workshop. Know where you are in your story arc, and make the workshop a powerful point-in-time session to get you to the next step.

2. Plan the ‘before’ and the ‘after’

A workshop is never, ever in isolation. Something is always happening beforehand to trigger its existence, and there should always be a plan for what you’re going to do after the workshop. All too frequently teams are caught up in the planning of the workshop itself, and any positive outcome that emerges from the workshop can easily wither and die due to no clear pathway to respond, review, or act on the outcomes. We all have been to workshops where we walk out on a high, full of inspiration and excitement for what emerged. It only takes a day or two to slip back into the every day. Without a plan for how people can prepare before and a plan for what will happen moving forward, workshops can be written off as a nice day away from the office, and not an effective business tool.

3. Be critical of the activities you choose

There are no end to the number of great activities you might take on in a workshop. Not all activities are created equal. Sometimes the activities you used on the last workshop will not work in the next one. Knowing your audience and the outcomes you’re trying to achieve, you may need to go outside of your typical activities and take on something new. Avoid the cookie-cutter temptation and ensure you’re designing the experience you need, not only the experience you’re comfortable with.

4. Have the right people in the room

Once you are clear on the role of the workshop and the greater context it sits in, you have to make sure the right people are around for the job at hand. If the key players in the space you’re discussing aren’t there, think through to the next steps to see if that will be a bigger problem down the track. If they are the right people, make sure they are prepped enough coming into the room to be in the right mindset once they are there.

A workshop designed well, delivered well, received well, and delivering real value is hard work. A well-developed workshop will see you spending more time outside of the workshop designing it than the time you actually spend delivering it. The next time you hear, “Let’s have a workshop!”, only say yes if you can ensure the four things above will be true. And if it’s true, defining the workshop’s rightful role in your broader efforts will reap your company rewards.



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