Four steps to run the perfect workshop

Workshops, remote or face-to-face, are an excellent way to problem solve, make decisions, align teams and generate culture. However, none of these outcomes are a given. To achieve these benefits, you need a carefully crafted workshop.

These four steps can help you create that workshop.

Preparing for a workshop (Photo by Lukas from Pexels)

Step 1: Understand your true objectives

The best workshops are driven by a clear objective. This could be a decision to be made, a problem space to explore, a cultural issue to address or a new team to bond.

However, don’t just look at the overt objectives of your workshop. Considering your “ulterior motives” or some of the hidden problem areas on your team gives you a chance to kill two birds with one stone, proverbially speaking.

For example, you may be in charge of a new team and be preparing your quarterly planning meeting. You realise that your team need a chance to move through the five stages of team development, or address some underlying cultural issues that are starting to emerge. You can design a workshop that both progresses your team’s business planning and addresses some of the trust or cultural issues.

Step 2: Compile your unique workshop runsheet

Many effective workshop recipes are available out there, all the way from the 5-day Design Sprint, to the Lightning Decision Jam to libraries of workshop activities. All of these resources can be used to design the right workshop for your team.

However, creating an effective workshop requires you to put on your thinking hat to mix and remix these exercises into the right runsheet for your team. A critical consideration is group dynamics and context. Are you calling the workshop because your team has been all talk and no action? Combine short, time-boxed discussions with a lot of writing down or drawing solutions and voting. Are your team members struggling to communicate and address issues head on? Craft thought-provoking questions and leave lots of room for awkward silences.

Capture these carefully crafted activities into a runsheet for the day. You will want this to cover:

1. Start time and duration for each activity (include buffer time!)

2. The title, objective and steps for each activity

3. Specific facilitation notes such as questions to ask

4. Any pre-work for participants (see Step 3!)

Step 3: Prepare your team for the workshop

Give your team something to do in the lead up to the workshop. This means they come to the session with their thinking primed.

Aim for the Goldilocks of workshop pre-work: not so in-depth that anyone who wasn’t able to complete it is completely lost, and not so simple that the activity adds no value to those who do it. Great examples are considering thought-starter questions and statements; reading short articles that can be summarised in 5 bullets on the day; or preparing draft inputs to any larger work items you plan to complete on the day.

If you are running a remote workshop, a helpful tip is to give everyone a task to do on the virtual whiteboard you are using. This encourages them to jump on and test their access to the whiteboard ahead of time and practice using the tool. This will help cut down on technical issues.

Step 4: Pivot! Pivot!

Once you’ve curated your runsheet and prepared your team, throw out the runsheet.

Ok, not completely. But on the day be ready to let conversations run over time when they’re valuable or cut them short when they’re not productive. Leaving some buffer time in your agenda will assist with this. You should also prioritise your activities and start with the most important ones where possible. This will support you to decide on the fly when to cut or skip activities.

Keeping your objective front of mind through out the planning and during the workshop will mean that no matter how much you change the runsheet on the day, you will still move toward the desired outcome.

Bonus step: Get an independent facilitator, or two

It is incredibly helpful to have someone outside the team facilitate workshops where possible. The benefits here are two fold. Firstly, no one in your team misses out on fully participating because they’re distracted by time-keeping or trying to pivot the runsheet. Secondly, an outsider can ask the “dumb questions” that may be needed to unblock thinking and generate some fresh ideas.

Facilitators could come from an external consultancy or from a separate team inside your organisation. You want to find someone who is personable, good at thinking on their feet, organised, time-conscious and able to be fully focused on your workshop during the session.

If you can’t find a unicorn like this, having two facilitators is even better. This allows splitting the role to have one facilitator focused on asking the key questions and keeping a track of energy and how effective the conversation is and another focused on the mechanics of the day and making sure everyone is comfortable (virtually or in-person). It also helps to break up the day if you can have more than one voice giving the instructions during the session.

Summing up

Recent events have resulted in a proliferation of advice on how to run effective workshops, because in a virtual working context, team interactions need to be planned. True, the leading whiteboarding tool and some really unique workshop exercises can add a lot of pizzaz to a session. However, the perfect workshop is one that moves your team forward on their objectives. Getting these four steps right sets the foundation for a workshop that achieves its objectives. And when your team sees outcomes achieved, they will be happy to invest their time in your next perfect workshop.


If you want to know more about running effective workshops and meetings or if you’re looking for a workshop facilitator, reach out to me via LinkedIn.

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