Successful workshops help groups to achieve their goals and agree actions for the future, whether they are run in-person, virtual or hybrid.
I suspect, though, that we've all experienced times when things went wrong and complications got in the way. Perhaps the host's broadband failed on a virtual meeting, throwing everybody out of the meeting? Perhaps you still have nightmares remembering a workshop where you had to deal with dominant and aggressive executives? Perhaps conflict broke out between participants, or even worse, between you and a member of the group? Whatever complications you've come across, you can probably remember them vividly.
In this article, we'll explore ways to overcome workshop problems. We’ll start with stress, which causes huge issues for workshop leaders. Then we'll explore how to design workshops to make it less likely that things will go wrong. Finally, we'll look at the best ways to handle things in the moment in a workshop where something unexpected happens.
Leading a workshop can be stressful at the best of times, as there's a lot of focus on workshop leaders. Stress makes a huge difference to our capabilities and not always in a good way. We’ve all heard of the fight, flight, freeze responses I’m sure!
What causes stress in workshops? I asked a group of business analysts about causes of workshop stress a few years ago and their top answer was people. Other aspects included:
- dominant or challenging stakeholders,
- big egos,
- conflict breaking out,
- time pressure,
- hidden agendas,
- the environment,
- technology breakdown,
- unexpected things happening
- and much, much more.
So, how can we manage stress? One aspect is to be much more aware of how we personally handle stress. Many of us prefer to feel in control of everything, but the more we try and micromanage what's happening in a workshop, the more stressful it's likely to be. As the pressure rises, it can be helpful to remind yourself that everyone there is in this together. Everybody, whether in the room, virtual or hybrid space, can see different perspectives and possibilities. Rather than taking on all the pressure yourself, use others for input and support.
As people leading workshops, it is easy to feel that people expect us to be perfect. It’s as if there was a spotlight trained on us throughout. Have you had that feeling? It can be very stressful to feel you have to be the perfect workshop leader, especially when things go wrong - and they often do!
Aiming for perfection is not realistic. What works well with groups is to step out from under your metaphorical spotlight and point the spotlight on the group as a whole. They are the focus, not us. So, instead of worrying too much about ourselves, we focus on the group, their needs and the best way of getting their work done. This reduces stress and means that we are more able to be our best.
Preparing for a workshop
Would you like to have tips about what works in your organisation and how you can tailor your workshops to be the best they can be in your own environment? Simply ask the question: 'What has worked well in workshops?'
Apply this to your own workshops and other people’s. Find out what's gone well, note it and then ask: 'What do you wish had been different in previous sessions?' You'll gather lots of ideas for applying good practice, plus ideas for improvement specific to your own setting. (This also works for a quick review at the end.)
Preparation is so important: the planning that goes into your workshop will have a direct impact on how smoothly your workshop runs and the quality of the outcomes. Design your workshop for collaboration, focusing on three Ps:
- What's the purpose? What’s the point of meeting? This should drive everything else.
- Which people should be involved? Start with the purpose and that should inform who should be there and who should not.
- What is the process? How will you take the group through to the end, having met the agreed purpose?
Consider upfront the complications that might arise for your session and design them out as far as you can. What about the people? What conflict might there be between them? Who might be dominant? Is there time pressure? What hidden agendas might there be? How can you tweak the environment to make it work better, whether in-person, virtual or hybrid?
In detailed preparation, it helps to complete my Magic 6TM statements. You can use these again at the start of the workshop to ensure that everyone is absolutely clear:
- 'We are here to...' which states the purpose. Agree this again at the start of your workshop.
- 'Today, we will...' gives four or five objectives, which go into more detail on what you'll cover on the day
- 'Our plan...' gives the time-plan for the session, such as breaks, start and finish times and perhaps a high-level overview of what is happening when.
- 'Who's doing what?' covers the roles people will play. Make sure that everyone is clear on these. If you are in a virtual or hybrid session, you'll find roles such as action scribes, timekeepers and digital buddies in the room for remote participants are especially helpful.
- 'How we work together...' is really important. It sets what some call ‘ground rules’. (I find it is better not to call them rules as this sets the wrong tone!) These cover how the group will work together. It is far better to talk about how things might go off course and agree up front how you’d tackle them. Having 'how we work together' agreed takes a lot of the pressure off you as facilitator and means that, if something difficult happens, you will already have discussed and agreed how to handle it.
- 'What's next?' where you explain how you'll capture actions and follow them up.
In the moment
You are in your workshop. You have learnt lessons from previous sessions, you have carefully prepared, the right people are present and you have a clear process to achieve your purpose. You have plan A ready (plus plans B, C and more up your sleeve just in case, to give you flexibility). You are focusing on the group, with the metaphorical spotlight on them, not on you. All's well.
And then it happens. Something goes wrong. Let's take an example: a participant in your session bursts into tears and runs out of the workshop. You haven't said or done anything that could have caused this, so this reaction comes as a complete shock. You might find out later why the person burst into tears. But you might not. It probably wasn't anything to do with the workshop, despite your concerns about what you might have done to provoke it. When unexpected things happen, people are usually happy if you call a short break, say five minutes long. That gives time for a conversation, if appropriate, with the person involved and a chance to sort things out if needed.
Or perhaps something else happens. A participant challenges you about what the group is doing and thinks that it would be a much better idea to ditch the rest of the agenda and keep going on the current task. This individual is really challenging and dominant. The temptation is to respond immediately to the individual, defending the original agenda, but this sets things up for an argument.
It's much more powerful to remember the spotlight and focus on the group as a whole. One way of doing this is to say: 'We agreed this purpose. If you would like to stick to that purpose and deliver the outcomes we agreed, then we need to move on. However, if you as a group prefer to arrange another session to do these things, then we could go into more detail on this step. What would you prefer?' Then see what happens.
Can you see the difference that it makes if you are well prepared, with stress under control and you have thought about what you might do?
Workshops can be hard, but they are an incredibly powerful way to collaborate, whether in-person, virtual or hybrid. When run creatively, they can be engaging and productive. Leading workshops, it's really helpful to be both confident and competent. Most BCS members won't have been trained in facilitation skills, but these can be really helpful. We've touched on a few key areas in this article: handling stress, designing your workshops and choosing how to react in the moment and there is much more available to help.
About the author
Dr Penny Pullan MBCS has been using workshops in projects and programmes for more than 20 years and is recognised as a Master Facilitator by the International Association of Facilitators. Her expertise in virtual and hybrid, as well as in-person workshops, has helped thousands of people since the pandemic. She is the founder of www.makingprojectswork.co.uk and is the author of five books.
Penny’s latest book, Making Workshops Work - Creative Collaboration for Our Time is available from all good bookshops and online from https://amzn.to/2UuHV37.