Tuesday, September 09, 2003


How do you turn a meeting into a workshop? Do exactly what you'd planned for the meeting, but on MUCH bigger pieces of paper.

Is it me or has there been ‘terminology inflation’ around ‘workshops’. Just as information became elevated to ‘knowledge’, it seems that any old get together has become a ‘workshop’. It got so bad at one company I worked with that they let out a collective groan at the mention of the word. “We don’t want another talking session” they complained. It turned out that ‘workshop’ was used for anything as it sounded action-oriented, but had been diluted so that any unplanned, ill-prepared meeting had been re-badged and people were sick of them.

Even when ‘workshops’ really are full, collaborative get-togethers with a proper plan, they still seem to be an abused format. From my experience of running workshops (and participating in many more), my checklist goes something like this:

"When workshops go bad" - what's wrong with workshops?
* They’re too often used to try to create definitive solutions – the result is often hasty and superficial (e.g. trying to generate a new process)
* They can be a very narrow channel (often people stop a debate just to get done by dinner)
* They encourage abstraction to the banal due to the consensus element (summary post-its lose all nuances of individual ideas). Its like one person’s initial idea is a sharp spike, but then everyone else lays blankets on top so it ends up as a vague lump
* There seems to be a macho element creeps in so that agendas are too-tightly packed (“restroom breaks are for wimps!”)
* It’s very hard to learn from outside during a session as this has a different tempo
* Decisions tend to show a primacy/recency (serial position) effect or undue influence of better orators

When are workshops useful?
* To generate initial ideas from scratch to be worked out later - especially from diversity of people. (this was the original format of brainstorming). Another example is risk analysis to get a broad set of ideas out.
* To reach consensus on something already thought-through i.e. an opportunity for dialog to produce a common mindset (don't confuse with a decision meeting) e.g. A proposed organisational restructuring.
* For bonding or other change experiences. The tangible output irrelevant, the issue is shared experience e.g. storytelling or the ‘change as theatre’ events described in To the Desert & Back where employees of a food factory were taken to a huge landfill site and shown the rotting result of the factory’s inefficiency.
* As a learning-by doing session (dissemination of knowledge already established by those who know it to those ignorant of it e.g. role-play to learn influencing techniques).

Don't use workshops to:
* Shortcut real analysis and creation (a Task Force or Working Group is much better)
* Decide anything not thoroughly understood beforehand (i.e. on a new and complex area, though it’d be OK if an appropriate panel of experts were involved)
* Pretend that by holding a workshop everyone has been consulted and has had a democratic say

Finally, my favourite tip comes from the 3M Meeting website on coping with energy dips. They recommended providing mints to boost blood-sugar levels. But why stop there? How about putting a little speed in the cookies, or drop a few E's into the coffee just before you need to reach a consensus for that all-round sense of bonhomie - better workshops through chemicals :o}

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