How to make workshops work

We should all stop running brand workshops according to Helen Edwards’ recent column (subscription needed). She suggests “‘Everyone-is-creative’ workshops don’t have a hope of fulfilling expectations“. Is she right?

Well, Helen does have the start of a good point. But I suggest she has missed out two important words: poorly designed workshops don’t have a hope of fulfilling expectations.

Workshops can play a useful role if, and it’s a big if, they are carefully designed as part of an overall project. Here are some tips on how to make workshops work.

1. 80% of the work happens before the workshop

Where many workshops go wrong is just turning up in a room with a random group of people and a few post-its, and expecting a firework of new ideas. 80% of the work in an effective workshop happens before the session itself to:

i) design the exercises, hour by hour

ii) select the right inspiring venue

iii) select the right team

iv) immerse yourself in the brand and business

iv) create fresh insight fuel (point 2 below)

v) do a pre-load of ideas (point 3 below).

2. Insight fuel

Without fresh insight you are unlikely to get interesting ideas, and you do risk finding “results are tepid and tame”, as Helen says. That’s why we use fresh insight fuel to stimulate new ideas. For example, the refreshed brand personality for Ryvita came from looking beyond crispbread competition to other female targeted brands like Diet Coke and Special K. This inspired the team to re-launch Ryvita as ‘one of the girls’, instead of being a solo solution for dieters.

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3. Multiple sources of ideas

You can’t expect a single workshop to solve all your problems. This is why you need multiple sources of idea generation before you get into a brand/agency team workshop. We often use small creative teams to create a “pre-load” of ideas to take into a brand workshop. We also use “extreme consumers”, such as talking to opera singers to get insights about sore throats. And we do “treasure hunts” for technology ideas within the company. The idea for Solero Shots came by combining insight from observing how teens consume soft drinks (glugging, a pack you can pick up and put down) with an “orphan technology” brought to a workshop by an R&D guy. He had been dripping falvoured water into liquid nitrogen to produce balls of flavoured ice.

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This pre-load phase also allows the opportunity for what we call ‘shower time’. Some great ideas pop into your head when you’re in the shower, out for a run, or doing the shopping. As Helen says, you need to build in this time to: “Think about something else, to walk away from the task, to allow the unconscious mind time to do its silent work.”

4. You need idea generation AND evaluation

Helen criticises workshops for encouraging un-bridled positive feedback, where the group are “for­bidden to criticise”, and here I agree. But in a well designed project, and within a workshop, there will be phases of idea generation, and then phases of hard evaluation. During idea generation it does help to keep the idea flowing, rather than instantly killing them.

However, later on you need tough feedback. Indeed, we get teams to think like venture capitalists and vote for the strongest ideas as if voting with their own money. In this stage we would indeed “Tear into the idea, pushing it, probing it”, as Helen suggests

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6. Creative people like GOOD workshops

Helen describes how truly creative people hate workshops: “You can always spot the true creatives in the room. They are the silent, sulky ones, painfully aware that the group expects fireworks, but reluctant to offer up anything“. And creative folk do often look like that at the start of my workshops.

However, by the end most of them actually end up saying like “I came in sceptical about workshops, but this was actually really helpful and useful“. Why the change? They usually love the fresh insight. For example, the team on Carling Black Label in South Africa were inspired by a cultural decoding of how expressions of masculinity were evolving. They also like the no-nonense, cut the bull***t approach to branding and business.

In conclusion, workshops can work well as part of an overall project, but only if they are well designed and not set up as the sole answer to your problem.