How to design a 1 day workshop in 10 minutes and 10 reasons why you shouldn’t.

If you work in collaboration or event design or facilitation or anything similar, you will probably recognise the following scenario; a client or a colleague arrives at your desk/office/bean bag and says ‘I need a workshop, here is the agenda, can you please deliver it’.

This is not a scenario which is repeated in many other places. You tend to ask help from SMEs based on the presumption that they are the experts. Accordingly, I don’t arrive at the dev managers start-up meeting and say ‘I’ve designed the sprint myself, can you just run it’. However, everyone has been to events and workshops so everything thinks they can do it. Everyone has also eaten a cake but they don’t tell Gordon Ramsay how to bake one.

So, if you are going to do it anyway, here is your 10 minute design guide.

1)     Pick some clear messages about what you need to get out of the session – get the most important person to give them

2)     Give people things to think about – case studies, examples, articles, quotes, videos etc. Pick some customers or employees to tell some meaningful stories to surprise

3)     Let everyone whine about the problems (then politely tell that it’s in the past, gone, forgotten, yesterday, today is about the future……pause for effect

4)     Set a new context and play a game – build, paint, draw, act. Pick some obvious metaphors which demonstrate the theme – customer, working together, value, cost savings whatever

5)     Pick the main areas you want to talk about – have a nice chat to discuss what’s important, have some ideas and then a group chat to discuss

6)     Have another go – more pointed, specific, objective driven, have another group chat

7)     Decide what to do with what you have discussed – plan, initiatives (start to work on output if you have time

8)     Group photo and everyone agrees to commit to do something


Have a go at this in 10 minutes and see how you do.

Then please throw it in the bin and go back to the start (ideally by asking someone who knows how to do it if they are available). Here is why

1)     Facilitation is an art as well as a science – if you have been in a workshop with a good facilitator, you will know the difference in how the flow and rhythm of the event works. They ask the right questions, know when to push and know when to let things run. People who do this all the time are better than you because they have experience but mostly because they put in a huge effort in preparation. They might say ‘this is probably a daft question’, if they do, you can bet they have a pre-prepared laser targeted gem ready to go.

2)     You have to go slow before you can go fast – you will think that it’s wasting time to talk about different things, or to go in circles for a while. You do so because you can’t get straight to the heart of the value without taking people through a journey. It’s then much quicker at the end than at the start.

3)     Creativity needs to be applied correctly – anyone can name film titles and suggest that the event is themed with pictures of Disney characters or the all time classic ‘a mountain’. This misses a huge trick if you don’t spend the time connecting a theme with the program or the organisation etc. Likewise, during the session, you have to recognise that people create and imagine in different ways and you can’t force a one size fits all e.g. everyone have 50 ideas on these post it notes……..

4)     Every hour of an event needs a day of preparation – you have to respect the time being taken out of the business and the potential for the event. Unless you can sacrifice some people to (at a rough scale) commit 1 day per hour of session in the preparation, then you are missing an opportunity.

5)     Managing people is on a logarithmic scale – a 100 person workshop is 1000 times harder than a 10 person one. It’s like managing babies 1 is hard, 2 is harder, 3 is nightmarish. The logistical challenge alone going from 10 to 50 people is a huge difference. Please don’t start with a 20 person event, announce that 53 are coming and wonder why the design team are in tears

6)     You don’t know how long things take – if you have an agenda with ‘process redesign session’ which has been allocated 20 minutes, you are going to struggle. You have to recognise that rushing to an answer isn’t worth it if it’s a bad answer. Take direction on how long things take.

7)     Pretty pictures and graphics are lipstick on a pig unless they mean something – people engage really well with visuals/graphics but it’s like anything else shiny, it needs the substance beneath. Rubbish beautifully scribed on a board with hand drawn pictures is still rubbish.

8)     Unless you are extremely clear about what you are trying to achieve then you won’t get there – you need to apply some critical thinking to event design as with anything else. You usually get a view of ‘what’ you want to achieve fairly quickly – a strategy paper, an aligned plan etc. That’s not how you build a great workshop, you need to peel back layers of ‘why’ or the whole thing crumbles at the first challenge. The preparation needs to make sure you answer these questions in advance.

 9)     You need to know the psychology about who is coming and know how to handle them – fundamentally, a workshop is about people, if it wasn’t then you wouldn’t need it in the first place. You could get some strategy consultants in a room, throw them some expensive peanuts once a week and read whatever they give you. So, you need to take the time to understand who is coming, what the dynamic of the group is and work through how to manage them individually. 

10)  You need to think differently – some independence of thought and some disruption in how you would normally run things is of huge value. A different perspective adds immensely to the process and will generate questions that you’ve likely not thought of.

There’s a whole lot more to the above and I’ve missed a pile out but hopefully you can appreciate my message namely; respect the value of a workshop and consider the possibilities. Running a bad workshop is easy. Running a good one takes time, thought and imagination. If your organisation has skills and support available, you’d be mad not to use them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: