How to Avoid 7 Common Workshop Pitfalls

OK – I admit it.  One of my favourite parts of the BA role is facilitating workshops.  I love being able to coax ideas out of people’s unconscious mind and I love the co-operation, creativity and healthy tension that present themselves in a good workshop.   Executed well, a workshop is a valuable use of stakeholder time.  Real-time collaboration can shave weeks (or months) off a schedule when compared with tiresome and drawn-out e-mail communication.

However – not all workshops achieve their goals.  What are some of the common pitfalls, and how can they be avoided? I have listed 7 key pitfalls below:

A picture of a meeting/workshop
Workshop planning is key!

1. Insufficient planning and preparation

A workshop needs structure, and a good facilitator will spend time considering which methods, tools and techniques should be used. It’s important to craft this into a carefully considered agenda to make sure that the key points can be covered in the allocated time.

The amount of planning needed is likely to vary depending on the number of attendees, whether it’s a routine or a “One off workshop”.  Think of it this way – if you hold a 3 hour workshop with 10 people present, that’s 30 hours of collective time.  That’s a huge cost! The workshop needs to be a success, so don’t feel guilty spending 3 or 4 hours preparing.

Preparation involves preparing your audience by providing them with an agenda, and where needed making individual phone calls/visits to ensure they have everything they need. It also involves planning to arrive early to set up the room and test any equipment needed.

2. Unclear or non-existent workshop goals

Have you ever been to a meeting or workshop where nothing has been achieved, and the conversation has gone round and round in circles?  This can be down to the fact that stakeholders had a different understanding of the purpose of the workshop.  Perhaps one thought it was to define scope, and another thought it was to reduce scope.  Subtle differences lead to people talking cross-purpose.  All workshops should have an agreed goal/objective up front.

“We are here to focus on… This workshop will be a success if by the end of the meeting we achieve…”  

3. Inviting the wrong people 

Workshops are most effective when they are kept short, succinct and the key decision makers are in the room.  If you can’t get the key people to commit to attending, consider deferring the workshop.  If it looks like the workshop will involve 25 people, consider asking what each individual’s area of expertise is. Are they a decision maker? Do they need to be there? Could the workshop be split into two shorter focussed workshops to keep attendance down to a manageable level?

4. Letting energy get low

A workshop should be interactive and energising.  If you need creativity, think of ways to keep the energy levels high.  Bring cakes.  Take away the seats.  Use colour, music… do whatever you need to keep people engaged and interested!

5. Ignoring conflict

It’s all too easy to gloss over conflict in a desire for stakeholder consensus.  I have a controversial view here – workshops are exactly the right place to encourage conflicting ideas to be discussed!  Let’s face it – conflict is going to occur sometime during the project.  Better to get it on the table when people are together, so a resolution can be found early (or at least the issue is acknowledged).

6. Feeling afraid to jump in

This is something I used to struggle with. I think it’s a product of being British (and our national obsession with “politeness”), but I used to find it difficult to “interject” and move someone on.  Sometimes people seem to make their point over and over again, or perhaps they go drastically off topic.

Let me set the record straight.  As a facilitator, it is perfectly OK to respectfully cut someone short, to “park” an item, agree a future time it’ll be discussed and move on through the agenda.  In fact, it’s quite likely that the rest of your audience will thank you for it!  Make sure you have an “actions log” and “parked ideas log” so that these ideas and concerns aren’t lost – they can be discussed offline if needed.

7. Not documenting the meeting

Chances are, nobody will remember the decisions that were made in a meeting held at 10:30am on a Monday morning 6 months ago.  To ensure there is a clear understanding of what was discussed and agreed, it is worth ensuring that the workshop is recorded, in whatever format works for you and your stakeholders. Your meeting notes should also be made available for review after the workshop.  (You don’t have to take this role on yourself.  You could consider allocating the role of “scribe” to a willing volunteer.)

A good workshop can be productive, fun and effective.  Good planning, preparation and facilitation is a key differentiating factor.  And some cakes or candy to bribe the attendees can be a good move too!

3 thoughts on “How to Avoid 7 Common Workshop Pitfalls”

  1. It’s amazing how easy it is to recognize these pitfalls, but still become complacent and forget about them from time to time!

    Thank you for keeping me on my toes!

  2. Bring tea and biscuits, or, here in the states, coffee and doughnuts.

    Before the workshop, ask participants to note their perceptions of the process being created or revamped. Stimulate their thinking by giving them in advance a simple and short one-page questionnaire to complete and bring to the meeting.

    Frame the agenda in a lively context, say, “The Purchase Order’s Big Adventure.”

    Always show that you are thoughtful and considerate of your participants’ needs.

    Identify a non-supervisory person in the organisation who is trusted and well-respected by everyone and enthusiastic about your project. That person could be the key to maximizing cooperation from everyone else.

    I couldn’t resist sharing these suggestions although I am only exploring the business analysis profession at this point.

  3. Pingback: How to avoid 7 common workshop pitfalls | Adrian Reed's blog

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