Workshops That Work
Effective workshops follow the four Ps formula: right purpose, right people, right process and right preparation. These are simple principles that are routinely missed, at great cost to companies and organisations. Put the four Ps in place and you will have a productive workshop.
Be clear about the goal of the workshop. In practice, this means you need someone who owns the problem, challenge or opportunity. That person is the customer of the workshop, and one goal of the workshop is to make sure that person leaves as a satisfied customer. Ideally, they will feel that the issue they bring to the table is both important and urgent.
Once you have a client with a clear need, you will find that your workshop achieves a real sense of purpose and focus. As the workshop unfolds, your customer (who is not always the boss) can keep the workshop on track by staying focused on resolving that issue.
It is possible to have more than one issue for your workshop. But the golden rule is that each issue has to have one owner or client. It is for the client to decide if the workshop has achieved the goal or not. Everyone else is there to help the customer. Avoid the fudge of collective responsibility: you need a clear decision-making process to achieve progress.
In most workshops there is also a secondary goal: team building. You will build the team in two ways.
- First, you need an effective process, described below. A hallmark of an effective process is that everyone contributes. This is both obvious and difficult. If there is a large hierarchy span, junior staff may be reluctant to speak out; if it the workshop is global, some cultures do not speak out; if you have some extroverts in the room, others may not be able to speak out.
- Second, allow social time. Tea, coffee, lunch and other breaks are not a nuisance: they are vital. They are the moments when the team can socialise. All the research shows that trust is vital to good communication and teamwork, and trust is not just professional: it is also personal. Once people know and respect each other, they are better able to work together. These breaks are also great moments when you can take stock of whether you need to change course in the workshop itself.
There are plenty of meetings where people turn up because they always turn up: it is a nice way of getting some free coffee and cookies. Or people turn up because they want exposure to top management. Rest assured, if you sit at the table and contribute nothing, then you will have had exposure to top management in a career-limiting way: top management will decide you have nothing to offer. So how do you know who the right people are?
Each person who attends the workshop should be able to answer three questions:
- What did I contribute?
- What did I learn?
- What will I do differently?
You should be confident that each attendee can contribute, they can learn and that they may do something differently at the end of the workshop. If not, do not invite them. Workshops are not a spectator’s sport.
For more challenging meetings, you may well want a facilitator. The best facilitators do most of their work before the meeting: they help set it up the right way with the right people by asking you the right questions. Within the meeting, the facilitator may set some ground rules and should then step back. A facilitator with a flipchart who wants to be the star of the show is a menace. But when the facilitator steps in, it should be decisive: to help the group get back on track or to challenge the group as appropriate.
You need an agenda with a rough idea of timings. Do not become a slave to the agenda; the goal is to get a good outcome. The agenda is mainly about working out the logic flow of the workshop, and deciding what preparation is needed: do you need handouts, do you need a small presentation on the background, do you need an expert to come and speak?
Once the workshop starts, you need a few ground rules which everyone can agree and follow. I find there are three simple rules that help:
Headlines before the detail, just like newspapers. Force people to state their idea concisely in one sentence. Normally, that is all you need. If people need to hear the detail behind the headline, you can ask for it. Stop people making speeches and rambling on.
Paraphrase. When you hear an interesting or provocative idea, paraphrase back to the person who said it. This shows that you have listened and understood. If you have misunderstood, you quickly find out and avoid going off track. It is also a good way of shutting people up: once they know that they have been heard, they can stop repeating themselves.
Benefits before concerns. How many times do you hear “yes, but…” in reply to an idea? Remember, everything before the “but” is meadow mayonnaise. “Yes but” and similar tactics are a good way of killing ideas. But often the biggest and best ideas have real downsides because they are so big. If you let the “yes but” brigade attack with their concerns, all you will hear is the downside. And once one idea has been shot down, no one else will want to volunteer other ideas. You do better to explore the benefits of an idea first: if the idea has many benefits, then it may well be worth working through all the concerns.
Logistics matter, from ensuring the right people are invited (and confirm attendance) to making sure you have the right room set up the right way. Always book the room so you can go in one hour ahead of time: re-arrange furniture, check the technology, check the catering, decorate the walls, do what it takes to set the place up for success.
Besides logistics, expectations are vital. Everyone needs to arrive at the workshop knowing that they have an important role to play in addressing an important issue. They may also have some personal preparation to do. Time spent setting expectations well ahead of the workshop is rarely wasted.