How To

The Sound Of A Harmonious Workshop

ideas collaboration meeting

Running a workshop can be an exciting yet daunting prospect. It is a common assumption that you as a facilitator will have all the answers to the world’s problems. This is far from reality.

It is the participants with the experience and expertise within a company. It is your job, to create a productive environment to enable them, to come up with the solution.

Think of yourself as a conductor of an orchestra, coordinating all the instruments to play pleasantly together. This article provides key considerations, for creating, delivering and imbedding workshop success.



The objective should be clear to all participants. A workshop can be used for a variety of reasons, from creating a target operating model to detailing a communications plan. Whatever the purpose may be, it must be clear and understood from the outset.

The last thing you want is for your symphony orchestra to ask why they are there in the first place.

The agenda should be focused on meeting the workshop objective. The people, the amount of time available, and the range of options, will all have to be considered before the agenda is agreed. I once ran a workshop to assess the impact of a technology solution on individuals.

I had created a complicated impact assessment using excel. Most time in the workshop was spent explaining how it worked rather than concentrating on the meeting objective. If I had tested the activity previously, I would have realised that it was not suitable for the audience. I should have used a more visual stakeholder assessment such as the Rainbow diagram (Chevalier and Buckles,2008). This would have kept people focused on the objective, rather than the new activity.

Another preworkshop consideration is to send out reading materials with the agenda. The advertisement for your concert sets the tone for the audience. Articles on new trends and technology within an industry can help people to think about life outside their work bubble.

Include a status update and outline of the work that has been completed so far. This ensures that the workshop is not considered in a vacuum, and brings participants up to speed with progress.

Top Tip– The project sponsor should send out the agenda, prereading and introduce you as a facilitator. This will add credibility to the workshop and express how important it is to the company.


It may sound obvious, but you need to make sure the correct people are included in the workshop. The instruments need to reflect the musical composition you want to create. Problems can arise if members are too senior to fully understand a piece of technology or too junior to make key decisions. There may need to be representation across business functions, levels of seniority or expertise.

I’ve attended a workshop with senior leaders to discuss how to streamline a process. None of the participants interacted regularly with the process and therefore could not say if a change was possible. Alternatively, the situation could arise where the people who do interact with a process may fear making changes to it. Be ready to challenge assumptions and create the motivation to improve ways of working.

Characters can make or break a workshop environment, spend time to learn who will be attending. A person’s position in an organisation and their motivations will impact how they contribute to the discussion.

In my experience, underlying personal conflicts can be managed if the facilitator is aware of issues before they arise. If there is a disagreement, the facilitator should act quickly to refocus the group on the objective of the workshop.

Work with participants before a workshop to understand and underlying issues. Errors in asheet music could ruin the performance on the day. I was planning a workshop for a new product launch and had been informed that some influential participants might have some negative criticism about the product.

I held interviews with the participants to get a full understanding of their reservations. In most cases, it had been they had been misinformed. By working through questions prior to the workshop, it saved a significant amount of time and helped create engagement. Interviewees felt empowered and became strong advocates after the launch.

Top Tip Learn attendees names and personality types before the workshop. This awareness and consideration prior to the meeting will immediately create rapport, and help you plan for how participants will behave.


The perfect setting is a large meeting room, temperature at 18°C, flip charts in each corner, around a well-lit table, with the materials downloaded to a tablet. We are rarely afforded this luxury! It is more likely that participants will be hidden behind computer screens, with infrequent internet connection talking over each other. It is your job as the facilitator to get the best out of a working environment.

If you are using Skype, Zoom, google hangouts or any other collaboration tool, make sure it has been tested beforehand. If you have the benefit of using a meeting room, check the size, heating and seating arrangement. There is nothing more stressful than having to organise a room 10 minutes before the workshop begins. Try to have IT support on hand to work through any connection issues, this will allow you to focus on the objective of the meeting and the other participants.

Top Tip –Provide participants with all the details beforehand. Make sure applications are downloaded and print out materials are provided.



When delivering a workshop, leave plenty of time for breakout sessions and well-timed rest periods. People need time to digest and reflect on a piece of music. I like to run a breakout session, followed by a short rest and then a wider group discussion.

This gives people time to leave the room and subconsciously work through ideas. If decisions are rushed and not thought through, it will only create problems later in the project.  It is your role as a facilitator to focus on the correct discussion points and note down key decisions that have been made.

During the workshop, people should not be overloaded with new information. Energy levels must be kept high for those pivotal light bulb moments. Most people can only remember 3-7 items of information in under 40 minutes, they retain even less virtually.

Do not cram content into a presentation, make sure the key points are explained and most time is spent working through solutions as a group.

You should keep participants involved by using open questions. No one wants to be ‘talked at’ for hours. Open questioning encourages people to remain focused on the subject.

If you make statements like ‘Does everybody understand?’ or ‘Does that seem right?’ it leads the witness to answer ‘yes’ and not properly consider the question. If you ask, ‘what do you think about that?’ or ‘how could you improve your way of working?’ You will retain people’s attention and gather far more valuable information.


Like the Master of Ceremonies, the project sponsor has ‘overall accountability’ for the project and should deliver the key messages. I like the sponsor to open the workshop, outlining the key objectives and allow participants to ask them questions. This displays ownership of the project and sets an tone of openness. It communicates to participants that coming up with the solution will be a combined effort.

Attendees may want to test your credibility as a facilitator. Stay confident, approachable and honest with your responses. You are there to create a productive, open environment and enable the discussion.

It is important for people to understand their role in reaching a solution. There is nothing more detrimental to a workshop than an abrupt, unengaged facilitator. Participants may be going through change and act irrationally.

It is important for them to express their emotions and they should be listened to. The process is vital in obtaining their acceptance of the change.

As a facilitator, you must be confident in asking for opinions, enabling individuals to contribute to the discussion. It is often leaders who are the most outspoken and may not know the full impact of a decision.

The woodwinds are often the loudest in an orchestra, but it is the strings that make the melody most of the time. Ask participants individually to speak on behalf of a business area or segment and write down comments on post-it notes so they can be considered for a second time.

As a facilitator, you can help participants keep an open mind by asking them to pause and reflect on an idea. If you have expertise or can suggest a way forward you should, but it the project sponsor and participants that must make the final decision.


When presenting, it is important to vary your delivery style. Changing the tempo with he use of videos, flipcharts and demonstrations can help to keep a group focused throughout a long day.

If the participants are unable to see your body language or facial expression, it is important to slow down and be more precise with your language. I like to use interactive technology such as voting poles to keep an audience engaged. This interactive technology will help people feel invovlved and enable them to contribute regulalry to discussions.



After a successful performance, motivation will be running high. You should encourage the enthusiasm by communicating with the group soon after the meeting. Thank participants for their attendance and outline the key points and next steps.


You are likely to have built strong relationship with participants. Coming to a solution at the end of a workshop can be a humbling experience. It is important to follow up with individuals on actions and obtain feedback on your performance. This will help your own development and encourage participants to reflect on the success of the workshop.


Depending on the project, a Dropbox or SharePoint site can also be used to share information and keep people connected a long time after the workshop. This enables documentation to remain up to date, easily accessible and reduces email traffic.

As a final note, getting people to work harmoniously together and creating something new is not easy. A workshop will rarely go exactly to plan and there will always be surprises. A wrongly timed note or broken string does not mean the workshop has not been a success.

Calmly work through challenges in a structured way and keep focused on the objective. Remember, you are the conductor and do not need know how to play all the instruments. Your role is to take the lead in making them play harmoniously togeather.

Please let me know of your workshop experience and any key considerations you think should be added to the Successful Workshop checklist below.


Successful Workshop Checklist
Pre-Workshop Considerations  

Delivery Considerations


Post Workshop

> Clear purpose/objective > Leave plenty of time for breakout sessions and breaks > Communicate with the group the day after the workshop
> Agenda tailored to arrive at the solution > Don’t overload participants with new information. Keep energy levels high for key decision > Communicate the next day to outline the key points, actions and next steps.
> Prior reading to set the tone > Use open questions to encourage focus > Obtain feedback from the group
> Ask a Sponsor to send out the materials to add credibility to the workshop > Use open questions to encourage focus > Refresher sessions
  Learn participants names, position and motivations within the company > Stay centered, approachable and confident your approach > A SharePoint site to share information
  Understand and work through pain points before the workshop > Be confident in asking for opinions and making sure everyone has had their say    
> Make sure the correct people are in the room > Key messages should be communicated by the Project Sponsor    
> Check the technology works properly beforehand > Vary the delivery style    
> Provide participants with all the meeting details beforehand – applications, Printouts or log in details        


Lewis Gilbey – Strategic change and transformation professional.

Lewis Gilbey
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