Making workshops effective, not toxic

Workshops are "toxic" and should be given up as part of your new year resolutions, according to this Marketing column, by Helen Edwards.

Now, as someone who uses workshops a lot, I am of course biased. But I think workshops can be highly effective if, and it's a big if, they are well designed, planned and facilitated. 

Below I look at why Helen thinks workshops are toxic and how to make them better, inspired by the last couple of days we spent in Amsterdam refreshing our approach to workshop facilitation at our global brandgym partner retreat. We have 20+ year's facilitation experience from 1000's of workshops, but invested time and money to try and improve, with top-notch training we then applied to our own approach. 

Issue 1: "Lack of a tight, responsible deep-thinking team"

Helen believes that a workshop where "everyone contributes" is toxic, saying "many hands make light work, but only in the most pejorative sense". I suggest this does not have to be the case if you design things correctly. 

First of all, define the right team. We insist on a range of people with different skills and expertise, and only those who will make an active contribution; no passengers or observers. Second, limit the group to c.12 people. Then, with the right exercises, using sub-groups and pairs, you can create some good ideas. You also get the added benefit of aligning and energising the core business team, if the process is run correctly. 

In addition, every workshop should be led by exactly the type of core group Helen describes: tight (2-3 people), responsible (with power to make change happen) and deep-thinking (smart and focused on the right issues). We work intensively with this core team before a workshop to start creating hypothesis, brand & business insights and "idea fuel" (more on this later). During the workshop we then check in and work with this core team during breaks. And after the workshop we continue to work the core team on turning vision into action, supporting them in the implementation stage where needed.

Issue 2: "Flipcharts filled with the obvious, the crass"

Two things will help avoid ending up with flip charts full of obvious, crass ideas.

First, weeks before the workshop you need to invest in some potent, fresh "insight fuel" to inspire new thinking. The idea of stretching the Calippo brand with Calippo Shots (now Solero shots) was born in a workshop that fused immersive insight into how teens consumed soft drinks with a guy from R&D turning up with a bag of ice balls he's made for fun! A vision to refresh Covent Garden soup was inspired by 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.

Second, an expert facilitator will design a series of exercises that stimulate new thinking. Our recent partner retreat was all about "spicing up" our facilitation approach with new exercises and techniques. 

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Issue 3: "Ideas that are impossible to execute"

A workshop that ends up with nothing you can execute is indeed toxic, if you share our belief that the role of marketing is to "SMS" (sell more stuff).

Making sure you end up with ideas you can execute starts well before the workshop at the briefing stage. We use a Brand-Led Business Brief to understand the issues, opportunities and constraints. Getting ideas that are hard to execute might be OK, if the brief is about stretching the organisation's capabilities. But not if the need is ideas for next year's marketing plan!

Second, the workshop needs designing with different phases. Early on, I suggest giving people some freedom to create ideas that are hard to execute. Not doing this can limit the thinking. However, later on, we invite people to "follow the money" like investors in the TV program "Dragon's Den" ("Shark Tank" in the USA). The team evaluate ideas on the "size of the prize", but also "ability to win". This highlights easier to execute ideas, but also some that may be more of a stretch but with potential sales that make them worth pursuing (see example below for Special K)

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Issue 4: "Lack of critical comments"

Helen suggests that in workshops "No one mucks it up by being critical – that’s strictly against the rules". In my experience, many organisations are toxic not through a lack of criticism, but rather by too much of it! This is why we invite people to feed back on ideas by asking "How to?" improve the idea, especially early on in a process. Working on Castle Lite, a beer selling extra cold refreshment, one idea was to create an "extra cold" island floating in the middle of the sea. A couple of people did reply, as Helen suggests they should, ‘That’s bonkers!’. But someone else said "How to do that without building an Island?!", leading to an activation platform called "The Republic of Extra Cold" which took place on Stanley Island.   

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In conclusion, workshops can be highly productive and effective, as illustrated by the increase in team clarity and inspiration before and after the workshops we've measured, on 400+ participants (below). But for this to happen, you need careful design, planning and facilitation. A rough guideline is 3-4 days of preparation for every day of workshop. So for a 2 day session, that's 6-8 days of preparation, and so on.

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