Tales of Horror: Workshop Edition | Sherpas in Blue Shirts

Workshops are common in the global services industry, for all purposes from solutioning to product/service updates to team building and more. But depending on how they’re run, they can be exciting or dreadful, valuable or time wasters.

In our 20+ years of workshop facilitation, we’ve seen some “interesting” things. Here are our top tips on how to ensure your next workshops are successful – or not.

“I’m not sure who needs to be there, so let’s invite everyone.”

We’ve all heard the phrase “the more the merrier.” But whoever said it wasn’t talking about workshops. Even multi-day workshops always seem tight for time, so you need to be targeted on who you’re inviting.

  • The big bosses: We’ve seen two types of head honchos at workshops.
    • Those who don’t want to participate at all in the workshops because they’re too busy doing “boss stuff” (aka cigars, scotch, and riding in helicopters)
    • Those who show up and take over the show (I’m the smartest, listen to me!)

Although it’s important to have execs present at workshops, their presence should be limited to an overview and conclusion. They need to understand what’s happening, but still be distant enough to let their project managers be involved, since they’re the ones who are responsible for the outcomes.

  • The SMEs: It’s always tough when you’re an SME relied on for niche information. On one hand, if you leave the office to attend a workshop, something for which you’re accountable could go wrong. On the other hand, you need to be at the workshop on the off chance a question is directed to you. For this reason, we recommend having a smaller core group of SMEs present during the workshop, and having a balance group on standby to answer questions as required.
  • The scary consultants: Since I work for a consulting firm, I can’t knock consultants in general. But there’s also a time and a place for everything. Having an external consulting firm facilitate workshops can be a huge benefit in terms of coordinating suppliers, questions, and time, but their presence should be just that.  When you allow an external consulting group to ask questions on your behalf and take over your responsibilities, you’re reducing the participation of your own staff. Let us facilitate and prod, but your team must remain very involved.

“This is an important subject, so let’s block everyone’s calendar and see how it goes.”

No matter how long you decide your workshop will run, it’ll never be enough. You’ll always have participants asking for more presentation time. But the workshop needs to follow a strict outline, or you risk giving undue benefit to one participant over another.

  • Busy, busy, busy: When booking the workshop, don’t just block out 9 hours. Separate the day incredibly clearly by section, participants, time, and goals. By having different groups of people in different sessions, you keep the teams engaged for their part, and ensure you don’t go over their time.
  • Thanks, we can read: Workshops are for conversations and back-and-forth discussions, not sitting back and listening to PowerPoint presentations. If there are parts of a workshop that need less dialogue, get the presenter to submit the material by email for participants’ advance reading, and free up the actual presentation time for more fruitful conversation.
  • Breaks are for breaks and for breaks: Breaks should be scheduled, and used just for that. Letting people present during breaks in order to get more time is not helpful or fair to the people in the room. You’re asking your team to participate, and put their phones and laptops away, with an understanding that they’ll get time during breaks to catch up on business. By taking away their breaks, they’ll be distracted, and irritated, during the sessions.

“Workshop done! Let’s grab a drink.”

Follow-up afterwards is just as important as the workshop itself. It’s critical to have someone tracking actions, questions, and follow-up activities post-workshop to close off any open items.

  • I was supposed to do what?: It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often actions aren’t tracked properly. When an action is assigned during a workshop, it must be tracked with an action, date, and responsible party, at a minimum. At the end of the day, all actions should be read out or distributed (depending on the volume) to ensure all parties know and understand their marching orders.
  • And then what happens?: Suppliers are humans too, (most of them), and too often they’re kept in the dark. If your workshop includes suppliers, having a clear timeline of the game plan coming out of meeting will help ease their frustration, and reduce the number of phone calls you get from them on weekends asking the same questions. Build a calendar with anticipated dates so suppliers can see when you’re planning the next round of workshops, follow up calls, individual sessions, etc.
  • I give you an “A” for effort: Workshop evaluations are always important, and not just on a potential solution but also on the process, participation, and ways to make the next one better. Make sure you capture and relay concerns and positive feedback to both the facilitators and the presenters to help them meet your expectations.

Do you have any workshop horror stories to share with our readers? My last tales-of-horror entry on SOWs may provide some inspiration. If you have any other topics you’d be interested in reading about, don’t be shy; we can all use a humorous break!

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