When workshops might not be the most appropriate option…

Workshops weave their way through our lives in the insights business, sometimes inspirational, sometimes face-in-your-hands heart-sinkingly pointless (let’s not hide it, we’ve all been there), but always providing a unique set of challenges. So this blog post sets out to face some workshop demons and shine the light on some (hopefully) good practices!

We hear the call for workshops all too often. Struggling to crystallize your insight? Workshop it. Finding it tough to clarify your research recommendations? Workshop it – or better still, get the client to workshop it. Feeling a bit lazy and in need of delegation? You’ve guessed it – workshop it.

So it’s not surprising that the idea of doing a workshop can become quite tiresome. Still, in the right setting, with planning, thought and bloody hard work, they can deliver something a little bit special, crucially where the focus shifts from insight generation, to action

The road to delivering a perfectly framed workshop

We’ve all been there: the research has gone well, insights pouring out left, right and centre, hurrying to get the debrief together for a tight deadline and the call comes through… we’d like to turn this into a workshop…

Stop. Think. Don’t panic. Let’s break it down a bit.

Workshops work really well. When you have engaged participants, a well thought out structure, planned exercises, expert facilitation and plenty of time. Put simply: when there’s a clearly defined purpose and a meaningful objective.

If you’re looking to “blue sky” to jazz up a presentation or bring the research to life, there are plenty of other ways to do it, and even to engage the stakeholders who will use the research as part of their planning. The crucial thing to remember is: a workshop has to have a point, and that point needs to lead to action.

So what does that mean in practice?

Here’s a short list of key points to make sure your workshop really works, and won’t lead to nights of creative desperation and sleeplessness:

Stay focused (avoid the creep!): before you even start to plan, ensure you talk to your core stakeholder on the other side of the fence and work out exactly (and I can’t stress this enough) EXACTLY what you want to achieve. Write this down and look at it every day. Pin it to the laptop, stencil it into the forehead of the colleague sitting opposite, whatever: mission creep is toxic to workshops

Ensure ample planning time: give yourselves time to think and to plan: how long do you need to achieve the objective? Balance this with the stakeholders expectations. They will always, always have less time than you need, so you need to make every minute work for you

Plan your exercises: keep tasks simple and to the point. Practice them internally first – if you can’t explain it, your participants won’t be able to do it (you could write a book on this subject alone. Whether time-limited brainstorming tasks, mapping or sorting exercises, or story-building for presentation back to a plenary group, make sure instructions are clear and focused – and have your enabling questions to hand to guide participants through the tasks

Plan your narrative and keep thinking ahead as you go through the session: getting caught on the hop is part and parcel of a workshop, but have a good war story ready (mine involves splitting trousers in an over enthusiastic grab for a dropped pen, but we’ve all got something similar)

Know your stakeholders: Nail down attendees especially in terms of functions: different people will have different needs (and different ways of thinking). The more you can ascertain the better, knowledge is power here and success will come from designing a session that hits more needs. Enable them to be honest with you about internal politics, potential roadblocks or derailing moments (or even, dare I say, individuals) …

Keep the end goal in mind: Have your outcomes ready: you need to make sure your participants reach the destination you need them to, but own it too – and that means talking to them, listening to them and guiding them

Count on experience: Get hold of great facilitators: it’s different from moderation of focus groups and don’t let anyone tell you it’s the same

And finally: Practice, practice practice!

Don’t overuse workshops, use them appropriately

Still think it’s like a glorified debrief? Think again and plan for success!!

Engagement is key, both in planning and in execution. And come prepared with really good post it notes, war stories ready and a draft agenda In mind. The key is to guide the participants through a process in a way that they don’t feel processed.

If you’re thinking about running a workshop there is so much more to say and I’ll leave you with one final thought: the better prepared you are, the greatest your chance of success

So, I used to hate workshops, until I realised I wasn’t doing them right!

To find out more about HRW’s workshop capabilities, get in touch.


By Andrew Bajorek

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