If you’ve ever wondered what a workshop is exactly, this blog post is for you.
What is a workshop?
A workshop is an interactive meeting in which a group of people goes through a series of activities to achieve to solve a problem or work on a project. Workshops are often led by a facilitator and can range from a couple of hours to multiple days.
This is our go-to definition of a workshop. But be aware that the word workshop has several meanings that depend on the perspective of the viewer:
- An educator might see a workshop as an interactive learning session with peer-to-peer and learn by doing elements
- An expert might see it as a way to bring together people with a common interest to hold intense discussions on a topic
What is the purpose of a workshop?
The purpose of a workshop is to create a space in which a group of people can meet to discuss questions, brainstorm ideas, identify problems, make decisions and develop solutions.
This space often doesn’t exist in the busy schedule of day-to-day work. On average, professionals spend 21,5 hours in meetings spread across their week. This leaves little time for deep work. Especially when you consider that not all meetings are back-to-back and therefore naturally split the day into 1-2 hour blocks of actual work.
Workshops create a space for deep, meaningful work to happen and also help to tap into the wisdom of the group. This is especially interesting if you are standing in front of a complex, interdisciplinary challenge such as doing Strategic Planning.
What are examples of a workshop?
Workshops come in different shapes and sizes. To give you an idea, how what a workshop looks like we will list two common examples below.
Strategic Planning Workshop
Challenge: The new year is almost around the corner and it’s clear that a new company-wide strategy is necessary to put into place. The strategy would help to prioritize and align efforts towards concrete objectives. But what objectives are the right to set? What are the key challenges at the moment? And how do we create a strategy that sticks with employees?
Outcome: A one-page strategy document that defines the areas of focus and objectives for the next year
Group: Since the strategy affects the entire company, it makes sense to invite one senior leader from each area (e.g Sales, Product, HR, Marketing …)
Process: At the start, everyone get’s individual time to write down the challenges and problems in their area. After that, challenges will be discussed, enriched, and made visible on a board. From there, challenges will be prioritized with everyone's vote for their impact on the company using a Priority Pyramid. This creates a cluster of key challenges that stand out to everyone. In a second phase, the team brainstorms strategic objectives that address the key challenges. These are again discussed and prioritized, but this time with an Impact / Effort Matrix that is done for each area. In the end, a group of clear and impactful objectives emerges.
[.box-highlight]Tip: You can find more templates to use in our workshop template library.[.box-highlight]
Challenge: A team just wrapped up a project they have been working on for almost a year. Originally, the project was supposed to take only six months to complete. Clearly, there were some unexpected difficulties and challenges. What went well with the project, and what didn’t? And what can the team learn from it?
Outcome: Learning from the past, gathering insights, and surfacing possible quick wins for working better as a team
Process: At the start, everyone takes time to do the Rose, Thorn, Bud retrospective individually. Then each team member can share their sticky notes with the group and they are collected on one board. Once all sticky notes are on the board, the team groups similar sticky notes together. Based on the visual clusters of key areas of concern, the team goes into Start / Stop / Continue to brainstorm changes to their working process. These are discussed to a point, where the group agrees on a small set of actions to take.
Workshop Best Practices
Workshops often tackle difficult, complex challenges. And since there are many people involved, there is always a risk of things going wrong. But there are some best practices, that help you to keep a workshop on track.
Have a facilitator
For workshops, it’s essential to have someone on board that guides the group through the process and activities. This makes it easier for the group to focus entirely on the content of the workshop and to make meaningful progress.
If there is no facilitator present, you can consider doing it yourself. If you are sure how to approach it, you can consider taking a course in facilitation beforehand.
Good workshops stand and fall by their preparation. The better you understand the challenge to be solved, the better you can design a process for it. And the better you know the goals and needs of each participant, the better you can prepare to avoid conflicts or unhappy participants. When it comes to workshops, good preparation is doing the heavy lifting.
"When it comes to workshops, good preparation is doing the heavy lifting"
Have clear outcomes
Nothing can be more confusing and disorienting for a group, than not knowing where things are leading. As a facilitator, you always want to make clear what the expected outcome of the workshop is and highlight why this is valuable for the group. This not only creates clarity but also gets you buy-in from participants. Which makes them more engaged in the content.
A great way to do this is to ask the three H questions:
- What do you want people to have in their hands (deliverables)?
- What do you want people to have in their heads (knowledge)?
- What do you want people to have in their hearts (beliefs)?
This simple method comes from The Secrets of Facilitation (Michael Wilkinson), one of our favorite facilitation books.
Frequently asked questions
Workshop vs. Meeting: What is the difference?
A meeting is simply a gathering of two or more people that share a common purpose. A workshop is a type of interactive meeting, that involves a larger group, that engage in a set of activities to discuss or solve a problem.
Workshop vs. Seminar: What is the difference?
A seminar is a way of teaching knowledge and skills to a group through lectures. On the other hand, a workshop is a meeting, that builds upon the interaction between participants, to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and build skills.