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7 Mistakes People Make When Facilitating a Workshop

To say we’re not a fan of meetings would be a mild understatement… People scrambling in late, half the people in the room not knowing why they are there and the ones that do wish they weren’t. Sound familiar?  We’ve been long-standing proponents of canning meetings altogether and replacing them with workshops.

To gain maximum value from a workshop, however, you’ll need a great facilitator. These arbiters of truth oversee proceedings to ensure the right people are in the room to have conversations that solve actual problems. 

 It can be a tricky business, but here are the top seven simple mistakes I’ve seen facilitators make and that you should avoid!

Pretending to be an expert on the topic.

1) Pretending to be an expert on the topic.

The clue is in the title: ‘facilitator’. Unless you are an expert in the particular field or industry, don’t pretend to be!

Your job is to facilitate or guide the real experts in the room through the discovery process to generate conversations and ideas. Faking knowledge can ultimately reduce the trust people have in you and even lead outcomes in the wrong direction.

Letting people in the room run the session.

2) Letting people in the room run the session.

Too often I’ve seen facilitators lose control of the class, so to speak. Remember, you are there to guide the session to achieve the best possible outcomes for the participants. Upfront communication is key to make sure everybody knows why they are there. Make sure agendas, purpose statements and expected outcomes are shared before any session.

*If the conversation starts to wander, use a creative “car park” to capture ideas that can be discussed later.

Not sticking to the plan.

3) Not sticking to the plan.

There are so many different processes/ styles to facilitate a workshop and I’m not going to pretend to know them all. Whichever you choose, trust the process to get the outcome everybody wants. Don’t be tempted to chop and change on the fly otherwise the session can become confusing and ultimately less constructive. If it’s clear something has to change, take a break and reassess.

*I facilitate a lot of workshops and they can often feel like they’re not on the right track (particularly at the start), but each time I’ve trusted the process and there have been some incredible outcomes.

Forgetting to keep time.

4) Forgetting to keep time.

Facilitation 101. Make sure you track the time for every step of the conversation. If you don’t, discussions will drag and before you know it your workshop has descended into another fruitless ‘meeting’. The imaginatively named Time Timer ( is one of the best apps for timekeeping. 

Illegible or tiny handwriting

5) Illegible or tiny handwriting.

How will people understand what’s going on if they can’t read your notes? Exactly. ALWAYS WRITE IN CAPITAL LETTERS ON POST-IT NOTES SO EVERYONE CAN SEE. Ideas will be flowing like fine wine so it’s important people can quickly refer back to notes. “What does that say?” is an awful waste of time. Once you become more experienced, you’ll quickly become more efficient at capturing what someone has said in just a few words.

Lacking communication &/or preparation.

6) Lacking communication &/or preparation.

People should arrive energised and excited for a workshop. I love to share a short two-minute video with project summaries prior to the day so people know exactly what the purpose of the workshop is and what to expect. Arrive early on the day, set up tables, pens, paper, water… You’re the facilitator, everything should be in order so when people arrive the magic can begin.

Workshop 7 tips decision maker
Not inviting key decision-makers.

7) Not inviting key decision-makers.

The purpose of workshops is to get **** done! Decisions will often need to be made on the spot before pursuing certain ideas, particularly with design sprints. The last thing you want is for an idea to go all the way through to prototyping before a senior team member shoots the idea down. It’s a quick way to waste a week. ‘Decision-makers’ may be short of time, so just make sure they’re present for core decision touchpoints for a thumbs or down. If it’s down, you can quickly pivot. Pivot!

So there you have it, 7 simple mistakes to avoid when facilitating a workshop. If you enjoyed this, you might also find our 10 Tips To Workshoppin’ Like A Pro helpful.

For any further questions, or if you’d like me to facilitate one of your workshops, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Book a free session today to explore how we can help you achieve better outcomes.

Insights Workshops

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