Workshopping the workshop

17 April 2024
6 min read
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Facilitate a workshop, and you will never have to work a day in your life
- Confucius

Rather than like Confucius, I’ll admit that I felt straight out confused. But allow me to explain.

Between January and February I facilitated eight workshops. All of them different in terms of method and scope, so wildly distinct from one another that I was left wondering what exactly a workshop was, and why I was becoming so obsessed with them.

Let’s start by saying what definitely is NOT a workshop.

A workshop is not a bunch of sticky notes. It’s not a clock on a table, menacingly ticking how much time is left. It’s not a brainstorming. It’s not even a meeting in the conference room of some hotel on the town outskirts with old wooden furniture and red carpeting. It’s none of the above, but in some cases it can be.

So… what’s really a workshop?

I am going to say something potentially controversial, so brace yourselves.

Workshops will save creative agencies.

A workshop is perhaps the only effective tool we have to salvage the relationship between the creative agency and the client company, and vice versa. Workshops get rid of the client/provider dichotomy, dissolve hazy feedback, shorten timings and break down barriers. A workshop does all of these things, and then some more. That’s why setting one up is so fiendishly difficult. You need a sense of time, a sense of measure and a sense of humor. You need a recap, and then a recap of the recap. A workshop is no joke, it’s an awfully serious job of planning and organization down to a T. Designing and facilitating a workshop requires setting the record straight, specifically on these three capital “E”: enquire, engage and entertain.

It’s not easy. But it’s worth it.

In order to find the perfect workshop recipe I have experimented with 8 different tweakings in just under 3 months. I still don’t have the recipe, but I’ll offer some advice.

1. Do your Homework

A well done workshop is 50% improvisation, though if you improv half the time you’ll probably end up making mistakes here and there. It’s important to keep one thing in mind. Just because everyone is seated in a circle, dressed casually, and holding sticky notes doesn’t mean you can afford to be superficial or dismissive. They paid to be there with you. This isn’t just a day off for them to dodge emails. Be the hard worker. Be the consummate nerd in the room. Be the expert. Come prepared. Only then can you truly enjoy yourself. Do your homework and start with a simple question: Who are these people in front of me and what challenges are they currently facing?

2. Call Them By Their Names

Speaking of being prepared, it’s crucial to learn and remember everyone’s names and faces. The initial icebreaker — going around and sharing names — will simply be a refresher. Using people’s names is one of the most effective ways to break down barriers and ease any tension. They’ll be pleasantly surprised, and there’s nothing better than making a positive impression on strangers. You have six hours to assist people with their tasks, and knowing their names right from the get go is the very least you can do. Address them by name to establish a trusting and respectful relationship.

3. Let Them Talk

I’ve never worked for a company, but I’ve come to understand one thing: communication seems to be lacking. It’s reminiscent of that old Vodafone phone plan from 2007, which only allowed 50 texts and 100 minutes per month, but in real life. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but there’s an undeniable truth: for many employees, stepping away from their laptops and desks to discuss the past, present and future of their work with colleagues seems as far-fetched as science fiction. Being heard, sharing ideas and feedback across different teams, and receiving constructive criticism from your peers feels as distant as the Moon, and you’re the one piloting the spaceship. Keep quiet, lead them and encourage their dialogue. Be prepared to rearrange your agenda and the planned activities if the discussion heats up and reaches an interesting point. These might be their only chances to be so candid with each other. However, be cautious not to let things spiral out of control, especially if the conversation starts to sound like background noise or idle chatter. That’s usually your cue to take back the reins. You’re in charge. Guide them to the Moon as planned, or let them lead you, without feeling too guilty.

4. Find the Underdogs

In any group larger than five, someone will always jump in and start leading the conversation. Most of the time, it’s the CEO or someone else at the top. You might not want to pay much attention to them. It’s not that they aren't smart, but either you already know what they’re going to say, or they’ll clarify it over the next few days anyway. The really good stuff tends to come from other folks in the room. Remember to engage everyone, even if they’re a bit reluctant at first. It’s worth asking the quieter ones for their thoughts: they’re in that meeting for a reason. If everything the boss said was spot on, you wouldn’t need a workshop. So, find those underdogs, really talk to them, and see what deeper insights they have.

5. Make It Clear

The last tip I’m sharing is actually the first thing you should tackle. I’ve saved it for the end so it really sticks with you, because it’s crucial. Start by asking yourself why you’re all gathered. Clarify your objective. A workshop can serve myriad purposes: drafting a brief, brainstorming new ideas, devising a proposal, mending fences with the marketing manager, killing time as well as taking it. Anything is fair game, as long as it’s clearly defined from the get-go. And believe me, that’s the hardest part. What do we want to achieve by the time we leave this room? What are all these hours for? Setting a clear goal at the start of the workshop will be your guiding light, especially when things don’t go according to plan. And take it from me, they often won’t. So, ask yourself: Why are we here?

Here are five tips to nail the perfect workshop. Give them a try, tweak them (heck, workshop them!) and incorporate as many as you like. After all, all happy workshops are alike, each unhappy workshop is unhappy in its own way.

Train hard.

Have fun, but keep it real.

Learn a game.

But play on a level field.

The term "workshop" combines two words: work and shop. Originally, a workshop was a space where goods were crafted and everyone got their hands dirty — literally diving into work hands-on. No one left out. No hierarchies in a workshop; everyone works on the same level. We just got to level with each other.

Got a plan and want to collaborate with us? Drop us an email.

Do it even if you're staring at a blank wall and have no clue where to start.

Don't sweat it. We’ll bring the sticky notes.

And then we’ll turn them into paper airplanes.

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