Workshops. They are fast becoming the go-to way of getting things done. People hate meetings and workshops seems like the best alternative when you need to get a group of people moving in the right direction.
However, the power of workshops is easily diluted by the number of bad workshops your participants have been in. Even worse if you were also responsible for those bad workshops.
So how do we avoid bad workshops and make sure we only run successful workshops?
The key: Don’t run workshops
Ok, so I don’t mean never run workshops. But sometimes a workshop is not the right answer to the problems you see on your team. To make sure the workshops you run are successful, you need to know when not to run workshops.
So here are four scenarios where a workshop is probably never going to be successful:
1. When you are giving your teams a ‘put’
This is probably the most common scenario where I see unsuccessful workshops. Management has a directive or information they need to give their team. They want the team to own this directive and act as change agents. So someone suggests that a workshop would be a good idea to drive collaborative action.
However, when you’re giving a directive is not actually collaboration, even if you label it as a workshop! If the team has no agency in choosing how to respond to the directive or carrying out their change agent activities, there is absolutely nothing that needs to be ‘worked up’ and therefore no need for a workshop. Running a workshop in these scenarios sets the precedent that workshops are a guise for management control, instead of the creative collaboration that is at the heart of a successful workshop.
Instead, consider an interactive communication forum. Something as simple as a Q&A where the person in the hot seat has the knowledge and authorisation to answer even the most gruelling questions is a lot more effective. Or you could set up an exploratory experience where teams interact with different stations that demo the data or reasoning behind a decision, play through scenarios that may arise as a result of the directive, or have one-on-one Q&A with key decision-makers and decision enforcers. These solutions are more tangible and immersive than an email or poster communication but they allow you to save workshops for true workshop-ready problems.
2. When only a small portion of the team isn’t on the same page
I’ve seen this before: An entire team of highly paid professionals are dragged into a room (or video call) together for half a day or more. All because two team members had very different perspectives on how something should get done. One or both of the parties then decided that a workshop would give them a forum to hash out the different ideas, and hopefully have the rest of their team take their side.
Again, this scenario is not really about creative problem-solving. In fact, we often have two solutions already. The workshop becomes a forum for the opposing parties to present their view and essentially have an overly complicated ‘vote’ on which idea the team prefers. And usually either the workshop provides no clarity, or, if the team is closely aligned with one party, the other party simply goes out to find another way of convincing their team they are in the right. So nothing is resolved.
This is an incredible waste of everyone’s time. Particularly if much of the team doesn’t even see a problem that needs solving. At most, a problem-identification workshop could be useful in this scenario to assess whether one team member is seeing a problem no one else has noticed yet. And then a solution-focused workshop could help solve it, but only if the two team members that started this are ready to lay down their existing solutions and truly collaborate on a solution.
But before any workshop takes place, the team members who are clashing should work it out. The most efficient way is for them to have a conversation and hash out their differences. If a tie-breaker is needed, the boss can get involved. Or if it’s something that genuinely impacts the team more broadly, a debate can be staged, Radical Candor style.
3. As a learning tool
This misuse of workshops is similar to the first scenario. Learning and development teams often look to workshops as an experiential way of communicating learning content. However, this again contradicts the core purpose of successful workshops as a creative collaboration tool. Learning typically isn’t asking participants to find new solutions. Learning is usually about giving teams the opportunity to gain knowledge and practice applying it.
So instead of diluting workshops, learning teams can stage a different kind of experience. Q&A sessions and immersive exploration sessions can help here, similar to when management is giving a put. However, even more powerful learning experiences occur through practical scenarios that mimic real work experience as closely as possible. The only time a workshop would be appropriate learning is when you’re teaching workshop skills. In these scenarios, use a real problem the team or enterprise is facing and get participants to run a real workshop. You may get usable solutions out of the session and kill two birds with one stone.
4. When you have no intention to follow through
Another sure-fire way to destroy the power of workshops for your organisation is to run them when the team has no power to act on any of the solutions designed. I’m sure you’ve been in one of these sessions. They end up being nothing more than a ‘feel-good’ session to vent about problems and fantasise about solutions. However, these get old quickly when no action is taken to solve the problems.
To prevent this and run a successful workshop, make sure the responsible leaders are 1. clear on the problem that needs to be solved, 2. willing to accept the solutions coming out of the workshop, and 3. able to articulate the parameters required to support a workshopped solution getting off the ground.
Even if you can’t get endorsement to proceed with the workshopped solutions before the session, at the very least, workshop participants need to be clear on what will become of the work they do in-session. If it is a very early stage ideation session, be clear the session does not guarantee ideas will get off the ground. But make sure you follow through on presenting the ideas to management and feedback the outcome.
But the most successful workshops will happen when the workshop sponsor gets buy-in from management before the workshop and is ready to act quickly once it’s done. This idea-to-action feedback loop will motivate teams to make the most of the workshops they attend.
So what are workshops for?
Workshops are best suited for situations where you need to apply creativity and team energy to identify or solve a problem space where the answer is not clear. They are great for using interactivity to spark new ideas from combining knowledge held by different people. And workshops need clear parameters for when and how actions will follow. Think of it as a place work gets done: a workshop is not an end in itself but is always a step in getting to a result.
Workshops are not so great at disseminating knowledge or aligning teams to a foregone conclusion. Many other collaboration formats are better suited to these purposes:
And sometimes, good old-fashioned meetings.
If you want to learn more about running effective workshops, check out my workshop resource page. Or reach out to me to design a collaboration experience designed to tackle the problem your team is facing.