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If it seems that workshops are actually well-run meetings, that is true to a large degree. Well-run meetings and facilitated workshops share similarities. The primary differences between meetings and workshops becomes evident with the characteristics of each.

All workshops are meetings while most meetings are not workshops

Meeting Characteristics

Workshop Characteristics

  • A building method—a way to solve a problem, develop a plan, reach a decision, agree on analytics, design a flow, etc.
  • Agenda steps typically not time-boxed, since early output typically supports product development or process improvement and innovation
  • Include formally defined roles and depend on a neutral facilitator
  • Remain focused on one development at a time, lasting from a few hours to a few days

Different reasons for hosting workshops versus meetings

Meetings tend to follow one of three themes, to . . .

  1. Endorse or decide
  2. Inform
  3. Monitor and review

Workshops focus on singular topics and strive to build detailed outputs. Successful workshops depend on:

  • Knowing clearly what DONE looks like, specific output or deliverables
  • An agenda design that engages participants
  • Sequencing information gathering activities or agenda steps
  • Monitoring the workshop method to accomplish those goals
Workshop Canvass

Difference Between Meetings and Workshops: The Workshop Canvass

Success for Both Meetings and Workshops

The critical elements necessary for the success of both meetings and workshops include:

  • Availability and commitment from management, thus ensuring availability of proper resources, personnel, time, and support
  • A well-trained session leader with facilitation skills and meeting design skills
  • Inflection points—gathering the information, making the decisions, and documenting the results
  • Preparation—getting yourself and the participants ready to produce, quickly
  • Review and resolution—distribute and integrate deliverable; into product, project, or other initiatives

Significant Differences of Meetings and Workshops

#1 Time Boxing

Meetings frequently limit the amount of time per agenda step. Therefore, with most workshop activity, front-end loading frequently makes it easier to complete the back-end steps and activities. Consequently, for most workshop activities, we estimate time but allow groups additional time to fully develop consensual assumptions up-front, when it matters most.

#2 Topic Dependency

Meetings consist of loosely related topics that serve to review and monitor, inform, and sometimes endorse (or decide). Participants during meetings are commonly passive while workshops demand activity and contributions. Meetings aim for an updated state of affairs or condition (outcome), while workshops create tangible deliverables or concrete ‘outputs.’ Contrasted to meetings, workshops create the ability to act upon clear workshop output.

#3 Concluding

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 cannot leap ahead or advance until the foundation work is complete.

#4 Facilitator Neutrality

Meeting leaders frequently do not exhibit neutrality. Effective meeting leaders learn to embrace the importance of neutrality and active listening. However, when required, participants force them to render an opinion or a decision. Workshop leaders should strive every way possible to avoid suggesting content, knowing that the participants must own and live with their decision. Similarly, workshop leaders risk total failure if they violate neutrality by offering up content. Participants do not expect complete neutrality from meeting leaders.

#5 Duration

Workshops tend to last longer than meetings. While the average meeting lasts from 30 minutes to two hours, the average workshop takes many hours or even a few sessions with multiple days. Complex deliverables such as a Project Charter or Requirements Gathering last multiple sessions that probably span many weeks.

Considerations about Meeting Workshop Differences

Due to time constraints, participant availability, and meeting space (real estate) options, much workshop activity gets spread across multiple weeks, turning a potentially natural, multiple-day workshop into multiple-week “meetings.” The structural difference between concurrent-day and concurrent-week approaches is that the break periods between activities are longer with the concurrent or multiple week 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.

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.
  • Meeting design may use existing agendas (meeting designs), such as structured analysis and prioritization methods.
  • 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.
  • Structure and group dynamics provide more complete and accurate information.

Structured workshops conducted with workshop best practices are increasingly popular among among design sprints, requirements gathering, and business planning sessions that support business process improvement and product development.

Why? When properly conducted, workshops conducted with workshop best practices generate faster and more effective results than unstructured business discussions. Remember that the terms discussion, percussion, and concussion share a common suffix. Therefore, if you ever have a headache when departing a meeting, it was likely unstructured.

Common Reasons for Structured Workshops

Over the years we have catalogued the various workshops that we facilitated and share the reasons with you. Find them sequenced below in alphabetical order, rather than frequency, importance, or randomness:

Workshop Best Practices

Essential workshop best practices developed for facilitated sessions include:

  1. Defining consensus as a standard that can be supported rather than the ideal resolution that makes participants “happy”, help set a better expectation that should prevent all participants from losing any sleep (a personal standard).
  2. Energize and engage participants by explaining the importance of the session in the beginning and strive to quantify the impact of the meeting on the project valued in cash assets at risk or FTP (full-time person) being deployed.
  3. Use a neutral facilitator. The facilitator must be neutral to content discussed, allowing the participants freedom to edit and modify their own contributions. Neutrality provides trust that enables higher level of participation and contribution by participants.
  4. Using a pre-defined deliverable, agenda, and participant list. Therefore, the deliverable and agenda for each session ought be articulated in advance to transfer ownership to the session participants prior to the meeting. Thorough preparation helps the participants to focus on topics, questions, and activities that help the facilitator better control the context.
  5. Using a refrigerator (aka “parking lot” or “issue bin”) to store items out of scope or beyond reach for the time available helps separate the co-mingling of strategic issues, tactical maneuvers, and operational issues.
  6. Using a well prepared deliverable and agenda, the facilitator can better control the scope of conversations, preventing circular and irrelevant discussions.
  7. Write it down. Because, if it is not written down, it never happened. Strive to capture verbatim comments and complete necessary edits after the meeting. Visual feedback builds more confidence among participants. Additionally, making the documentation immediately visible to participants minimizes one-on-one follow-ups and email conversations.

Benefits of Structured Workshops

  1. Organizations establish scalable, consistent processes that can be measured and continuously improved as a result of adopting a structured approach.
  2. Overall project life cycle can be shortened by weeks, thus helping business stakeholders realize project benefits early.
  3. Session participants demonstrate a high level of active engagement, claiming that structured sessions enable better use of their time.
  4. Structured approaches also produce higher quality outputs, allowing for issues and risks to be identified and resolved earlier in the life cycle, when the cost to resolve them is smaller.
  5. Structured approaches enhance the value of the session leader role as a valuable provider of context rather than a mere producer of documentation.
  6. Workshop approaches result in overall reduction of time and effort. In comparison studies, companies claim project life-cycle savings that exceed USD $100,000 and some exceeding one million dollars because they adopted a structured approach to meetings and workshops.
  7. Workshop approaches successfully shift project development activities from being template driven to conversation driven, thus helping build cohesive teams and collaboration amongst participants.

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Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH  professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.   #facilitationtraining

Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, as well as 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.)   #bettermeetings

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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 Facilitation Best Practices 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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