The #1 way to ensure a smooth-running workshop
I’ve facilitated workshops for many years now, and while I’m always tweaking activities, structure, materials etc., it’s rare that I come across something that completely shakes up my practice.
But since I’ve started doing this **ONE SIMPLE TRICK** I’ve noticed huge returns on investment. Our workshops run smoother, we achieve our goals more reliably, and best of all, there’s no longer any unexpected surprises on workshop day.
It’s real simple, everyone can do it, here it is:
Call people and talk to them prior to the workshop.
That’s it. Get folks on the phone for a conversation ahead of time and you can eliminate 90% of the problems that knock workshops off-track. Why?
1) You’ll have a much better understanding of the context of the project
There’s nothing worse than going into a workshop and finding out that the people in the room have different expectations than you about what you’re trying to accomplish. A handful of conversations with key people will teach you more about the project than any amount of reading documents or preparing in isolation.
2) You’ll know about conflicts ahead of time and can strategize on how to resolve them
Sharp disagreements are challenging (and stressful!) to manage on the fly. By talking to individual participants ahead of time, you will have a good idea of what fixed ideas people are bringing in to the workshop and where conflict might arise. You can plan ahead to frame those issues in productive ways and lead activities to address them.
3) Personality problems disappear (or are greatly reduced)
If you’ve ever had a difficult workshop experience, you know that one challenging personality can derail the best-planned agenda. Spending some individual time with people ahead of time can eliminate these behaviors completely. In a one-on-one conversation, you can give people a forum to give their unfiltered perspective and to validate their emotions and ideas (even if ultimately those ideas aren’t implemented). You also have the opportunity to more fully explain your role and answer any questions or address any concerns someone might have
Being heard and respected is all it takes to win over the majority of people, and for those who aren’t won over, you’ll know who they are ahead of time and can come prepared to handle their shenanigans.
How do you conduct these interviews?
Ask your point of contact to select key people for you to talk to—I usually ask for around 5 people. I always suggest asking them to include anyone who might have “veto” power over the effort, even if those folks won’t be actually attending the workshop. Make sure you had enough lead time so you can customize the workshop based on what you learn!
Schedule those folks for a conversation (ideally 30–45 mins, but 10-15 mins is fine if that’s all you can get). I start the call with a brief description of who I am, what I’m doing, and why I want to hear their perspective. Give them the opportunity to ask you clarifying questions, then dive in!
I always ask about:
1) Their role and responsibilities
2) What the current project means to them
3) What they hope to get out of the workshop itself
4) Any constraints or risks that they are worried about
Don’t stick too rigidly to your script, and keep your language open-ended and neutral. “Tell me about…”, “Can you give me some context around…”, “What are some issues with…” etc. are good stems to use. Conduct it like a conversation rather than an interview — the goal isn’t to write up the results, but help you understand the business context and team dynamics well enough to design an effective workshop.
Never go in blind again…
If you haven’t done this before, try it out ahead of your next workshop. It takes the guesswork out of workshop design and vastly reduces the amount of things that can go wrong on workshop day.