Workshop Training: How to Run an Effective Workshop

From Twitter to Netflix, H&M to Slack, everyone swears by the power of workshops. But what’s the big deal, and how do you actually run one?

You know it’s all the rage. From Twitter to Netflix, H&M to Slack, everyone swears by the power of workshops. But what’s the big deal, and how do you actually run one?

If you’d rather watch a free workshop training video, head on over here and grab the popcorn. Otherwise, lean back and enjoy the read. Your workshopping career is about to take off.

Why you need workshops

Have you ever been on a 4-hour Zoom call where most of you just shared memes on Slack? Maybe you’ve been part of the Email Chain of Doom, where every email feels like square one, while somehow also dragging months of project wreckage with it.

Feelings of frustration, loss of momentum, no ownership, lack of clarity, decision-making behind closed doors...

Reverse all that and you’ve got yourself a workshop.

What is a workshop?

A workshop is an insanely fun and productive way to solve problems together. It creates momentum and makes work genuinely exciting again. And in more concrete terms, a workshop is a structured and fair way to collaborate, accelerate work, and create a clear outcome. Let’s unpack that, shall we?

1. Creates a clear outcome

  • It is led by a clear, specific and achievable goal.
  • The whole process forces decision after decision until we’ve got clarity.

2. It accelerates work

  • We hit pause on busywork and focus on one challenge.
  • We cut the crap and use techniques that boost efficiency.
  • It’s timeboxed and structured.

3. It’s fair

  • We work anonymously, which prevents bias.
  • Voting ensures that ideas with the most traction move forward.
  • The key stakeholder makes informed, transparent decisions.

4. Turns the abstract into visual and concrete

  • The techniques (literally) draw abstract ideas into a visible form.
  • We put ideas into practice and test them.

5. Builds teams

  • We listen to expertise from all ranks.
  • People learn to work together efficiently and value each other’s roles.

6. Values individual input

  • We work “together alone”: we refine our own ideas and combine them.
  • There’s no shouting in and talking over each other.

7. Uncovers the cracks

  • A workshop will shine a light on holes in the project - which is helpful!
  • Difficult team dynamics will show up, but structure and facilitation skills help mediate and mitigate them.

Workshops come in many shapes and sizes. From a single activity that spices up a boring meeting agenda, to a full-blown 4-day design sprint, this workshop guide will help you tackle any challenge.

When to run a workshop

As the outcomes above suggest, a workshop will help if:

  1. You need to find a solution to a problem, fast.
  2. A decision needs to be made quickly and transparently.
  3. Things are stalling; there is confusion or lack of focus.
  4. Ideas get stuck at the idea phase and don’t turn into reality.
  5. Members of the team don’t feel heard and empowered.

What a workshop won’t achieve

1. Answer all questions in one session

  • You can make a LOT of progress with a single workshop, but you won’t walk away with a ready and working solution. However, a series of workshops can take you there, and you WILL have a handful of good, solid ideas even after the first one. 

2. Convert someone to your opinion

  • A hidden agenda won’t work. Great potential solutions will surface that neither you nor anyone else had thought of, combining the best of multiple people’s ideas.

Challenge accepted, you say? You’re in luck. Our detailed workshop guide will help at every step of the way, from preparing to post-workshop followup.

Free training: The 5 things you can do to become a high-paid facilitator

How to run a workshop

Get stakeholder buy-in

You’ve decided to run a workshop. Well done, you! Now all you have to do is sell others on the idea. Not so easy! But if you demonstrate how much time, money and effort they are going to save by workshopping the problem, you’re very likely to get the go-ahead.

Initial buy-in

Put a brief pitch together that shows your stakeholders what specific outcomes they’d gain from running a workshop that they wouldn’t get otherwise. These could be:

How to pitch a workshop

It’s unlikely they’d say no, but if they do, don’t insist - you might have picked the wrong time or the wrong problem.

Define the goal

Once you’ve got the green light, it’s tempting to let the fun tasks of workshop design and snack selection run away with you. But here’s our best workshop advice: address the right problem for the people that need it

Chat to your stakeholder(s) about the challenge they want to solve, and reframe it as a clear and simple goal. The right goal could look like:

Setting workshop goals based on stakeholder challenges

Scoping workshop

If you want to combine the above, you could run a short scoping workshop with your stakeholder(s) to identify the right challenge and gather requirements. This is a kind of “gateway workshop” before the real thing: it lets you try typical workshop activities and demonstrates how quickly you can make progress together. Our guided workshop tutorial video walks you through the steps - why not try it this week?

Preparing for a workshop

As you go off and do your planning, make sure stakeholders stay involved throughout the process. Share the workshop agenda, insist that they should be present (or send a delegate) to make decisions on the day, and definitely, definitely share the outcome with them.

1. What

You’ve identified the “what” - the challenge you and your stakeholders want the workshop to address. This will get more specific on the day based on the input of your workshop team.

Don’t go in with a hidden agenda. Your task is to enable other people to pool their knowledge and come up with the best solution.

2. Who

Figure out who needs to be in the room: we recommend 7 people or fewer. Depending on the scope of your workshop, you might not need everyone on this list.

a. Who brings the decision-making power? (Product manager, marketing manager, head of design, CEO etc.) 

  • While the whole workshop team will be involved at every step of the way, someone needs to call the shots and take responsibility for them. This person is your Decider.

b. Who brings the subject matter expertise? (Researcher, customer service assistant, consumer insight, sales etc.)

  • They know what the challenges are from research, direct customer interaction or being end users themselves.

c. Who brings the building expertise? (Developer, designer, content manager etc.)

  • They know the product inside out, and they know what’s possible and achievable.

d. Who can sell and promote the product? (Marketing, PR, sales etc.)

  • They know what’s in demand and they have the power of persuasion. 

e. Who facilitates? (Any department)

  • This person knows how to lead others, let them shine and translate their abstract ideas into concrete solutions. This person is you!

Once you have an idea of who should be there, ask if they’re interested in participating. There’s nothing worse than people actively undermining you because they don’t want to be there.

3. Plan the workshop agenda

a. Decide on a template you want to use and customise it for the subject of your workshop. (You can build your own template from scratch later, but it’s a good idea to rely on a tried and tested method first.) We recommend running a simple 10-minute brainstorm first.

b. Make sure your workshop agenda includes breaks and allows for some buffer time, especially when you’re first starting out.

c. Run the agenda by the main stakeholders to make sure you’re on the same page.

4. Set up the physical environment

a. If the room is crammed, you can’t move around or stick things up on the wall. If it’s an open space, it’s going to get noisy. If the air con isn’t working, people will get slow and uncomfortable.

b. It’s important to care for physical well-being and prepare sufficient space, as even the best planned activities will tank if the environment isn’t right. (Of course this isn’t your job if you’re running an online workshop.)

5. Supply the tools and refreshments

a. What are you going to need on the day? A whiteboard with markers and ten thousand post-its? A digital workspace with accounts for the whole team? Prep them ahead of time.

b. If you don’t want to lose people to the kitchen or the coffee machine, make sure there are refreshments in the room: water, tea, coffee, snacks. If it’s a day-long or multi-day workshop, plan for a light lunch (not food coma).

c. “When’s lunch?” gets pretty old pretty quickly. Add a slide or physical poster with the agenda, including the breaks, and stick it somewhere clearly visible. 

d. Incorporate the cost of tools and refreshments into your fee or expenses. Learned this the hard way...

Free training: The 5 things you can do to become a high-paid facilitator

Running a workshop

Told you this was the easy part.

1. Introduction

a. We all hate it but it only takes a few seconds: go round and say who you are, what you do and what you hope to get out of the workshop. Manage expectations if they’re way off.

b. Set the stage: walk them through the steps and what you’re hoping to achieve. Refer to the schedule you’ve displayed in the room or on the digital workspace.

c. Ask for permission: Whether it’s a 30-minute activity or a 4-day workshop, ask if they’re okay with you facilitating, driving them forward and keeping them on schedule. Don’t just start bossing them around.

2. Give clear instructions

a. Give clear and simple instructions and don’t give them multiple options. If it’s a new or complex task, ask someone to play back the instructions to check that they’ve understood.

b. Refer to the schedule throughout the day so it’s clear what’s happening and what’s coming up. (“We’re going to take a vote before lunch break”)

3. Stick to the schedule 

a. Display a timer and keep to the agenda - activities as well as break times. Your 5-10 minute buffer will come in handy when the coffee machine runs out of water or a discussion is hard to wrap up.

4. Move things along

a. Tell them how long they have for the activity and remind them throughout (“We’re at the halfway point” or “start to wrap up, 2 minutes left”).

b. If people bring up irrelevant stuff or get stuck, don’t be afraid to park things. Tell them the current workshop doesn’t have scope to explore this further, but you’ll capture it in the (clearly visible) parking lot so you can come back to it after.

5. Be responsive

a. This is a fuzzy point and the hardest thing to do, but don’t just deliver the schedule like a robot. If you sense some doubt or resistance, ask them to suspend disbelief for an hour (or a day). If they’re getting slow, bring the break forward, and if they’re really into something, allow them to take a little longer. You can make it up elsewhere.

b. Take care of the facilitator! You need to be well and balanced to run a workshop. Take proper breaks, eat, hydrate, and protect your energy.

Wrapping up a workshop

1. Make a decision before you leave the room

A workshop will generate many ideas but your Decider needs to pick a course of action. This could be implementing (or trialling) one of the proposed solutions; it could be another workshop to drill down into potential options; it could be commissioning a new piece of research - the bottom line is, it is an ACTION. Make sure no one leaves the room until this has been agreed on and captured.

2. Summary

At the end, summarise what you’ve achieved so you’re all on the same page, and thank the participants. 

Congratulations! You’ve done your first workshop! But hold off on kicking back just yet - you need to keep the momentum going to make sure the results are translated into action.

Following up after a workshop

1. Circulate the workshop summary

a. Whatever the outcome turned out to be, someone will have to make it happen. Discuss what’s been agreed, list out the resulting tasks and assign them with clear deadlines. This doesn’t need to happen in the room: it might be a quick call followed by a group email. 

b. Set yourself a reminder to check in before the action deadline. See if people need more information or help to complete their tasks. Another thing I learned the hard way...

c. If you’re trialling one of the solutions you designed in the workshop, come together as a group to see if the change has worked. Decide if you need to trial another solution, workshop a new idea, or you’re all happy with the way things are now!

2. Ask for feedback

This might not be your favourite part of the workshopping process but it’s extremely valuable. Ask your team what they found useful, what they enjoyed, and what could be improved. If they have any juice left, you can do this at the end of the workshop; otherwise, email out a short form the next day.

3. The next workshop

If there’s an appetite, schedule in the next workshop! You’ll soon develop a feel for what challenges and situations suit a workshop, and before you know it, all of the above will be second nature.

For a deep dive into our best workshop tips and tricks read our ultimate guide to workshop facilitation. And if you’re ready to make a 6-figure income out of running workshops (no, really), watch our free workshop training video for techniques that catapult you into the top 1% of facilitators.

Ready to take the plunge? Take out that sticker pack, grab a bunch of post-its and try an activity TODAY. This workshop guide will do the heavy lifting for you.

AJ&Smart Team

A team of pro workshop facilitators with 9+ years of experience.