How to make a workshop really work

We’ve recently been through a really busy period at work – it’s a time when it’s all hands to the pump to get the job done; requiring lots of planning, flexibility, team commitment and thinking on your feet.  It’s very easy after such a busy period to sit back and sigh with relief.  But whilst it’s fresh in everyone’s minds, it’s really important to take time to reflect on what went well (do more of it) and what didn’t go so well (make changes.)  So we recently ran a workshop to do just that.

When everyone is working at 100% or more during a busy period, it’s stressful.  Communication might break down, disagreements might arise and collaboration can get forgotten.  This will invariably lead to conflict and pointing the finger of blame at the area that faced the issues, rather than working out how the issues occurred.  Pulling all those involved into a workshop to review successes and failures is the best way to park the emotion and objectively review what happened.  Following on from the most effective workshop I’ve ever attended as part of our “lessons learned” session, I wanted to share some observations.

  • Set the ground rules: Any workshop is going to have lots of personalities, perspectives and personal agendas.  This is good.  You want your workshop to be a hive of discussion.  But you DON’T want it to be a boxing ring, with accusations being fired off and attendees becoming stressed or irate.  Set some ground rules to ensure that people respect the goal of the workshop.  Focus on the cause, not the outcome; no negativity; make your feedback into an action; avoid too much detail are a few examples of ground rules.
  • Prepare in advance: No-one wants to turn up to a meeting if they don’t know what it’s about (and you may find key players not even turning up at all!)  There’s no need to walk through a presentation during the workshop when people could have digested the content before they attended.  Set clear expectations, share pre-reading material a few days beforehand, run a survey to gather feedback and define an agenda to get the most out of the group’s time.  Think what you want to get out of the workshop to make it effective.
  • Appoint a “Captain Clipboard”: Every decent party or wedding has someone who has tirelessly worked to plan every detail.  With clipboard in hand, they think of every detail, then tick them off both before and during the event.  They’ll often be a stickler for time-keeping, and make sure that everything runs like clockwork.  I call this person Captain Clipboard.  Every workshop needs a Captain Clipboard, not just to facilitate the workshop, keep us on topic and on time, and capture all those actions, but to free us up to think, share, exchange information and ideas that will lead to new solutions and better processes.  Our Captain Clipboard was exceptional – despite the large and diverse group, she steered through discussion to develop a successful plan of actions.
  • Use “round-robins”: With a mixture of people in the room, and most having a lot to say, we need to make sure that everyone has a chance to shares.  For those who are more introvert, it’s not so easy to speak up when you have bossy people like me in the room.  By using the “round-robin” approach, or going round the table to allow every participant to speak, you show respect for the different personality types in the room, and ensure that all valuable feedback is heard.  You can keep going round the table until all feedback is shared, then move on to the next topic or discussion point.
  • Create a “car park”: There will be some items raised that are really important, but may be either too meaty to discuss within the workshop, need others involved to discuss, or may simply be interesting but off-topic.  By having a “car park” to capture all this useful info, each item can still be followed up at an appropriate place and time, without distracting the workshop from it’s primary purpose.  It allows shows the person raising the item that their feedback is valued and meaningful and will be acted upon.
  • Set a fixed date to follow-up: I’ve attended some great workshops, where many ideas were shared, and lots of people nodded their head to take action, but after the workshop, the impetus to make a change fizzled out.  The day job gets in the way, your boss assigns another task to you or another pressing matter crops up, and before you know it, the really important thing from the workshop is number 99 on your action list.  Defining a fixed date for a follow-up session keeps up the impetus to progress your actions.  Even if the actions will take considerable time to implement, by having to attend a follow-up, you’re more likely to have made a start.  At our workshop, we felt it was so useful that we’ve decided to re-run them quarterly, with update meetings in between.

So whilst it does take more effort to run a really effective workshop, the energy expended in doing it right is much more likely to achieve your desired outcome.  I hope that my observations help you to be just as effective as our workshop turned out to be!


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