Run better workshops

If you run a lot of workshops and are confident in what you do then this post is NOT for you. However, if you’re something of a workshop novice then I believe you will find something useful here.

Why run a workshop?

Workshops are a fantastic way to get key people together to figure out problems and design solutions. They are highly collaborative, everyone should be equal and encouraged to freely express thoughts and ideas.

Key decision makers should be present as well as subject matter experts and people affected by the problem or design.

In this way the true issues can be drawn out in an open environment and decisions on how to proceed can be made there and then. Everyone is on the same page.

When do I run a workshop?

There are many reasons that drive the decision to run workshop. It could be that you need to make a decision quickly.

A decision making process has ground to a halt and you need to kick start it.

You need to get a fresh perspective on a problem or need to get buy-in for a proposed change or improvement.

Workshops can, and should, be engaging, open, fun and innovative. That can be a high bar to reach if you have never run one before!

It’s all about structure

For some people running workshops comes naturally, they instinctively know how to start and get people talking about the issue at hand. They guide them effectively, knowing what questions to ask and when. But for most of us this is not the case.

When I talk about structure there are two things you need to consider. Firstly there is the structure of the workshop as a whole.  This is the agenda. How do you open, how do you close and what are the ground rules. This is repeatable and you will use this in pretty much every workshop you do.

Secondly, and just as important, is the structure of the discovery approach. Are you using Digital Discovery or a traditional approach. This is going to take up the bulk of the time you are actually in the workshop.

The approach, or methodology, you use is going to guide you and the participants through understanding the problem you are addressing. It will then help you arrive at a solution.

The agenda

I don’t want to focus too much on this, there’s plenty of guidance out there on how to run workshops from this perspective. My main piece of advice would be to communicate regularly and openly with the participants and any other stakeholders that have an interest in what you’re doing.

Regular communication provides a space for any concerns and reservations to arise and be dealt with before you get down to business.

Firstly agree the objective of the workshop with the participants well in advance.

On the day of the workshop make sure the room is prepared and all the equipment you need is there and working. You don’t want to waste time trying to get a projector to work or looking for whiteboard markers while your participants sit round and lose concentration.

Make sure you do introductions as required and reiterate the objectives and timings of the session.

I’ve found ground rules an essential tool and these will vary from workshop to workshop. My basics are; Everyone is equal, one person speaks at a time, unresolved discussions stop after 5 mins and switch off mobile devices.

these out and agreeing them at the beginning will get you respect and make it look like you really have done this before!

At the end of the workshop summarise what you’ve done and revisit the objective. Review and agree any actions and then follow these up afterward.

The discovery approach

This is the bit that they don’t tell you how to do. Most companies that offer workshops as a service have their own methodology and tools that they use. It’s often their competitive advantage so are not that keen to share with you.

This is going to take the bulk of the time and where the value is going to come from. Workshops can seem unstructured but the facilitator is normally guiding you along a path. Structure is important because it gives you a handrail, it tells you when things are going off piste and when it’s time to bring it back.

It may seem counterintuitive to try and place structure on an innovation session but that’s exactly what you need to do. Having a framework that everyone understands, and agrees, allows them to forget about it and focus on the problem.

With a strong and confident facilitator the group will naturally relax as they assume the facilitator has their backs covered. If you don’t think you’re that person then use the projector or whiteboard (or both) to outline the path you’re taking and the progress being made. It could be slides, but don’t turn it into a presentation, the participants need to do the lion’s share of the talking.

You’re only there to ask questions, if nothing else the methodology you choose will inform the questions you need to ask. Who does that? When does it happen? Why do they do that?

The approach you use may depend on the type of problem your are investigating. For example, improving how something works is best done using a process notation to provide the structure. It will guide you to ask the right questions.

When designing new organizations and products you may want to use something such as the Business Model Canvas. This simple, yet powerful, approach has allowed many businesses to literally disrupt whole industries as the structure it provided enabled them to see new opportunities on which to build their business model.

So what type of tool / methodology do I need?

In this case I would suggest not looking for guidance on running workshops but on problem solving. There are many tools available, some are free, some are paid and many can be learnt from books.

In my experience process is usually a good starting point. Everything in business is part of a process. Processes are what we do and the outcomes we achieve. Understanding the process that surrounds your problem will provide valuable context. It may not lead you directly to the source of the problem but it will lead you to the right neighborhood.

What tools do you use to help you run better workshops? We’ve designed Skore to be used live in digital discovery workshops to capture processes, and related information directly to a digital format. This ensures that what you agree in the workshop is what everyone sees later on. Skore also includes the guide rails you need to keep you true, it asks the questions for you, what happens, who does it and what are the outputs. Click below to start a free trial.

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