How to have workshops that work

Helen Edwards suggests marketing workshops are a total waste of time in her latest Marketing column: "Industrial workshops' outputs were always hard, useful and specific", she says. "Sloppy marketing sessions are where the outputs are normally anything but."

Now as someone who uses workshops a lot, I am of course biased. But I think if, and its a big if, a workshop is well designed, planned and facilitated it can be very effective.

Below I look at her criticisms of workshops, and how to make them better.

1. "Long wearying sessions"…

Poorly designed workshops can indeed drain energy. But if well designed and run, they can inspire and energize. This requires: i) careful design of different exercises, including fresh insight "fuel" ii) reviewing every single input and presentation helps ensure you avoid "death by powerpoint", iii) constructing the right team, of c. 8-10 people, ensures the workshop can move at a pace.

Here's a quote from someone who came out of a workshop I ran yesterday: "I’ve had lots of positive comments following yesterday, and everyone is really engaged and excited as result of the workshop."

More hard data comes from the survey we do before and after every project, to measure the team's clarity and engagement regarding the brand strategy and vision. As you can see below, these positive results from almost 500 people shows workshops can work well. 

2. … "in airless hotel meeting rooms…"

The right venue is key to success. And it needs time, expertise and money to get it right. We spend time to get the right space functionally (big, natural light, lots of space). Also, where possible, we use a venue that brings to life the brand. For example, to work on the Carling Black Label Cup, we held the workshop not in an airless hotel room, but in a South African soccer stadium, including a tour for attendees.

3. "… where ideas rarely happen…"

Ideas rarely happen in workshops where you have the same group of people, in the same place, with no fresh insight to inspire you. However, with the right people and some fresh insight "fuel" you can create good ideas. Solero Shots came from a session looking at insight into how teens consumed soft drinks. The vision to refresh Covent Garden soup came from sharing videos of people in their kitchens talking about the brand. And a new strategy for Kenco business-to-business coffee came from ethnographic trips to coffee shops with people.

Also, you should never expect a single workshop to create all your ideas. That's why we use a "pre-load" of ideas from multiple sources to feed into any workshop.

4. "… and no one should ever criticise…"

Helens suggest that workshops have their "own mini-lexicon of verbal dishonesty: 'challenge' ('I disagree') and 'build' ('I disagree and here's my better idea')". I must say from 100's of workshops that using 'builds' is a good way of creating and deveopling ideas. It encourages people to share 1/2 formed ideas that can be improved, and creates a positive, "can-do" attitude.

In addition, workshops need to be different at different stages of a project. At the beginning, I suggest you should be open, encouraging and, yes, building. However, in the later phase of a project, we take an approach a bit like the Dragons' Den TV show, where there is a lot of constructive critiscism. 


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5. "… rarely obilge straining, consciuous minds"

Helen says that workshops don't tend to engage and stretch bright people, especially creatives. With the right process and techniques, this doen't have to be the case. Indeed, I often have creative people saying something like, "I came to this workshop expecting a lot of hot air, but it was actually really practical and useful".

In conclusion, workshops that are well designed, planned and faciliated can be highly productive and effective. But for this to happen, a rough guidline is 4 days of preparation for every day of workshop. So for a 2 day session, that's 8 days of preparation.

And to the person who provoked Helen's rant by asking "'I need to align my team behind some key drivers, so I wondered if you could workshop that through in an ideation session.", we'd be happy to help with a workshop that really works 😉