How to Design and Run a Successful Workshop

Workshops are one of the easiest ways to make teamwork more efficient and engaging. But simply throwing a few workshop exercises together won't cut it! It takes clear and deliberate planning to run a successful workshop. Read on to find out what the 4 workshop building blocks are and how you can use them to design successful workshops.

Collaboration is an inherently challenging thing for the teams to get right. Groupthink, team politics, hidden or real hierarchies and differences in working styles all make it difficult for teams to come to the common denominator and just get the work done. 

Workshops are one of the easiest ways to solve this problem, and make the teamwork not only more efficient and engaging, but also more enjoyable! There’s just one caveat to be aware of: running just any workshop doesn’t automatically equate to better output and more efficiency. 

It takes clear and deliberate planning to run a successful workshop, and throwing exercises together is just the tip of the workshop-planning iceberg! As the facilitator (or a Workshopper, as we like to call it!), it’s your responsibility to ensure your workshop has all the building blocks it needs to help you arrive at solid outcomes. 

What are these building blocks? We’re glad you asked...

The Building Blocks of a Workshop

So you’re ready to roll up the sleeves and get cookin’ in the Workshopper kitchen, what now?

First off, if you want to design a successful workshop, you need to understand what constitutes one. 

It might be tempting to think that you can wing a good workshop by just showing up on the day and charming your way through it, but trust us–this is not a good idea (in fact, that's the number one advice most experienced facilitators will tell you!). 

You can think of a workshop like an iceberg: what you see on the surface (aka the actual workshop day) is the result of several elements building off of each other.

The building blocks of a workshop

These elements might not be obvious from the outside to an inexperienced facilitator, or to the workshop participants, but EVERY well-designed workshop has them:

  1. Facilitation Skills–Needless to say, a good facilitator can make or break a workshop. If you’re not projecting confidence your workshop attendees will feel it, and lose the trust in the process before even giving it a real shot.  
  2. The Exercises–This is the workshop building block that most of the people are familiar with, because it’s the most obvious one! This is also the building block that gets a disproportionate amount of attention from most novice facilitators, because they think finding the one Holy Grail exercise will make their workshops better and more efficient. And while having the right exercises is important, we highly recommend you NOT to obsess about learning a gazillion new exercises...but more on that later!
  3. Workshop Framework– This is the glue that holds the entire workshop together, a system that gives every workshop its logical order and structure. Here at AJ&Smart we use the 4C’s framework we’ve developed in-house after running and analyzing thousands of workshops (and you can download a free book about it here!)
  4. Workshop Principles–These are meta-rules that govern every workshop you run. You have to be mindful of these especially if you’re new to running workshops: missing just 1 or 2 can already result in your session feeling messy and disorganized!

And there you have it, these five elements are the universal workshop building blocks that EVERY successful workshop needs. 

Now let’s look at each of these building blocks in more detail and define what exactly you need to do, step-by-step, to integrate them into your workshop. 

Join our FREE community and connect with other Facilitators and Workshoppers

Step 1: Gain the Facilitation Confidence

Facilitation is the secret sauce that can make or break a workshop. 

As a workshop facilitator, you’re not only responsible for organizing the workshop process itself, defining the sequence of the exercises, and guiding the team through these exercises on the workshop day. You have the ultimate influence on how participants will feel after the workshop is over: drained and overwhelmed, or inspired, brimming with ideas, and ready to take action.

Learning the right facilitation skills will help you make sure it’s the latter rather than the former and will make your workshops feel buttery smooth and enjoyable to be in. 

But how do you gain facilitation confidence, especially if you’ve had little to no previous facilitation experience? 

Well, just like any other skill, facilitation can be trained and worked on, and we are here to help you do just that.

Internalize the Workshopper’s Mindset 

This is the first, most crucial step, in leveling up your facilitation game. The Workshopper’s Mindset is the set of basic rules and principles that will allow you to make sure that you’re always focussed on the right things in the workshop, like helping the team do efficient, meaningful work. The Workshopper’s Mindset encompasses 4 core principles:

  • You need to be the guide, not the hero. Or in other words, as a facilitator, you DON’T need to try and solve the team’s challenge, or prove how smart and cool you are. You just need to help the team unleash their best work and potential. 
  • Show, don’t tell. Make it a habit to point to something that exists and support all your statements (and exercises explanations especially!) with an example to avoid misunderstandings and misalignment. 
  • Be ready to experiment & iterate. If you’re running a workshop (especially trying to define a big strategic vision or decision) you NEED to make experimentation & iteration a habit. Otherwise, the only difference between your workshop and the conventional way of working will be the amount of post-its you’ve used. 
  • Stay curious. There’s nothing that can ruin a workshop quite like a facilitator that leads a group to a predestined (and obvious to all…) outcome. Instead, stay neutral and curious about the challenge you’re trying to solve, examine it from several different angles, and be ready to challenge your own assumptions.
The Workshopper Mindset

Get to grips with the basic facilitation skills

Sorry to break it to you, but there’s no way around getting comfortable with the facilitation skills (duhh!) While it might seem like it’s a lot to learn (and in the beginning it certainly is!), if you can first understand what makes a good facilitator, and which facilitation skills you need to work on, you’ll be well on your way to mastering the art of facilitation.

Learning the theoretical base is often the first step to mastering a skill, and we have the resources to get you started right now:

Level up your remote facilitation

It’s the year 2021, so do we really need to get into detail on why you need to embrace remote facilitation? 

Going remote not only allows you to work with distributed teams, it also helps you expand your facilitation portfolio, and allows you to keep on going even when in-person workshops might be off the table. 

Plus, if we’re honest, remote facilitation has some pretty sweet advantages over in-person one (like not having to sift through MOUNTAINS of sticky notes after a week-long workshop!)

Want to get your remote facilitation groove on? Then check out our Remote Facilitation Guide (Freshly updated for 2021!)

Step 2: Learn the Core Workshop Principles

Workshop principles are the meta-rules that make the workshop what it is...a workshop!

While you won’t necessarily be able to pinpoint a workshop principle in play during a workshop, as a facilitator, you should be constantly aware and mindful of them. 

So what are they exactly?

Sequence all discussions

There’s nothing quite as effective and productive as an open-ended, unstructured discussion...said no one, EVER!

Unstructured discussions are a BIG part of what makes conventional meetings feel like a drag: they favor the loudest or most senior people in the room, foster team politics, and encourage groupthink.

That’s why the first golden rule of every workshop is to sequence all of the discussions. 

In practice this could mean that you start off your workshop by discussing the challenge you want to tackle, and only after that phase is completed you switch into the solution mode. While this sounds simple, once you try to reinforce this rule in a workshop, you’ll notice how hard it is for people to let go of their ideas and move on.

However, it’s crucial for the flow of the workshop that you don’t have new challenges thrown into a mix once you’re in the solution mode or team members contributing ideas while you’re defining the scope of the challenge. 

It could also mean that you don’t let your participants talk over each other at the same time a la brainstorm style, and instead, only let one person speak at a time. 

Visualize all discussions

Because the human capacity to take in new information is limited, you shouldn’t expect your participants to keep all important data in their minds. This is why you need to visualize all conversations in a meeting (meaning data, topics, and ideas) in a standardized way.  

An easy way to do that is to record all the information on sticky notes, a whiteboard, or a remote collaboration tool. This removes the possibility of misalignment and interpretations, lets the participants offload all the data, and stop spending mental energy trying to keep all the moving pieces in their heads.

Work together, alone

If you’ve had a look at the workshop exercises out there, you might have noticed that most of them are run in a ‘together, alone’ manner. That means that even though the group is working on the same challenge in real time, no discussion, idea exchange or collaboration is happening. 

While this might certainly feel weird the first few times around, this working method allows for even the most introverted group members to present ideas and topics they might usually not get a chance to articulate, as well as for the group to present their real ideas, instead of being influenced by groupthink. 

Our favorite playlist to put in the background to avoid awkward silence during the exercises is this one:

ALWAYS conclude with a decision

The final core workshop principle is very straightforward, yet often the hardest one to reinforce, and it goes as follows: a-l-w-a-y-s conclude with a decision. 

Finishing your workshop with the clear next steps, and the responsible person defined will help ensure all your hard work wasn’t in vain and that the outcomes of your session actually get executed on! 

And while it might be impossible sometimes to arrive at the final conclusion, you should always define clear next steps or in-between milestones. 

Hint: scheduling a follow-up is NOT a clear next step. It has to be an actual action that will bring you closer to achieving the workshop goal. 

Now that you’re familiar with the four core workshop principles, include them into EVERY workshop you run, and you will see how much more efficient and enjoyable they’ll become!

Join Facilitator Club and become a part of a community dedicated to sharing experiences and insights in facilitation

Step 3: Leverage the 4 C’s Workshop Framework

Workshop Framework is what gives your entire workshop logical order and structure. It’s the secret sauce of workshops in which the exercises don’t feel out of place, and instead logically build on each other. The kind of workshops where every activity and exercise feel (and are!) intentional and thought-through.  

The workshop framework we use at AJ&Smart is called the 4 C’s, and it was actually developed by our very own CEO, Jonathan Courntey. After designing, running, and participating in hundreds of workshops he noticed that the best workshops were following a specific pattern.  

After you learn how the 4 C’s frameworks works you’ll suddenly start seeing a pattern with every efficient workshop as well, be it Design Sprint, LDJ, or any other. 

While following this framework is not a must, if you compare a 4C’s workshop, and a few random exercises thrown together, you will likely notice that the former feels much more conclusive and delivers stronger outcomes.

So...what constitutes the 4C’s framework? We’re glad you asked!

The 4 C’s stand for Collect, Choose, Create, and Commit. The 4C’s Framework can be used to design any type of workshop regardless of topic, length or outcome, and if you want to get the full break-down of how it actually works and how to use it in your workshops, you can download the Workshopper Playbook,  where we explain all of that in detail!

Step 4: Choose the Right Workshop Exercises

Now, we know we said exercises are not the most important part of a workshop...And we stand by our statement. However, choosing the right exercises is still an essential part of throwing together a successful workshop. 

Your exercises need to make logical sense in the sequence you put them in, complement each other, and fit together like puzzle pieces: the outcomes of one exercise should lay the foundation for the next, and the end result should answer your initial workshop goal. 

How do you do that? 

Well, you have a couple of options.

Option #1

You can opt for a tried and tested workshop recipe that is guaranteed to deliver strong outcomes. Here’s the list of our absolute favorite workshop recipes that we use CONSTANTLY at AJ&Smart. Just pick the one that suits your challenge best, and roll with it:

  • Design Sprint is the perfect fit for answering big strategic questions
  • LDJ is great if you’re looking for a quick decision-making session
  • Campaign Booster is our go-to for planning marketing and advertising campaigns
  • Product Strategy Scoping is your best bet if you need to align a team on a strategic direction or if you’re looking for a better way to sell your workshop services

Option #2

You can test and try out the exercises yourself. While it’s a more cumbersome way to create a successful workshop, you’ll likely learn a ton in the process, so why not give it a go! 

While there are HUNDREDS of exercises out there, we highly suggest you concentrate on a few tried and tested ones first. Sometimes having too much choice is actually not at all that conducive to devising a clear, effective workshop. Instead, focus on a handful of exercises that have a proven track record of working within different team set ups and different custom workshops. Here are our favorite ones:

And there you have it, make sure you go through these four steps before running your next workshop, and we can guarantee it will feel smoother AND more effective!

Anastasia Ushakova

Brand Strategist, Digital Marketer, and a Workshopper.