A story turned up in my LinkedIn feed today about a workshop facilitator (working for or on behalf of PriceWaterhouseCoopers) who chose to kick off a two-hour workshop focused on ‘creating more resilient communities’ for Walsall Council’s councillors with a Lego-based warmup exercise.
The reaction seems to be split into two camps, with the Councillors telling the local press how infantilising and time-wasting the workshop was. Meanwhile, workshop facilitators and Comms professionals are criticising PWC and their workshop facilitator for not managing expectations before the workshop began to pave the way for Lego takeup.
But for me, it’s a no-brainer to just leave the wacky workshop exercises at the door when you’re dealing with workshop participants who are unlikely to have taken part in a workshop before, who will probably be desperate to find something about the wider consultancy process to fall out with and who will only be in the room for two hours. If I have a room full of participants for a full day then there’s lots of time to read the room, warm them up and gain their trust before we attempt anything too out of the ordinary. In a two-hour workshop you don’t have that luxury.
I’m not saying that workshops shouldn’t include warmup exercises aimed at nurturing creative thinking, honesty and teamwork. Just match the exercise to the workshop format, length, organisational culture and type of participant. I’ve run several workshops for building societies (as one of the agencies I work with regularly specialises in them) and you always have to make allowances for a corporate culture built up over 100+ years, lack of exposure to change and workshop participants who have often never been to, or even heard of, anything like this before in their working lives. That is not the time to break out the Lego or kick off with a high energy role-playing session, as for some participants, writing on brightly coloured post-its and then sticking them on the boardroom wall is the most out-there activity they’ve done in years with the organisation. It can take several hours to get everyone relaxed and open enough to fully engage and participate. Then you can push things a bit with Brand Bingo or some storytelling.
It is, as ever, a case of horses for courses (particularly in the case of the horsebox builder I ran a workshop for a few years ago). And a reminder of the importance of getting a good briefing – after a sticky workshop years ago I now insist on at the very least a phone call with the project sponsor before I start work on the workshop format and agenda to discuss any elephants in the room or tricky personalities that might affect the workshop dynamic and thus its effectiveness.
If you’re in need of some common sense workshop facilitation, please get in touch.