If it seems that workshops are actually well-run meetings, that is true to a certain degree. Facilitated workshops and well-run meetings share similarities. The primary differences between meetings and workshops becomes evident with the characteristics of each.
- Generally intended to inform by exchanging information
- Agenda steps frequently time-boxed
- Tend to have informally defined roles and a non-neutral leader
- Typically covering many issues in a few hour(s) or less
- 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 the output probably supports product development or process innovation
- Include formally defined roles and rely on a neutral facilitator
- Remain focused on one development at a time, lasting from a few hours to a few days
Generally, the different reasons for hosting workshops versus meetings:
Meetings tend to follow one of three themes, to . . .
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
- Policing the workshop method to accomplish those goals
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 technique skills
- Preparation—getting yourself and the participants ready
- Workshop event—gathering the information, making the decisions, and documenting the results
- Review and resolution—distribute and integrate deliverable, typically into project
#1 Time Boxing
Meetings frequently time box agenda steps. 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. Meetings frequently limit the amount of time per agenda step.
#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 their contributions and activity. 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 and necessary workshop output.
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.
#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 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. Participants do not expect complete neutrality from meeting leaders.
Workshops tend to last longer than meetings. While the average meeting lasts an hour or two, the average workshop takes a few days or even a few sessions with multiple days. Workshops last longer than meetings. Complex deliverables such as a Project Charter or Requirements Gathering frequently last multiple sessions across more than a single day.
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 regular 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. Thus, extending the amount of time required to complete the project.
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.
- MG Rush accelerates meeting design by providing proven agendas (methodologies), such as structured analysis and various 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, likely it was 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:
- Any initiative requiring decision-making or consensual agreement between two or more people
- Business area analysis
- Business case development (including process optimization)
- Content management prioritization
- Executing your strategy, building action plans
- Gathering requirements
- Innovation, at least the creativity and ideation portion
- Key performance, measuring and management indicators
- Knowledge management (including decision support)
- Maintenance activity to solve for missing descriptions of changes, precision with requirements, or problem identification
- New system or business development initiatives
- Performance management (BPM—including balanced scorecard and dashboards)
- Problem situation requiring arbitration or neutrality
- Process improvement—design or optimization
- Project management
- Problem solving
- Product development processes
- Scientific inquiry or challenging paradigms
- Six Sigma® and Lean or other quality initiatives
- Strategic planning at any level in the organizational holarchy
- Team charters (including management perspectives and supporting strategic planning activities or tactical assignments)
- Virtual meetings and workshops
- Voice of the customer or advisory groups
Meetings frequently follow workshop activity. For example, numerous meetings will follow a project charter-planning workshop across the life cycle of the project being supported.
Workshop Best Practices
Essential workshop best practices developed for facilitated sessions include:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Using a well prepared deliverable and agenda, the facilitator can better control the scope of conversations, preventing circular and irrelevant discussions.
- 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
- Organizations establish scalable, consistent processes that can be measured and continuously improved as a result of adopting a structured approach.
- Overall project life cycle can be shortened by two to four weeks, thus helping business stakeholders realize project benefits early.
- Session participants demonstrate a high level of active engagement, claiming and that structured sessions enabled good use of their time.
- 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.
- Structured approaches help enhance the perceived value of the session leader role as a valuable provider of context rather than a mere producer of documentation.
- Workshop approaches result in clear reduction in 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.
- Workshop approaches successfully shift project development activities from being template driven to conversation driven, thus helping build better teaming and collaboration amongst participants.
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 and their contributions.
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