Three key elements of running a good workshop

George Proudfoot
By George Proudfoot under Insights 03 December 2015

A good workshop is a valuable tool. When provided at the right time, they can deliver the crucial ideas that bring a project to the next level. However, a bad workshop can be terrible for attendees, expensive for the hosts - and a waste of time for all.

We run a lot of workshops at TAB, and we attend a fair few as well - which got me thinking, recently, about the essential ingredients for success. Here's a quick share of my thoughts. Essentially, they cover three core areas:

Some of these seem obvious, but they are also easily forgotten - so if nothing else, I hope the below serves as an aide memoir for your next workshop. Let's take a look at the first component - good planning.

1. Define a clear purpose prior to the workshop.

A good workshop is about clear targeted outcomes over the open exploration of ideas.

This is the most common mistake with workshops. Or, if a purpose has been defined, it often gets lost amidst peripheral concerns.

If you can’t pin down a primary task beforehand, then you should probably rethink having a workshop.

A useful tip is to use a sticky note or a poster to put your purpose up on the wall. That way, if things meander off on a tangent, you can always point - literally - back to it.

The same goes for sections or exercises. Discussion can be great, but it’s generally best when focused on a particular question.

2. Plan your workshop.

Make sure your plan is flexible over making your plan fixed.

It may seem obvious, but sometimes people just turn up with some Post-its and some vague ideas about what to do. Or, even worse, they ask everyone there: ‘What shall we do then?’ Don’t be that guy.

However, you must be prepared to deviate from your plan. Give people more time. Give people less time. Skip an exercise. Totally rethink an exercise if it doesn’t seem right anymore.

No plan is ever going to be able to absolutely predict how or where a workshop is going to go. How could it? Instead, go with the flow - as long as it adheres to the primary task you set before.

Next, it's important to think about fostering good participation.

 3. Split attendees into groups of three for each task.

When it comes to getting work done, always have groups of three over groups of other sizes.

Three is the magic number for collaborating quickly on a task and uncovering ideas - and tensions - between people. Pairs usually work slower. Groups of four (or more) are just as slow, and can lead to views or ideas being lost.

Slowest of all is lone individual work. While it has its place for certain things, it’s generally best avoided for workshop exercises. Individual voting can, however, be useful for determining preferred routes and outcomes after the workshop is complete.

 4. Spend a little time creating worksheets to use in any exercises you have planned.

Give yourself some time to create customer made materials over using blank index cards and paper.

Worksheets help make completed work feel significant, and they serve as a handy reminder of instructions. For similar reasons, important instructions are often best printed out and stuck on the wall, rather than shown fleetingly on screen.

This way they can be easily referenced. Plus, nicely branded materials make you look more prepared as a facilitator, and remind newcomers of where you’re from if you haven’t met before.

And finally, it's important to understand what good outputs from a workshop look like. 

5. Gently clash, collide and confront differing views.

The main aim for a workshop is to get things done and it is better to clash, collide and confront over diplomatic deferrals. 

Consider when you will be able to get all of your attendees gathered and focused on this task again. Probably not for a while, if at all.

Wherever possible, gently clash, collide and confront any differing views, ideas or tensions in the room. The best outputs and solutions usually emerge this way. Your workshop should also have the added benefit of weakening any negative feelings between groups or teams within an organisation.

For example, if you have managed to form groups of three, try to ensure that different business areas are represented in each group. That way, they can reach a shared consensus in their exercise outputs.

6. Push people to limit or prioritise their outputs.

Perfection is a goal worth striving for, but in a limited timeframe enforced clarity and prioritisation wins over every single detail. 

Ask your participants: ‘What is the single most important thing?’ You can utilise your tools and materials to help you do this more subtly.

Providing big, chunky Sharpie pens will limit your attendees ability to write long essay style responses, and encourage them to boil down their thoughts to palatable bites. Try giving them limited worksheet space, like three boxes to fill in with one sentence, rather than a big blank sheet of paper.

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