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Running a workshop (our mid-workshop rant)

Workshop post its generic contents

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Why read this? : We look at some of the frustrations of running a workshop. Learn what grinds people the most in these sessions. We share how to get the basics like purpose, attendees and dynamics right so you avoid these workshop woes. Read this to learn better ways of running a workshop.

Recently came across this old blog post we did after running a workshop :-

At the end of day one of a two-day workshop, and as usual at this point, already tired from the need to be constantly ‘on’ all day …

In fact, so tired that the above sentence was all I managed to write last night. Everything that follows comes from the end of day two of running a workshop.

So you might think our Christmas wish this year was to do fewer workshops?

But actually, it’s more that we wish workshops would “work” a lot better. This got us thinking about how you do that.

For example, it got us thinking about why it’s called a workshop in the first place, and why they’re different from the “day job”. And about the big lie everyone tells in them. But most of all, it got us thinking about how to avoid the things that make them go wrong. 

Woman wearing smart business suit in front of a laptop looking bored

Why's it called a workshop?

Let’s face it, it’s a kinda weird name for it.

Most people think of a workshop as a place where you make things. Where actual work gets done. 

But, in marketing, it seems to be the opposite. Very little actual productive work ever seems to get done in these damn meetings.

It drives us crazy. They take up so much time and have so little long-term impact. 

Man in a red T-shirt looking frustrated and angry

What benefit do customers get from a bunch of ‘important‘ people in the business spending a whole day locked together in a room? With snacks and bad coffee.

Do their unspecific and obvious Post-it scribbles like  ‘grow sales’, ‘improve customer value’ or ‘drive more search’ ever really make a difference? 

They might think that because it’s on a coloured Post-it, it’s “more creative“. You know, compared to ‘actual’ work. But coloured Post-its don’t mean creative thinking

Time spent not working

Why do we usually waste the first hour of the workshop listening to at least 3 different people trying to ‘stimulate and inspire’? Which usually involves some video they’ve lifted from Google or Adobe.

You’ll have seen the videos we mean. They’re good, but at least half the people in the room will have already seen them. Not that stimulating or inspiring then.

And then we have the MIPITR (most important person in the room). At the end of the day, they decide what needs to be done. And it’s basically the same as they’d already decided before the workshop anyway.

Why does everyone talk about the "day job"?

Why does it always finish with someone saying, ‘We need to make sure we take this back into the day job’? But as soon as you’re back at your desk, you’ll get the one obligatory follow-up email with an attachment no one ever opens, which some poor junior marketer has to save to a shared drive, never to be looked at again.

Like, when did you last look at the outputs from that workshop 6 months ago? 3 months ago? Last week? Seriously, no one ever looks back at these things. So why do we do them?

What's the big lie of the workshop?

Why does everyone always lie at the end? They say how great the day was.

They thank everyone for their energy. And didn’t the facilitator/organizer do a great job?

And yet, if you watch people closely, see how often they yawn. Check their phones. Stare out the window. Their body language shows they’re lying

Plus any introverts in the room will find the workshop like being in purgatory.

A woman with a finger over her mouth making the shhhh signal

There’s nothing like the despair of having to listen, and yet not be listened to. And watching what stupid ideas get approved because of how loudly they were supported, not how smart they were.

Damn power-dotting. We hate it.

Give everybody a vote and look what happens. Brexit. Trump. Morrison. Need we say more?

Running a workshop - consider this

There are many reasons workshops make us sigh wearily, and the whole workshop concept is definitely high on the list.

If you work in marketing, creative or e-commerce, your Christmas wish is probably to suffer fewer terrible workshops next year.

Unless someone who knows what they’re doing is running the workshop. Someone who can bring some creative thinking to the process. Someone with brains. Maybe even Three-Brains? 

Yellow post it with illustration of a lightbulb pinned to a wooden pin board

Workshop purpose

First, it’s vital your workshop has a clear purpose. Why are you having it? What do you need the outcomes of the workshop to be? 

Is it ideas? In this case, it’s about idea generation. Is it a plan? In which case it’s part of your marketing planning process. Or is it innovation concepts to boost your innovation planning

Whatever it is, ask yourself, could you achieve that same objective without running a workshop?

Workshops work best when everyone in the room works towards a clear purpose and knows what they need to deliver at the end. 

Workshop attendees

Next, think about the people you invite to the workshop.

You find FOMO – Fear of Missing Out – in many businesses when it comes to workshops. People from different functions get invited because no one wants to miss out on key decisions. 

But when the work goes across many functions, you often have people spending a whole day in a workshop when their expertise is only needed for like 10% of it.

Business meeting round with a man presenting in front of a screen to 5 colleagues

In particular, functions like legal, finance, IT and supply chain get invited to marketing workshops. But they’re there all day when 90% of the focus is on marketing decision-making, and only 10% on stuff that’s relevant to their expertise area. 

Work out your agenda and topics, so you get the right expertise there at the right time. Base the invite list on the expertise people bring, not their job title. 

It’s a workshop, not an approval meeting

Workshop group dynamics

And finally, think about the psychology of how you organise people who have different ideas and opinions to solve a shared problem.

Workshops are draining, as they take lots of mental energy. Think about how long they should last. Do you need an all-day session? Would smaller 90-minute sessions with more focused topics work better? 

Think about the energy of the people in the room. How can you keep them engaged and feel like they’re contributing? How do you stop the loudmouth from taking over? Or the senior decision maker disrupting the session with their opinions? 

Workshop facilitation

Get a decent facilitator who knows how to manage these sorts of challenges.

As per our ways to generate more creative ideas article, the facilitator manages the process, not the content. They’re responsible for making sure the workshop ‘works’.

They know what goes wrong in workshops. They’re experienced at putting together creative and planning sessions which bring people together. And actually work for your business. That’s what a workshop is supposed to be for, after all. 

Close up of a hand with thumb up

Check out our creative thinking guide for more on this. Or get in touch if you need help running a workshop that’ll actually work for your business.

Photo credit

Bored in front of computer : Photo by on Unsplash

Frustrated Man : Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash

Quiet – Shhh! : Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Bulb on Post it : Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

Workshop meeting : Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Thumbs up (adapted) : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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