13 points for a workshop you'll remember

Again and again, we consultants find ourselves organizing a workshop for a client. A time boxed event, usually lasting one or two days, with a clear audience, taking a break from the day to day activities to work through a specific topic. 

Here are my 13 points on organizing a transformative workshop that will be far from boring and will have lasting consequences.

1. Prepare well. Talk to the manager(s) who acquired your services and understand in depth why they felt the need to have it and what they want out of it. Understand the "vibe" of the situation: is it a problem, is it conflict that needs to be worked through, is it a crisis, is it a "peace time" workshop to figure out some new directions or initiative?

2. Involve everyone. Get in touch directly with everyone that will participate. If you already know them and you think you understand the situation well, maybe an email asking for whatever input they may have is enough. If not, you may need to have one to one's with each participant, so you can accurately map the landscape and profoundly understand what you're dealing with. Avoid having more than a dozen people at most in there. 

3. Offer predictability without too much detail. Email out all the key information ahead of time, clearly lay out the main steps, what you expect of them, when, what, the main objectives, but don't go into too much detail. You don't need to send out detailed agendas split by hour or half our. 

4. Isolate them. Take them out of the office, even if it's just across the street to a hotel. Shield them from distractions. Ban laptops and phones, no exceptions. If they need to do something urgent, they can get up, go outside, get it done, and come back when they're ready.

5. Do anything to avoid a shallow workshop. The biggest risk you face is not going deep enough and leaving the key problems and tensions unspoken and unaddressed. The next few steps are specifically designed to avoid this.

6. Start the day with their input and with the ground rules. Sometime in the beginning, go around the table and ask each to introduce themselves and to say what they want to get out of the day. Also explain yourself, your way of working, what you expect of them.  

7. Minimize theory and games. Use at max 20% of your time for theory, and then only in very simple form and only if it helps you trigger and manage the conversations that are about to follow.  For example, if you have a team in conflict, talk a bit about different personalities and how they can clash without meaning to, so you set the mental frame to "yes, we're different, maybe that's a part of it". Don't make it too intense though, it's very important that the theory is just the starter and the conversation is the main course. Keep it frugal. To force me to do this, I personally avoid slides all together. I have a mini agenda on my (physical) notebook and in the room I only use a flipchart. 

8. Your main goal is real conversations. Real conversation is when people talk openly, honestly, from the bottom of their hearts, about the core issues and problems that matter to them, including criticizing others in the room if they have to. Whenever you're politely talking about personality types or whatever, you are missing an opportunity to have a real conversation. Everything you do is ultimately about making them able to have real conversations.

8. Create silence and discomfort, don't be afraid of conflict. State topics and issues simply and decisively, be direct and challenge their sense of comfort. And then shut up until they fill the space. Don't blink first, let them speak. Have a backup if they say nothing, have a list of things you know are important, which you've gathered during prep. Jump in to keep the conversation going in a useful direction, jump in if you think the conversation is too shallow, ask clarifying questions, insist, push. Do it politely, gently if need to, but do it. This is your one major advantage as a consultant: you are free from their history, you don't have to respect their tabus, their way of doing things, you don't have to assume the things they assume, you can say things they didn't know they could say. Subtly or directly, break all the patterns and put them in new situations so they can come up with new thoughts. You're not there to make them feel good or to put on a show, you're there to make them better.

9. State the obvious too. Tell them what you see. What kind of a team do you see? How are they behaving? What are they doing? Describe to them how you see them. How do they compare to the usual team you see? They might find out something new from this. 

10. Acknowledge their feelings and then, politely, tell them to fuck their feelings. It's important for them to feel safe, to know that nobody is attacking them personally and everyone has best intentions at heart. Do address and discuss this and make sure it's the case. After this, it's equally important to no turn the whole thing into a hippie fest of oversharing. Ok, we all feel different things in different ways, let's not get stuck in that, we're here to make decisions. What decisions do we want to make?

11. Agree on outcomes & focus on accountability. What will they do differently from now on? What decisions do they want to make? Reinforce again and again that the only worthwhile decisions are the ones where someone says "I will do it by the date of X". "We should ...", "It would be nice if ...", these are not decisions. Who is going to do what by then? Keep asking this until you get owners and deadlines. 

12. Have a flexible agenda. Have a few key objectives, but be ready to flex your agenda. A great workshop is a game of tight & lose: you know when you need to stop a conversation or refocus it, but you also know when you need to let it go in new unexpected directions, because they're valuable. 

13. Follow-up with an email summary to all. The next day ideally, come back with an email to all with some key observations and a summary of decisions made. 

And, as bonus, 14: be willing to select your clients. Not everyone needs or appreciates a transformative workshop. Be ready to say no. Part of preparation is understanding what they want and need and if you can give it to them or not. 

This is it. Good luck!