Right People in the Workshop

The alchemy that results in a successful workshop depends on starting with the right ingredients: a setting that creates an open climate, a thoughtful agenda design, delivery by facilitators who can build a rapport with the participants, and the presence of willing, committed participants.

We recently facilitated a retreat for an organization that brought together their staff for strategic alignment. It was impressive how smoothly the meeting flowed. Every activity – from the ice-breakers to the serious up-to-your-elbows addressing-conflict exercises – worked like a charm. When it was time to change sub-groups, the groups shifted around. When we switched activities, the group followed. When it was time to reflect, they went quiet and made notes. When it was time to debrief, they talked with passion and commitment. When it was time for play, the group played. It was no surprise that, by the end of the three-day event, at the end of the workshop, the group had met all the client’s objectives.

We can’t take full credit for the success of the workshop. Our agenda design and execution of the program may have had something to do with it, but truthfully, we know that no workshop goes well without the right people in the room.

In this case, the participants who attended the workshop were dedicated to being there. They wanted the workshop to be productive and realized their individual responsibility to participate and create a constructive outcome. They were people who had their egos in check, who wanted to make the most out of this rare occasion to roll up their sleeves and plunge into an important question.

Whatever the purpose of a workshop event – for generating innovative research projects, skill-building, team building, strategy development – a sure-fire way to sabotage it is to invite people to attend who aren’t committed to the meeting outcome, or who have another hidden agenda.

Tourists are lightweight. They may not do anything that specifically detracts from the task at hand but they don’t add much value either. They’re just there to see what happens. They’re not deliberately harmful; it’s just that their lack of concrete participation creates a vacuum. When several people in the group don’t contribute anything of substance, it drains the energy of those who do, and slows the group down instead of driving it forward. Tourists get invited to workshops when the organizers are more interested in getting bodies in the room or including “someone from every department,” instead of thinking about who brings the right skills and the best attitude to the event.

Political Appointees are invited because of their ego, or because they represent a constituency that has an ego problem. They’re included not because of what they can contribute, but because of what they represent. The problem is they come with their own political agenda, which is not always the agenda of the workshop. And because they usually have some clout or authority, they can easily hijack things in the wrong direction.

Eeyores are just like the character in the children’s book Winnie the Pooh; they’re convinced from the start that none of this is going to work. ‘The premise of the meeting is wrong, the facilitators don’t understand the context, and workshops never do any good.’ They participate reluctantly, which impacts the energy of the rest of the people in the room. Paradoxically, Eeyores are often the people who stand to gain the most from a successful event, yet they sabotage it by their inability to let go of their skepticism instead of just trying to make things work. In the end, they get to be right about one thing: these workshops never work (for them).

For some of our events, Knowinnovation uses a psychologist to review the participant applications, gauging the level of ego-control and the capacity to work within an intense group setting. The result of this vetting is a more productive meeting. The facilitators spend much less time worrying about “problem participants” and much more time on the content of the workshop. It doesn’t mean there won’t be healthy conflict and disagreement during the program, but it means the focus of the workshop will be the content and the output, not the personalities.

If you’re going to organize workshop it makes sense to be vigilant about every detail. The right meeting space — whether the workshop is face-to-face or virtual — creates an open climate. Facilitators take the responsibility of moving things along. The program design is critical. But possibly the most important thing to attend to is the guest list: Be sure the right people are invited, participants who care about the outcome and who are prepared to do their part to make your workshop worthwhile.

Know further: A few tips for how to handle difficult participants here and here. And even some ideas for handing a tough participant at a virtual meeting.