Brilliant collaborative workshops can be transformative. With great process and facilitation, they help teams work productively through creative blocks and barriers. They are a place to experiment, where it feels safe to test new ideas and make mistakes. Workshops are an important part of the innovation process.

The downside is however that often all of that atmosphere is left at the end of a session. You’ve likely experienced what happens when your team gets back to the realities of day-to-day work after a fantastic workshop. It’s easy to quickly forget the connection, and magic, that was possible in a few hours. 

It certainly helps to block out time in your schedule as it gets you all away from your desks. A workshop environment creates the energy and intensity that comes with a finite time to get things done. But there’s a lost opportunity to make a real impact on your team’s culture when we leave those feelings of collaboration, creativity, inclusivity and positivity in the room at the end of a workshop. Especially given that these elements are exactly what our teams and organisations need in these times of complexity and change.

To innovate, we need collaboration. We have to bring diverse expertise together to address challenges, and this requires us to work in new ways together. What happens in a workshop is an intense version of teamwork. It provides an insight into how we need to operate in a dynamic, constantly evolving environment. Workshops can act as practice for, or even better, be the actual way we work together to meet our ambitious goals. 

From one-off workshops to workshop culture

A Workshop Culture is when workshops are seen as more than just one-off events. They can have a wider positive impact on a team and organisation. This includes running workshops more frequently, as well as taking techniques from workshops and using them in regular meetings. Ultimately though, it’s about improving the way a team relates to each other in between those workshops and meetings. When teams live the principles of workshops daily, not just in a dedicated session, they’ll be more collaborative, creative and productive in their culture. 

How facilitation skills help to build a workshop culture

Facilitating a workshop is like experiencing, in real-time, what it’s like to lead a creative team through uncertainty. It’s about creating the right environment for teams to thrive and generate their best ideas and then guiding them towards a collective outcome. A facilitator needs to ask good questions, actively listen, be comfortable with chaos and know how to synthesise. These ‘in the moment’ skills have value outside of a workshop environment for the innovation process. But there are other, less obvious skills that can help a team go from good to great. These are the ones that a facilitator uses throughout the whole lifecycle of a workshop – before, during and after. 

Before a workshop

Strategic thinking: to understand the real purpose of a workshop, a facilitator needs to consider the wider context that it fits into, whether that’s the team, a specific project or the overall business. A clear purpose makes it easier to create an outline that meets the need and ensure relevant activities. In a Workshop Culture, strategic thinking is essential for helping a team to see the bigger picture. They understand why they are doing what they’re doing, how they fit in individually and as a team, and why collaboration is necessary to help them reach their goals.

Design: when a facilitator is clear about the desired future state – where the team wants to be at the end, and beyond the end of the workshop – they will design a structure that moves a team towards it. To build the right experience they will consider the best activities, narrative, room layout, materials, and how the group will work together. It’s all intentional. In the same way, a Workshop Culture is designed to reach clear outcomes. By using a facilitative approach, a team will create their working experience based on who is in the team, what they’re working on, and the context they work within. 

During the workshop

Ideas to action: a workshop flows between divergent and convergent thinking, from ideas generation to action. A facilitator maintains this delicate balance, ensuring that new ideas have the opportunity to breathe and incubate, but also knowing when ideas need to be refined so that the group can make progress. It’s the ability to stay in the messy, creative process for as long as is needed, and then translate the intangible into practical and clear action steps.

In a Workshop Culture, creativity and productivity are also equally valued. There’s an understanding that the messy, non-linear creative process is needed as much as “getting things done” to be a high-performing team. At the same time, a team understands the need for accountability, constraints and deadlines as support structures for making ideas happen.

After a workshop 

Facilitating behaviour change: when a team develops a new idea, something will have to change in or be added to, the way they work. It’s easy to focus on the new idea itself and not enough on the behaviour (and sometimes mindset) shift that will need to come about for the team to reach its full potential. And it’s here that a brilliant workshop can reach a dead end. To keep that momentum going, it’s essential to consider how the outcomes of a session will be integrated into the daily work patterns of the team. This is hard to do, but ultimately where the real transformation happens.

In a Workshop Culture, this is a regular conversation – not just what the team will do, but how they will make it happen, with a clear understanding of how teams change their behaviour and build new habits.

How workshop facilitation skills transfer to building a great team culture

Workshops Workshop Culture 
Strategic thinking Define the overall workshop purpose. Define a team’s purpose.
Design Design a workshop structure and experience based on the desired end goal and the situation. Teams design the way they work together based on who is in the team, what they are working on and the context they work within.
Ideas to action Moving between divergent and convergent thinking to build ideas and make them happen. Understanding the importance of balancing both creativity and productivity for a high-performing team.
Facilitating behaviour change Helping a team translate their new ideas and resulting actions from a workshop into their daily work. Regular conversations about how teams need to shift and change their behaviour, and mindset, to reach their ambitious innovation goals.

How can you start to build a workshop culture?

Workshop Culture is brought about by small shifts rather than a big sudden change. There is no one size fits all. Rather an appreciation for and sensitivity to where a team is at that time, and crafting a unique experience around it.

However, there are some fundamentals which support these shifts.

Demonstrate the value of effective workshops

For people who have never experienced the power of a great workshop before, the best way is to show them. When their only reference is the many, unproductive meetings they have, they are often amazed by how much they get done, the insights they have and the effectiveness of the format. A workshop facilitator has the privilege of introducing a team to this format. They can demonstrate the value of working in a more collaborative, open and experimental way and show what is possible.

Run workshops more regularly

Teams need to see workshops as a valuable time investment – both for the experience and how it impacts their work. Then they’ll be happy to participate in further sessions. A team might look forward to these workshops as a focused way to get through work and discussions. They might use the sessions to explore high-level or peripheral topics that they are never able to spend time on because urgent tasks take priority. Even though these workshops are separate from the ‘work’, running them regularly creates momentum and connection. 

Towards a Workshop Culture

When workshops are a more integrated part of a team’s culture, they don’t need dedicated sessions in a booked-out room. Teams are inspired to bring elements of workshops into their regular meetings – silent brainstorming, affinity mapping etc. And when meetings become more inclusive and productive, it has an impact on the way teams work together. There is more engagement, openness, sharing and respect for each other’s ideas. They develop new collaborative habits, have richer conversations, are more curious and build psychological safety.

This doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s not a neat, linear process – it’s evolving and ongoing. Little shifts over time make an impact, all starting with an initial effective workshop. It’s not possible to completely change a team’s culture in one workshop. By making use of facilitation skills outside of a formal workshop setting, it can be the start of the process.