Before you plan a workshop, consider whether you need one

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“If most of your “workshop” is people not actually making anything, you should perhaps call it a class, a lecture, or a mistake.” Scott Berkun

It’s the beginning of a new year. It’s tempting to get back into daily routines instead of following through with last year’s resolutions. It is the time of year when I receive requests for workshop designs to help teams align, define or agree on their goals. Before anything else, I ask whether they actually need one. A workshop is not the only format to consider. This article aims to help you identify the most effective tool given your needs and resources.

Workshop – A definition

Before getting into details, it makes sense to align our understanding of what a “workshop” is. In general, it fits into one of three definitions:

… a meeting of people to discuss and perform practical work in a subject (Cambridge)

… a usually brief intensive educational program for a relatively small group of people that focuses especially on techniques and skills in a particular field (Merriam-Webstar)

… a room or building in which goods are manufactured or repaired (Google)

The following graphic simplistically decomposes the concept. I also like to distinguish between “team building” and “brainstorming” when it comes to “discuss and perform practical work” in the context of business working sessions:

 

 

In the following, I use the term “workshop” to describe a working session in a business context where groups of people exchange ideas to solve issues that are directly related to their work. This definition related to the section “brainstorming” in the graphic above. Workshops, therefore, have a particular purpose, for example: solving difficult problems, improving processes, developing new designs, or providing a shared understanding of a complex issue.[1]

To workshop or not to workshop?

Before you invite your team or colleagues in a room and risk wasting their time, make sure that you are clear about the purpose. Depending on the expected outcomes, a workshop might not be the best option. Remember that a full-day meeting is an investment in terms of time, energy and financial resources. In many cases, a regular meeting, a team outing or even an email might be more effective than a workshop to reach your goals. So, if you cannot answer the following three questions confidently with “yes” you may want to consider other options:

1 – Does the topic require the contribution of the participants?

2 – Do you intend to convert the results into work-related action?

3 – Does the group have the expertise and resources to achieve the expected results in the given time frame?

If NO – What else?

If the topic that you want to explore does not require participants’ contribution, you raise wrong expectations when calling it a “workshop”. In case you host a session but don’t intend to use the participants’ contribution in the follow-up you carry important risks. Participants may lose trust and you’ll witness a subsequent decrease in productivity due to their frustration. Also, you will struggle to get someone’s input at a future working session when nobody believes in the impact of their contribution. Instead, you may consider a meeting at which you share relevant information with the group. In this case, you can collect feedback without raising expectations that it will contribute to the subsequent decision-making process.

Also, if you already know that you cannot or will not convert the outcomes of the workshop into work-related action, you risk wasting the participants’ time. If your aim is spending time with the group, you may consider a shared lunch, team outing or party instead.

If the group you are inviting does not have the expertise or the resources to achieve the results you expect, you risk wasting their time. In the case of missing expertise, the workshop may turn into a lecture or training that discourages participants who expected to be heard.

“If the goal is to come up with ways to increase sales by 10%, and the team doesn’t understand anything about how the sales team works, don’t expect them to offer good solutions.” Scott Berkun

If your participants miss the tools needed to accomplish the task, they will be frustrated and start deviating from the topic. In such a case you can either provide reading material or host a training beforehand and then host the workshop as planned. Alternatively, you may consider hiring consultants to share their expertise and invite participants to a Q&A session.

The nutshell to take home

Before inviting your team or a group of colleagues to a workshop, consider other options that might be more suitable for the purpose. Instead, you can call a meeting, organise a team outing or hire external experts to host a Q&A session. Whenever you consider hosting a workshop, be aware of the expectations you raise and the costs it entails.


[1] You can find more insights on workshop design and facilitation.

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