What is the difference between a workshop and an extended group discussion with exercises?

Cynics might reply “several hundred pounds”, as workshops often cost more. When designed and facilitated well, the extra cost is justified. There are several key differences.

The workshops we use now arose from a 19th century cooperative philosophy to support workers’ rights.  They still bear the hallmarks of a democratic and participatory process. People who take part in focus groups are called ‘respondents’, whereas people attending workshops are ‘participants’. Respondents react to questions and stimulus material, but participants actively create the content of the workshop. In Open Space Technology workshops they even create the agenda and the process.

Respondents looking happy and interestedUnlike groups, workshops benefit from including a very wide range of participants. It is important to set up the invitations and the icebreakers to emphasise that everyone can contribute equally. Hierarchies and work roles are set aside; the focus is on what people can bring to the workshop. The communal agenda is of more importance than individual egos or departmental politics.  An important part of the preparation is to get all the stakeholders to agree on what they want to achieve, and what the outputs should be.

Workshops are a space where participants are empowered, and the benefits of collaborative group work truly shine through. This is why they create more buy-in, and more authentic solutions – because the participants themselves have the ultimate responsibility for the delivery of the results.

The basic format includes discussion at small tables (so everyone can have a voice), the results of which are summarised for the workshop as a whole. There are many tools and anonymous voting procedures to help prioritise findings, avoiding influence by the loud and powerful few.  The purpose of workshop ‘games’ is twofold:

  1. To create an engaging process for examining, unravelling, creating the relevant issues and ideas
  2.  To get people to think differently by using multi-channel design

You should never include an activity or a game in a workshop plan without knowing exactly what the rationale for it is.

Common issues with workshops:

People who attend are un-motivated.

Discuss with the stakeholders who really needs to be there. Then ‘sell’ them the workshop in terms of what they will get out of it. Choose interesting venues, or create a theme for a normal venue. Bribe them with lunch.  Once they have been to a really good workshop they will want to come again.

Some people don’t speak up

Use workshop tools and techniques that make this impossible. Round table discussions, speed dating, quests, collaging – paticipants cannot not be involved.

Workshops are dominated by senior individuals

There is no point in having a workshop if its going to be run like a normal meeting. Tell the individual/s concerned they will waste their money if they want to come and direct the workshop. Give them another role (e.g.keynote speaker, roaming photographer) and/or agree in advance that the facilitator has ultimate power on the day – once the process has been agreed. There are many techniques for managing over-talkative people.

Departmental differences flare up

Mix up the seating so people from different departments have to collaborate. Use techniques and games designed to build empathy, and see another’s point of view. Stop the workshop and get participants to suggest how they could deal with their differences. Use anonymous voting.

Facilitator worries that it will take too long and not produce results

Workshops need to have a solid facilitation plan, agreed in advance by all stakeholders. This is timed, so if the workshop is running late the facilitator can consult with the group. If one section takes too long, they can choose what else is dropped or cut short.

Workshop tools and techniques produce materials that reflect the outcomes and process of the workshops. Flip charts, photos, votes, ideas, all are captured in visual or written form. A professional note taker is a good idea. But above all it is important to devote a significant segment to summarising, pulling out implications, and planning future actions.

What is the role of the facilitator?

Consulting with the stakeholders, developing a workshop process and a plan that will meet their objectives. This part can take twice as long as the workshop itself. It will include analysing and really understanding their needs, as well as practicalities such as invitations, guests, pre-workshop tasks, venue, logistics, etc.

Facilitators need to be neutral to maintain their credibility. They need more than group moderation skills. They must also model the non-judgemental, candid yet sensitive behaviour they expect from participants. It is the facilitator’s role to encourage participation, confront distractions, help people clarify their thinking, and help negotiate collective decisions.

You can download a Facilitation Skills Self Assessment to understand in more detail.

See also The Workshop Manual, which includes the theory of workshops, how to plan and over 100 tools and techniques that you can adapt and use for any type of workshop.