The ability to run great workshops is becoming an essential skill for anyone that works in creativity and innovation. The difference between an effective workshop and an unsuccessful one has a major impact on the success of an overall project — the quality of ideas generated, an engaged team, and even whether participants felt they had the opportunity to contribute.
Workshop facilitation is not a secret art. It’s a skill that anyone can learn to do. The key is to think of workshops as a three-stage process, each with equal importance. It’s easy to place emphasis on the actual event, but that’s only the middle piece. The day of the workshop should be seen as a means to an end, not the end itself.
The three stages that are important for running great workshops are (I think of them made up of 6 P’s):
Design: the purpose of the workshop and preparation you’ll do to make it a great event.
Facilitation: how you’ll handle the day to make it productive and ensure participation from everyone there.
Follow-up: incorporating the content from the workshop into your project and ensuring there’s momentum and progress.
1. Is a workshop the right format for the situation?
Although I personally prefer a workshop format over a meeting, the situation doesn’t always call for one. With a traditional meeting you might already have solutions you want to communicate, ideas to present, and generally there will be one person speaking at a time. They’re more static.
A workshop is for when you need to discover solutions and explore ideas with other people. You really want to hear what they have to say. Workshops are more dynamic, and they’re messy.
The first secret to a great workshop is to have collaboration baked in from the start, with a genuine curiosity for others’ ideas and opinions. If this isn’t a vital part of your gathering, then consider whether a workshop is the right format.
2. Think beyond the end of the workshop
The workshop preparation stage is a real design process. You’re thinking about the function, the form, and designing the experience for your participants.
In designing, consider what you’ll need to move the project to the next stage and work backwards from there. Figure out what will you do with the content after the workshop. Then create your activities and workshop outline.
3. Make it dynamic
Research shows that when people stand up in a meeting, the session is more productive. Book a room with high ceilings and make sure there is enough space for participants to move around and post ideas to a wall. Provide materials such as pens, paper and sticky notes so your participants make their ideas tangible, and you can gather useful content.
4. Separate divergent and convergent thinking
With divergent thinking, the aim is to generate as many ideas as possible. You’re opening up your thinking, and going for quantity with an optimistic mindset. With convergent thinking, the aim is to find and agree on the best solution. Quality is the aim here, and it involves much more critical thinking.
You can’t do divergent thinking and convergent thinking at the same time — they interfere with each other. So when you design your workshop, make sure that activities focus on one or the other, and you state this clearly to your participants.
5. Plan for better brainstorming
Many brainstorming sessions are broken, but they can be fixed with a few techniques!
For example, Reid Hastie and Cass Sunstein looked extensively into teams can avoid groupthink. Some of their tips include:
- Don’t let senior staff speak first, as this can influence others strongly. Let others start by sharing their ideas
- Set the scene for critical thinking so that people know that it’s okay to constructively criticise ideas.
- Nominate a devil’s advocate — have someone who is there specifically to challenge.
In her research for Creative Conspiracy: the new rules for breakthrough collaboration, Leigh Thompson created some new rules for brainstorming, which included limiting exercises to 15 minutes maximum. Idea generation starts to lose momentum after this time frame.
6. Get interactive as soon as possible
Starting your workshop with a collaborative activity signals to your participants that the session will be interactive. It’s a great warm-up and way of introducing them to the interactive format.
At the same time, people will often come to a workshop with points they want to discuss. A collaborative warm-up activity is a great way of bringing these ideas out early.
7. Encourage involvement from everybody
One of the top questions I get about running great workshops is “how can I manage the people that dominate the conversation?”.
While there are many techniques for encouraging equal contributions, part of it comes down to understanding the different between introverts and extroverts.
There’s no need to encourage introverts to be extroverts, or vice versa. You can draw on each of their strengths for a great session.
Know that introverts often need to have time to think before they speak (e.g. have individual thinking time before you ask people to discuss their ideas in a group), whereas extroverts use talking with others as their thought process (e.g pair them with other extroverts in the workshop so they can have animated discussions).
8. Embrace the chaos!
There will be times when your workshop feels a bit chaotic. This is meant to happen! Workshops are meant to be messy. It’s the result of asking good questions and encouraging lots of ideas from diverse personalities.
Conflict is needed for creativity and innovation, and as a facilitator your job is to make sure it’s productive, and guide participants through this uncertainty.
9. Don’t facilitate and participate at the same time
As a facilitator, your role is to remain objective and be observant. You’ll need to keep scanning the room to sense the mood and energy. You’ll be keeping discussions on track whilst remaining flexible to any interesting change in direction. You’ll keep the discussion flowing by asking great questions, and synthesising and summarising content.
This is all while you’re keeping the end goal in mind. There is too much to do for you to also be involved in the discussions!
And, great facilitation is often invisible. Participants will feel they made a lot of progress, but that they made it happen themselves.
10. The main thing is progress
Don’t let the energy die after a great workshop. Maintain the motivation by having a great follow-up.
When Teresa Amabile & Steven Kramer studied 12,000 diary entries from 238 knowledge workers, they found that the biggest factor in them feeling engaged in their work was making progress each day, however small.
Identify the small wins from your workshop that can keep participants engaged afterwards, and make this a key part of your communication with them.
(Check out five more tips for better workshop follow-up)
Workshops are the cornerstone of creative collaboration, so it’s worth making sure they’re done well. The best workshops balance excellent preparation, great facilitation on the day and brilliant follow-up to keep the momentum going.