Designing Workshop & Seeking Your Advice…

I wonder if I can ask for your advice on something? Over the last few months, I’ve been asked to do more workshops and I could use your advice on designing a format and structure that would work best.

While a speaker’s job is to passionately share their ideas, workshops are about applying ideas in a specific context and towards solving a specific situation. For example, if a General Manager wanted to do more open innovation but was struggling to have the organization be more “open”, then together we would discuss what that looks like now, what the team imagines it would look like and work through the specific cultural and strategic shifts. Or, if a CMO wanted their organization to be more purposeful in their work, we might first start with what role purpose plays in the Social Era and then brainstorm together what the shared purpose could be and how to test that hypothesis. Workshops are a private and safe way for a set of leaders or colleagues to talk through things they wouldn’t necessarily want in a more public forum.

Workshop Setting

For someone like me, for whom real business problems are like a bone to a dog, this is a great way to work with teams. Workshops let me bring my 20 plus years of operating experience to bear – solving real and present problems (without going back to being a consultant). And compared to many other speakers who are academics, etc this is a perfect use of my time.

One of my speakers bureau has been expanding their offering to include workshops and of course, we’ve done a few so far. For each one, we’ve been customizing the situation. I thought I could share what is (generically) done so far and ask for what you think is missing or needs to be tuned. This will “standardize” the offer at least in terms of structure — for others. The whole point of doing a workshop is to customize it for the situation at hand. In the interest of creating along side others, I thought given that so many of you face and have real-life situations, you could critically assess how a workshop should best be structured to maximize impact (measured by value delivered and shift achieved over least painful and shortest period of time).

Current Structure

Before hand:

  1. Background that organization shares to provide context is devoured.
  2. Consult (up to an hour) of their current business. I dig around and ask questions, to figure out which thing needs to be addressed first, because quite often just framing the question well is key to creating the shift.
  3. Of course, content is created and customized to frame that topic for that business/ group / situation. I can use content I’ve created for New How, or Social Era but also anything else that makes sense. It’s my latest thinking, even untested stuff but focused on this particular area …

At the workshop itself.

  1. Frame the ideas.
  2. Hold a discussion (which I can facilitate given that I’m a certified facilitator or just participate actively in) to get team problem solving around what we decide in area #1. It has to be narrow enough to be actionable but broad enough to be meaty. We agree on the topline but then let the conversation go where it needs to go.
  3. Make sure things become actionable by end.
  4. The thing that is in the moment lets me ask the questions the group needs to answer but I’m working from within their context.
  5. Typically, in a 4-6 hour timeframe, the agenda would be something like:15 min intros all around.
    30 minute keynote to frame
    15 minute Q&A to make sure we have a shared understanding.
    Coming back to focus on the key question —
    2-4 hour discussion.  (obviously break in between if longer…)
    1-hour developing next steps group wants to take.

    The breaks are designed for people to breathe and process so that when they talk, they are more committed to what they are jointly developing. We might all go walk around outside for a few minutes and capture some sunshine before we come back together….

Post-Meeting Followup. Typically, I will follow up with the leader after the workshop with my own thoughts and guidance on what I observed and maybe some resources that came to mind and so on.

Okay. What’s missing for this to be most valuable?

Heating up The Organization

The only thing that is important… I’m not going back into full-on consulting –

this workshop has to be a contained process that can be 1 or 2 days long so the organization doesn’t feel they have to keep hiring a consultant but can use this kind of event to kickstart the right conversations within their organization. We want to create enough heat and energy from the workshop that it fuel the organization forward.

The last time I asked you for this kind of raw feedback was when we first named this blog, Yes * Know, with your direction. So a big, BIG thanks — in advance — for your advice!

One reason I so fervently believe in openness is because I see how much value there is in being open with others and co-creating value as we go along.

17 Replies

  1. I love the format Nilofer. I think it really makes sense to frame the question that can lead to transformational thinking. I’d say my biggest piece of “advice” would be making sure in your #2. of the “before hand” section that you have enough time in there. I think it really helps if you (the facilitator) spend time on the phone with key participants in the meeting to understand their perception of the situation. The leader doesn’t always know the perspective of the team as well as they think (!) and often there are really meaty insights that can be shared with an external facilitator that are pivot points for the work – and create buy in for those about to participate in it.
    I’m looking forward to a workshop with you one day!

    1. Sarah – thanks for that. SOOO true. Getting to the right question is everything and of course where my intuition and experience really combine to spot things the aren’t saying… But I could easily add in a few conversations … like 3 conversations or something like that to make sure the question is right. Gives me a feel for where people are coming from and getting to know them also. Would make the day more effective.

  2. How about adding a little more space and a little more collaboration earlier in the process?

    Just like the breaks give a some space to breath and to process things, you could allow for some iteration and collaboration with (or at least messaging to) the larger audience earlier in the process.

    It’d be great if that first hour discovery could be recorded and shared with the full audience in advance. This would require the leader to open up a bit, but if that discussion happened in the open, such as a recorded call, the mp3 file could be shared with the full audience/team in advance. That may spark some internal conversation that could happen well in advance of your live visit.

    Similarly, your level setting keynote, could be recorded on video and sent to the team in advance. That’d give them some time to process, discuss, and prepare more and better questions.

    Then, the live action would likely go deeper and be more productive.

    Great idea – workshops vs. consulting. And great move to open up the design. Best of luck!


    1. Tom, there is no way to do expectations in advance. For any of us who do read/ watch to get ready for things, there are vast groups who do not. And the point is to go on a journey together. I gave two talks last week, and in one of them, the participants had been sent one link. Do you know many read it? Out of twenty, none.

  3. Hi Nilofer,
    I’d like to share two exercises that I use and find extremely impactful:

    The first one is asking the participants to bring two artifacts to the workshop. The first artifact (could be an object, image, memory etc…) should be a metaphor that they use to describe the current state of the problem you try to solve. The second one should define the desired future state. Here is why I think it works: We are hardwired to think in terms of images, not words. It makes the problems tangible, and facilitates the “how-to” part. But most important thing is this: It is a fun yet effective way to kickstart people’s “engagement” prior to the workshop. They come in mentally ready. Once people are mentally engaged, their ideas flow seamlessly.

    The second one is about visioning. It is often said that a memory of the future is more powerful than a memory of the past. Active imagining is proven to be highly effective to solve problems. Again, I find it very useful in order to agree and start co-creating the future. Here is the exercise I use:


    1. Thanks so much for these additions and thoughts. I have done the artifacts thing before but without your prompting may to have remembered it for this.

  4. Nilofer, I would say that you could gain a lot by allowing workshop participants to anonimously make their input before and after the workshop, when people is away from social influences sometimes negative to open communication. You could for example provide a webpage and a workshop code and with specific questions and free format allow people to express views, ideas and feelings about the workshop subject. Comparing these anonimous pre-during-post workshop views could prove valuable. Workshops format, questions, venue, participants, etc provide a frame that many times results in framed answers and results, reducing value.

  5. Hi, Nilofer. A couple of thoughts…

    1. Depending on group size, you might let participants work the problem in small groups, and then pass their solutions on to the next group for iterative thinking. Key here is that each group receives the other’s ideas with a “yes, and” posture… they’re not giving thumbs up/down… they’re accepting the idea on its own terms, and then blowing it out. Do this until each group gets their original idea back for fine-tuning.

    2. I won’t do one-day workshops anymore… have started to insist the group come back together the next morning for two hours to look at their ideas fresh on a good night’s sleep. Do we still like this, or were we just caught up in the moment? Where are the holes… or, better yet, what might make this idea even stronger?

    I’ve found this makes a huge difference in how successfully the ideas are carried forward into the organization… and recently saw some brain science to explain why. (Wish I could find it now!)

    What I like most about it is that it gives *me* the opportunity to sleep on the ideas and come back the next morning with new value, whether challenges, presentation, or considerations going forward.

    I save “Next Steps” for Day 2 as well, as it requires a totally different sort of thinking from problem solving.

    Keep us in the loop!

    1. Jim – the overnight thing is really powerful as people are able to truly process what they believe, or what they need to unlearn before making commitments and thus the commitment made is stronger. I’m going to figure out how to position either one day (maybe for simple problems) or 2 day workshops based on complexity…

  6. Would it make sense to consider ways you might incorporate an element of visual thinking into the 2-4 hour discussion? (e.g. Sketchnotes to highlight key points.) Participants may consider the topic/material with renewed energy or fresh eyes.

  7. A quick note of thanks for all the comments here and in my inbox to shape this workshop. I share ideas as they are developing knowing that together, we can build on each others’ ideas and this clearly showed that… Had several friends who already run workshop businesses say they are “stealing all these ideas” which means that somewhere out there a deeper understanding of some key idea could be happening because of YOU. So thanks, again –

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