Why the workshop is your most powerful tool

Why workshops are your most powerful tool

I’ve been to thousands of workshops in all kinds of settings, from charities to universities to global corporations. The best ones are truly magical; new ideas bubble up, teams are empowered and energised and problems that seemed intractable get solved. But for every one of these workshops, there are many that miss the mark. An unsuccessful workshop can waste time and money, kill momentum and, in the worst cases, ruin relationships in teams.

So what’s so special about a workshop?

At Curve we define a workshop as a group of people working intensely together under the guidance of a facilitator to create something new and bring about change.

Meeting, Presentation or Workshop?

Unlike meetings and presentations, workshops encourage people to contribute on an equal footing, doing away with the hierarchical behaviour and ‘groupthink’ that can inhibit new ideas. In the hands of a skilled facilitator, a workshop will tap into the diverse thinking, expertise and backgrounds of everyone in the room to come up with solutions, prototypes and ideas.

At a series of workshops we ran for HSBC recently, the team we worked with were ready and confident to undertake a radical shift to the ‘newsroom’ culture they wanted to adopt. For the Youth 4 Public Transport Hack in Moscow, we designed workshops to help teams invent tech prototypes for helping the millions of visitors to the World Cup to navigate the city. And at AstraZeneca we ran digital innovation workshops where AZ employees, members of the medical and commercial communities, patients and families came up with truly novel solutions for improving recovery post heart attack and for managing clinical trials.

What could have taken months for these teams to create, had they been working in a traditional linear way, took shape in a matter of hours, generating a long-lasting momentum and enthusiasm for change that in my experience only comes from such intense and focused working.

Do I need a workshop, a presentation or a meeting?

The number one reason for a workshop to fail is that it’s not actually a workshop. How many times have you been invited to one and arrived to find someone standing in front of a screen with a huge deck of slides to flip through? At our facilitation skills workshop, otherwise known as the Workshop Workshop [make link?], one of the first things we do is draw a clear distinction between meetings, presentations and workshops, and what each one should be used for.

We ask everyone to close their eyes and describe what each format looks like. Meetings and presentations are easy – a meeting usually happens around a table with a clear hierarchy where one person is in charge. There might be an agenda, a speakerphone with people dialling in, and actions to follow up afterwards. The objective is to share information, reach a consensus and make a decision.

Presentations have one or more presenters speaking in turn to a passive audience who might be anything from a small group in a room, to a large auditorium with a stage, to a video broadcast to millions. The aim  is to communicate information, largely a one-way process with perhaps some interaction through a Q&A afterwards.

A word about cost – when you consider that meetings can take up several hours of resource time every week, and presentations can take half a day of preparation for each hour of delivery, the perception that workshops are more expensive is often a false one.

Lots of people find workshops a little trickier to picture, often describing a hybrid meeting/presentation where people stick some thoughts on Post-its onto the wall. While it might be necessary to share information at a presentation or a meeting before running a workshop, workshops are quite different. Those who’ve been to a Curve workshop, or to any great workshop, describe a scenario where instead of sitting down and listening, people are on the go, working in small groups or pairs. They describe a special energy or atmosphere in the room, an intense focus and sense of purpose, working together on activities and tasks that get people thinking freely and creatively.

Can I use a workshop to get my team to accept a specific change?   

Remember, the aim of a workshop is to create the optimum conditions for your team to come up with something new; to bring about change themselves – it isn’t the right format for making decisions, or for manipulating people into reaching a predetermined outcome. I’m often asked to run a workshop to ‘make people change.’ This rarely succeeds and can make the facilitator feel like a fraud. Much better to share the desired outcome at a presentation, then workshop any elements of the initiative that haven’t already been decided.

Purpose How Often Led By Cost Format Resources
Meeting Share information Gain consensus Make decisions Regular Decision maker/chair with authority over attendees. Attendees sit around a table and participate within limits of hierarchy. Perceived to be inexpensive but if they take up a lot of time, the cost can be high Usually 5 to 20 people in-person, with option to dial in or video conference Single table and chairs, agendas, minutes, actions log, speakerphone, screen, Word docs, Powerpoints
Presentation Communicate, Inform and Clarify Ad-hoc as needed Speaker has authority, is often an expert and usually stands while audience sits. Interaction usually limited to Q&A Every half hour of presentation time can take one day of preparation In-person or over video, can be recorded. Number of attendees limited only by technology. Projection/video equipment, Powerpoints, rows of chairs
Workshop Create something new, Solve Problems and Enable Change Ad-hoc as needed Led by facilitators, little or no hierarchy, high level of interaction. Interchanging pairs and small groups High perceived cost but workshops can produce in hours what would normally take weeks or months In-person, 10 – 30 people with 2 facilitators. Remote workshopping or scaling up is possible with skilled facilitators (we’ve run one for 400) Room layout, tools and exercises designed for the team and their objective for the workshop


Can I facilitate a workshop for my team?

To run a successful workshop takes a lot of careful planning, excellent facilitation skills and the right toolkit. The good news is that anyone can learn to be a great facilitator! The Curve team will be writing more articles like this where we’ll share tips, insights and tools to help you run brilliant workshops. In the next one, I’ll talk about the skills and attributes you need to be a facilitator.

Of course the best way to learn is by doing it for real. Our Workshop Workshop will give you the skills and confidence to work magic in a roomful of people and get the best out of your team. We run regular open-enrolment Workshop Workshops at Curve – to receive details of forthcoming dates, sign up via our website here. We also facilitate workshops designed for your team or organisation, either on-site or at a fantastic off-site venue. Drop us a line at hello@curve.cc and we can tell you more.

John Monks