If it seems that workshops are actually well-run meetings, that is true to a certain degree. Facilitated workshops and well-run meetings are very similar. The main differences between meetings and workshops are:

Structuring Meetings and Workshops

Differences Between Meetings and Workshops – Structure

Meetings

  • Primarily intended to inform by exchanging information
  • Agenda steps are frequently time-boxed
  • Tending to have informally defined roles and a non-neutral leader
  • Typically covering many issues in a few hours or less

Workshops

  • A building method—a way to solve a problem, develop a plan, reach a decision, agree on analytics, design a flow, etc.
  • Agenda steps are typically not timeboxed since the deliverable likely supports critical product or process innovation
  • Include formally defined roles and a neutral facilitator
  • Remaining focused on one development at a time, lasting from a few hours to a few days

Additionally NOTE:

Use of the term “meeting” is somewhat synonymous with the use of the term “workshop.”  Four practical differences typically include:

  1. The agenda steps in a meeting are frequently boxed in time. With most workshop activity, front-end loading frequently makes it easier to complete the back-end steps and activities. Therefore, for most workshop activities, we estimate time but allow groups additional time to fully develop their consensual assumptions up-front, when it matters most. 
  2. Regularly held meetings (ie, staff meetings or board meetings) end when time runs out, usually with an understanding that unfinished items will be picked up in the next meeting.  When groups are building toward a workshop deliverable, the sequence of the steps is important and they frequently cannot leap ahead or advance until the foundation work is complete.
  3. Meeting leaders may not be expected to be entirely neutral. Effective meeting leaders learn to embrace the importance of neutrality and active listening but when required, they may be forced to render an opinion or a decision. Workshop leaders should strive every way possible to avoid offering up content, knowing that the participants must own and live with their decision. Workshop leaders risk total failure if they violate neutrality by offering up content.
  4. Workshops tend to last longer than meetings. While the average meeting may last an hour or two, the average workshop may take a few days or even a few sessions with multiple days.

Success for Both Meetings and Workshops

The following are the critical elements necessary for the success of using structure in both meetings and workshops:

  • A well-trained session leader with facilitation skills and technique skills—without which, execution of the workshops and preparation tasks becomes less than adequate, ad hoc, and inconsistent
  • Availability and commitment of proper resources—both people and facilities; with people providing the input and facilities supporting the environment—having less than optimum produces less than optimal results
  • Commitment from all management, thus ensuring availability of the proper resources, personnel, time, and support
  • Proper application of the concepts and structure of the technique, therefore avoiding inconsistent and unpredictable results

A Structured Technique Works with Both Meetings and Workshops Because . . .

  • Assignments combine and finish timely
  • Clear tasks define outputs and directions.
  • Consensus-derived information becomes input to subsequent activities.
  • Groups make higher quality decisions than the smartest person 
in the group.
  • MG Rush aids analysis by providing methodologies, such as structured analysis and information modeling.
  • Ownership is clear.
  • Participants have well-defined roles.
  • Structured workshops provide well-defined deliverables.
  • The group reaches mutual understanding of business needs and priorities.
  • The session leader stimulates participants with a toolkit of visual aids, documentation forms, and group dynamics skills.
  • Workshop structure and group dynamics provide more complete and accurate information.

CAUTION:

Due to time, participant availability, and meeting real estate space constraints, much workshop activity today may be spread across multiple weeks, turning a potentially natural, multiple-day workshop into regular multiple-week “meetings.” The structural difference between contiguous-day and contiguous-week approaches is that the break periods between activities are longer with the contiguous or multiple session approach.

The session leader needs to be aware of workshop deliverables that are hidden in the term “meeting.” Simply because an event is being called a meeting or lasts for only an hour or two, does not give the session leader the right to show up unprepared or to become a judge of others, their input, and their opinions.

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Finally, MG RUSH professional facilitation curriculum focuses on providing methodology. Each student thoroughly practices methodology and tools before class concludes. Some call this immersion. We call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.

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Furthermore, our Professional Facilitation curriculum immerses students in the responsibilities and dynamics of an effective facilitator and methodologist. Because nobody is smarter than everybody, attend an MG RUSH Professional Facilitation, Leadership, and Methodology workshop offered around the world, see MG RUSH for a current schedule.

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Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Monthly Facilitation blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

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4 Comments

    • Thanks Helene,

      While you are sooo.. TRUE, perhaps the optimal would include more participation during meetings as well, rather than passive attendance, unclear deliverables, and unstructured (ie, without agenda) use of time. So many meetings fail to have a beginning, a middle, or an end. Without clear scope, discussions range from the strategic to the operational. And they finish, not when complete, rather when the rime tuns out.

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