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10 Tips To Workshoppin’ Like A Pro.

Along with words & the predictability of stupidity, never underestimate the power of a good workshop. In fact, I’m a firm advocate of replacing (often pointless & frankly irritating) meetings with them altogether. Why? I hear you say. Strap in for some truth bombs.

Why workshops are better than meetings:

  • Rather than a vague discussion, they have clear & defined goals/ objectives that you are trying to solve during the session & create clear actions.
  • They are structured in a way that benefits from each person’s skills & encourages ‘outside the box’ thinking.
  • If run correctly, they can solve problems in the shortest amount of time. Problem to tested prototype in just 5 days? Oh, go on then.
Design Sprint process on a wall

Running a good workshop, however, can be hard, & if you’re not careful can descend into the futile wasteland currently occupied by meetings. Following a process is simple enough but controlling the team, managing the content & ensuring you hit the goals/ objectives can be tricky. Here are some quick tips to have you running workshops like a pro.

1. The 6 Ps Of Success

Proper planning prevents piss poor performance. Some prefer ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ but I’ve always been one for alliterative acrobatics. Prepare the agenda, practice (even into a mirror) & get advice from others you work with to agree a structure for the session.

  • Set a timeline
  • Set your clear focus objectives (remember, we’re here get sh@t done)

2. Think About The Logistics For The Meeting

Yes, this sounds bleeding obvious but you don’t want to be wasting valuable time scrambling around looking for things.

  • What do you need for the meeting (pens, white boards, post-it notes….)?
  • Do you have a room booked with the right number of chairs and enough space?
  • Do you understand your audience (names/positions)?
  • How will you get to the workshop if it’s offsite and you have a lot to carry?

3. Communication & Attendance

Almost as important as remembering to bring pens… The last thing you want is for the wrong people to turn up or, more realistically, key decision-makers not attending. Although everybody contributes, they get the final say.

Make sure you send out a confirmation email to everyone confirming:

  • Their attendance (provide the full list if appropriate)
  • The purpose of the workshop,
  • the goal of the day
  • and the agenda

4. Trust The Process

You’ve followed Rule 1 meticulously & are on course to prevent piss poor performance. You know what your goals & objectives are & you have chosen the right workshop process to match the outcome needs. Trust the process.

From the Workshopper Playbook by Jonathan Courtney

Don’t let people in the room make you deviate from the stages you need to go through to get the end result. If people challenge this, be open and honest about the needs of the process and inform how it will achieve the end result. Communication is key.

5. Use Ice-Breakers.

We’re embarking on a creative process so use ice-breakers to get the juices flowing. It helps to break down any barriers & encourage collaborative thinking within the group. Ice-breakers are also darn good at waking people up after a long morning or resurrecting people from a lunchtime food comma.

If the workshop is particularly long then use them intermittently to break up the day & keep everyone thinking. I’ll be releasing a free Ice-breakers eBook in the near future filled with jovial jaunts. Ninja, Tiger, Grandma, anyone?

6. Set The Rules From The Start

Anyone participating in a workshop should be just that, participating. We’re really on collaborative input to solve a problem quickly. Some rules I like to follow are:

  • No laptops or mobile phones (yes this is a tough one for people to accept)
  • Don’t talk over other people (common courtesy)
  • Never ever any name-calling (this ain’t the playground)
  • No question is a bad question (within reason
  • No one is wrong (the earth isn’t flat)

7. Utilise A Car Park

No, not to settle disputes. Sometimes conversations & ideas pop up that are not constructive to the process. Well, not this process. We don’t want to lose these ideas. Take note of them in a separate place on the wall and let the team know that you’ll come back to these ideas separately.

8. Focus On People & Don’t Make Things Up!

One of the best bits of advice I was given for managing a workshop was to remain mindful that it’s not all about you (the facilitator), it’s about the people in the room and how they feel.

Make people feel appreciated for their questions: “What I’m hearing is…..? Is this right?” & thank them. Never get defensive; appreciate what they say and table the question.

And be honest with the responses. If you don’t know the answer, don’t try and make it up. Trust me, the audience will see right through you & you’ll instantly lose all credibility (& look like a %@3*)

9. Dealing With The Trolls…

Ah, the troublemakers. Unfortunately you will have people occasionally have people that just don’t want to be there. They’re either not paying attention, talking too much or acting inappropriately. So how do you deal with these people? Straight to the car park, I jest.

Not Paying Attention: These people are annoyingly rude but are also the easiest to deal with. In these instances here are some things you can try:

  • The whole room is your stage (as the facilitator). Walk & talk. All eyes are on you as you present & will also be on the person *&@£ing around on their phone as you stand behind them. That usually does the trick.
  • Remind everyone (without calling out names) the rules about devices and attention.
  • Sometimes you just need an earlier break to keep attention.
  • Between breaks politely ask to have a private conversation with them & talk about how you can help them be more present in the room.
  • Go full highschool teacher & ask them to share what they’re doing with the room.

Loudest Person In The Room: This is very common when you have a room with potentially “junior” team members and a few “senior” members. Unsurprisingly it’s often the senior leadership that talks the most. So how do you deal with this?

  • As the facilitator, sometimes the easiest thing to do is to ask them to deliver their thoughts. So if someone isn’t saying much, give them the confidence & opportunity to speak.
  • You can utilise a talking stick. So only people with the stick are allowed to say anything. As the facilitator, make sure the stick is passed around the room.

Inappropriate Behaviour: Probably the hardest situation to deal with. You’re all adults & the expectation is that everyone behaves like one. Unfortunately there are some people that still struggle to do so. So how do you deal with these difficult situations?

  • Shift the process from conversations to quiet actions/note-taking.
  • Call a break & ask to speak with the person about their behaviour (politely).
  • End the meeting all together as it could be causing more issues than good.

10. Feedback! Always.

You never improve if you don’t learn from what you’ve done. Always ask for feedback at the end of the workshop. Every workshop you run is training for the next one you run. If it didn’t go as well as it could have, don’t take it to heart, explore why, & understand how you can do better next time.

7 Mistakes People Make When Facilitating a Workshop

  1. They try to be an expert on a topic
  2. Let people in the room take over the narrative
  3. They don’t trust the process
  4. Don’t time keep
  5. Write with small handwriting so no one can see
  6. Lacked any preparation or communication
  7. Didn’t invite the key decision maker