Why am I here? How an unclear workshop can be living hell.  

By Luke Hockley, as told to Cressida Bradley 
We’ve all been in those tense kinds of workshops where the discussion goes off track, over time, and drags us away from the work we actually need to do. It’s all talk with no action. We’ve all been in those dry kinds of workshops where someone stands up and talks at us for three hours without taking a breath, drawing incomprehensible graphs, and presenting slabs of data on densely packed slides that trigger memories of year 10 chemistry class. It’s all content without conversation. And we’ve also been in those fluffy kinds of workshops where we find ourselves making hats out of stationery, and bridges out of dry spaghetti and marshmallows, and working in teams to build a ‘machine’ using nothing but our bodies and voices. It’s all creativity with no practical point.
Amongst the choice words going through your head, I bet you’ve asked yourself, “Why am I here?”. Perhaps you are there because someone sent you a calendar invite and you accepted, perhaps a manager asked you to attend on their behalf, or perhaps you came with an expectation or agenda that isn’t being addressed. Regardless, things have lost focus and there is awkward conflict in the room. More importantly, your time is being wasted. I share your pain, frustration and confusion. However, a good workshop is a great way to get a lot of work done; to make key decisions and find the collective clarity to move onto the next step.
That’s why, as a Facilitator, I see it as my role to make sure that you know exactly why you are coming to this workshop, long before you step through the door. I believe good facilitation is as much about what you do before the workshop, as it is about what you do on the day. It’s my job to run a workshop where everyone has what they need to do their best. That way, you’re more likely to get more out of the day, and the group will have a successful workshop that achieves its outcomes. In other words, I make sure that we’re all clear why we are here. It’s simply said, but not easily understood.Before I can prepare my workshop participants, I need to prepare myself. There’s a reason that this organisation has sought my facilitation assistance, so it’s important that I understand the fundamental challenge that this workshop is trying to resolve. That means asking the tricky questions and doing a lot of listening.My approach is first to have a lot of conversations with my key contact. I ask, who is going to be in the room, what are their roles, what are their expectations, and what does success look like? Sometimes these questions take time to answer and people need to do some research before they come back to me. This step is important.If the workshop is going to be with an important group, such as the Board, CEO, or Executive team – people who are making big strategic decisions for the organisation – I talk directly with these key stakeholders. Answers can also be found through short surveys. It helps me see the big picture for the organisation, as well as understand the temperament of the room.

Midnightsky will also send out a one page briefing document for the participants, prior to the workshop. This brief fulfils a couple of purposes. Firstly, it outlines the context, the workshop objectives, and the participants’ role. Secondly, it poses questions for the participants to reflect upon, to prepare them for the workshop’s discussions.

As you can see, quite a bit of work has already been done before we get to the workshop. This work ensures that when people arrive they are clear on what we are all aiming to achieve, and how they can play a role.

The Midnightsky approach keeps the workshop’s productive conversation on track and reduces unnecessary conflict by:

  • Allowing people to do their research before the day, so that they come to the discussion informed. This is particularly useful for participants who need reflection time before contributing to conversations.
  • Building trust by listening to participants, giving them the opportunity to shape the workshop and clarify the challenging questions before the day.
  • Getting people on the same page from the start of the workshop, and thus setting up for focussed discussion.
At the beginning of the workshop I ask everyone again to consider what is success for this workshop.During the workshop, I use creative strategies to solve the workshop’s core questions and challenges. Creativity is a powerful tool if used well but it’s a distraction if not (enough with the sugar-coated pasta constructions!). Instead, I get strategic solutions that are easy to understand, using a process that is both fun and focused. At the end of the workshop, I check in again to make sure that the workshop has met their expectations, and that we’ve had some laughs along the way. I want the participants to feel that their concerns, questions and needs are being heard and addressed. I want people to walk out having had an energising and positive workshop experience, where they’ve engaged in strategic thinking and problem solving, while also being playful.
Most of all, I want people to emerge from a workshop with the answers that will help them perform their roles with clarity and confidence, and thus better equipped to contribute to their organisation’s vision.

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