Organising and facilitating workshops is hard work. I’ve been on both sides of the fence as either a facilitator or attendee to have come across plenty of the pitfalls. Having facilitated quite a few workshops in the recent past here are a few tips that have served me well.
Nail down the purpose of the workshop from the start
Make sure your client is crystal clear on the purpose and desired outcome of the workshop and that you have interpreted his requirements correctly. Never be shy about clarifying expectations as a misinterpretation could lead to the occasion falling flat on its face and your reputation with it.
Communicate the purpose, agenda and proposed approach to all attendees
Once you’ve agreed the goals and purpose of the workshop, issue a communication to all proposed attendees. This should articulate the purpose of the workshop along with an agenda and your proposed approach to carrying out the work. Invite feedback and amend the agenda and approach if necessary. At a recent workshop I had an attendee object to content that he had previously approved. I reminded him that he had acquiesced to the content in a previous email which led to him agreeing to carry on as proposed.
Get the right people in the room
Where possible only invite those who can contribute effectively to the task at hand. Politics may deem that certain people attend who have no real expertise in the area under examination, and you will have to design your workshop exercises and interactions with this in mind.
Issue any required reading or preparation well in advance
Attendees may need to review certain material in advance in order to effectively contribute on the day. Issue the material and explain why you are doing so. Don’t expect everyone to do the preparation though, and be prepared for this in the workshop.
Room and Materials
If possible visit the venue in advance. If it’s unsuitable for what you have in mind ask for a more appropriate room. If a change of room is not feasible you may need to tailor your workshop design to cater for this. Test all the equipment that you propose to use and make sure you’re properly briefed on how to use everything from the audio visual equipment to the air conditioning. Bring your own markers, flip charts, blu-tack and post it notes. I’ve lost track of the number of times that markers supplied by the venue were unusable.
Design the workshop with the agreed goals in mind. If I’m helping a client design a new solution or come up with a new business model I plan a series of collaborative activities that focus on building something as opposed to merely talking about it. Be mindful that time flies during these activities so focus on picking quality exercises that help you achieve your goals rather than focusing on quantity. Game Storming by Gray, Brown and Macunufo, as well as The Trainer’s Handbook of Leadershop Development by Karen Lawson are great resources for quality exercises. You can also check out The IDEO toolkit and Business Model Generation by Osterwalder and Pigneur.
I tend to keep things moving at a fairly quick pace and don’t like exercises dragging out. So it’s rare that I’ll have a burst of activity last for longer than 45 minutes. Personally I’ve found that I’ve done some of my best work under pressure when I’m not second guessing myself. In fact the best piece of analysis I ever did was done in 40 minutes before I boarded a flight in Edinburgh airport. I had to send it before I got on the flight.
Agree on a proper code of behaviour
Agree suitable rules of engagement from the start and ask that everyone signs up to them. These could include anything from an agreement to respect everyone’s contribution to when it is appropriate for people to check mobile phones. One thing I’m firm on is not allowing people dial in to workshops from remote locations. I’ve attended umpteen workshops where people have dialled in and have never seen the value in it. The people on the other end of the phone rarely pick up on what is going on and interactions with them are invariably awkward. If they are really interested in contributing they’ll jump on a flight and attend in person
Be clear on your role as facilitator from the outset
As a facilitator your role is to grease the tracks for the attendees and steer them in the right direction so they do the best work they can in the time provided. This means that you have to keep your ego and opinions in check. That means providing continuity and flow throughout the workshop. It’s uncommon for a facilitator to contribute to the actual content. Instead your role is to observe, listen, and provoke through asking relevant and open-ended questions. Make sure that the attendees are clear on your role and don’t expect you to participate as a contributor.
It will be obvious from the outset who the dominant personalities are so think on your feet and plot an approach that ensures that their opinions and contributions aren’t the only ones heard on the day.
Make a record of as much as possible
The advent of smart phones make it very easy to capture the outputs of exercises. Ask all attendees to record notes on flip-charts in block capitals so that you are able to read and record them afterwards.
Agree Next Steps
At the end of a well-designed and well run workshop everybody is bushwhacked but energised and looking forward to seeing what happens next. It’s very important to agree next steps and allocate accountability and time frames for their execution and enforcement. I’ve lost count of the number of people who find this part of the workshop to be of most benefit.
Present a report that captures the content and outcomes of the actual workshop within a day or so of its completion. Present it in a format that you’ve agreed with your client and only give opinions and recommendations if it’s in your brief to do so.