At the end of last year, Doodle examined the state of meetings across the global economy. They combined data from 19 million responses on their meeting scheduling platform, together with two research reports conducted in 2018. From these results, they’ve predicted that the US and UK are set to collectively waste more than $450bn on poorly organised meetings in 2019.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that companies are starting to pay more attention to their meeting culture – looking at how they can cut unnecessary ones, and ensuring the ones they do have are as productive as possible.

Many of the facilitation practices found in good workshops can be a quick fix to solve some of the symptoms of bad meetings. Workshops are designed to encourage creative thinking and equal contributions, reduce overly dominant voices and be focused and productive. A facilitator ensures the discussion stays on track and everyone gets heard. Over time, the techniques of effective workshops can help to address some deeper cultural issues – trust, communication, transparency – and transform the way people work together.

Because of the many benefits workshops can bring to a team’s culture, I’m advocating for them to become a more natural part of work. At the same time, I’m well aware that the answer is not to replace every single meeting with a workshop. There are many different ways to meet, a workshop being just one, and the first step is to simply be aware that these different formats are available to choose from.

Building a workshop culture means being more intentional about how and when you meet as a team. Too many workshops without impact can lead to workshop fatigue, where people lose faith in the format. They sigh at the sight of another post-it note and sharpie. They become unimpressed with quirky creative exercises which although fun at the time, achieve no better outcomes than a normal meeting.

It’s easy for workshops to look busy without any real action emerging. It can feel like things are happening when no real progress being made. To ensure every one of your workshops delivers great results, consider these questions:

Is a workshop the best format?

A workshop is an open, exploratory format for people to address challenges, develop ideas, share knowledge and contribute their expertise. Not every meeting needs all of this, all of the time. Sometimes it might be about getting sharp feedback on a bunch of ideas that have already been developed. It could be to share quick updates about a project. Or your team may need to make a decision on an issue that has already been discussed at length.

If you run a workshop that doesn’t need deep collaborative involvement, it’s better to be upfront and choose a more suitable format.

Do you have a clear purpose and a good time to prepare?

A workshop without a clear purpose is unlikely to make an impact. To prepare effectively, you will need to review and assess the reasons for the workshop, have an outcome in mind and plan your structure and activities backwards from there.

Workshop design is a creative task that often takes more time than the duration of the workshop itself.  It starts with identifying and then working through how best to approach a challenge. Do this by brainstorming all the questions that need to be addressed and then building that into a considered narrative that you will guide participants through. This simple planning tool can help.

Are your participants doing most of the talking?

During the workshop, the amount of time a facilitator speaks will be significantly lower than the time the participants are interacting with each other. This is mainly to set the tone of the day, to brief the exercises and to gather and synthesise content from participants. (Note that this is very different to training workshops where there will be a balance between content delivery and exercises).

The rest of the time participants will be engaged in discussion and will feel like they’ve done most of the work. The facilitator will have very little presence, and may even be slightly ‘invisible’.  

Are you reflecting on your facilitation skills?

Even if a workshop is the right format, and the facilitator has a subtle presence there are still factors, that if not addressed, can lead to workshop fatigue. It might be that the facilitator continually allows the same people to dominate the conversation, doesn’t stay objective, or always allows the discussion to go off track.

Every workshop throws up new challenges, so we need to constantly reflect on and keep developing our facilitation skills. Some useful questions to ask after each session you run are:

  • Were there moments you felt stuck or uncomfortable. What happened, and what would you do differently next time?
  • What challenging moments did you deal with well? What happened and what did you do?
  • What skills would you like to improve for next time?

Have you planned for a clear follow-up after the workshop?

Regardless of the fun we’ve had during a workshop, after a while, we all like to know our efforts have been put to good use. This can be anything from real tangible results that are integrated into our work, or it could be that we’ve had a shift in mindset and are able to look at something in a new way.  

Without seeing the results of their involvement, participants again will start to lose faith in the effectiveness of the workshop format. There needs to be some kind of action, however small, to demonstrate this impact. This is all considered before the workshop even takes place, in the workshop design phase, and incorporated into the structure of the session.

If you plan for your follow-up whilst you are designing the session, you are more likely to run a workshop that achieves great results.

Workshops can be a great alternative for meetings in many cases, and at the very least there are a lot of principles we can take from facilitation to improve them. But at the same time, the work doesn’t only happen during the workshop itself. What happens before and after the session is just as important to ensure it has an impact. The best workshops inspire change and action.

Image credit: Patrick Perkin on Unsplash.