Workshops are more than just interactive meetings. They're a space for groups to come together around a shared goal, collaborate effectively and solve complex problems. If you're wondering what a workshop is, how they differ from training or meetings, or just want to start running them, you're in the right place!
A great workshop can create innovation, connection and transformation for both companies and individuals. In this article, we'll explore what workshops are, what benefits you can expect, and also show you some workshop examples that you can use for inspiration when working with your team.
A workshop is a structured and interactive session designed to create an environment for meaningful work and to guide a group through a process that will lead to great outcomes.
Workshops are designed to engage participants and foster their active involvement in the process. They are not training sessions where one person teaches everyone else in the room. Nor are they meetings where people give one another updates but rarely collaborate on a task with a structured approach.
Workshops typically involve hands-on activities, facilitation techniques, group discussions, simulations, and collaborative exercises, which allow participants to explore, ideate, and participate in achieving their desired outcomes. Whether that’s aligning on a perfect solution to a tricky problem or improving their skills experientially.
Workshops can cover almost any topic you can think of – whether it be a creative word workshop for school kids or a strategic planning session for company executives.
The key elements of these workshops are the same: they seek to create a dynamic environment that encourages participants to learn from each other, consider their own solutions, and apply the gained knowledge both inside the workshop and in the wider world.
Another aspect that unites all workshops is that they are structured and designed in order to help a group achieve a desired outcome. A workshop facilitator will often plan a workshop as a sequence of activities with careful attention to timing, flow and an optimal group dynamic.
When it comes to actually designing your workshop agenda, SessionLab is a useful tool for designing a workshop flow while ensuring you stay on time!
What distinguishes workshops from meetings, seminars and training courses is an emphasis on active participation, experiential learning and collaborative work.
You could begin to think of a workshop as an interactive meeting, but they go much further than that. The objective of a workshop is to guide participants through a process where they ideate together, explore possible options and then figure out a plan of action.
Workshops are much more interactive than meetings or training sessions, and they often go through a process designed to enable a group to explore a subject collaboratively and arrive at solutions that are not pre-determined. The facilitator will use proven techniques and technology to support interactivity and engagement, but the outcomes of the session are a truly collaborative effort.
One key distinction for me is that workshops are often about exploring a problem space as a small group and then actively working together to find a solution. Think of how your organisation might do strategic planning. If the boss calls a meeting to tell the group your strategy, that’s a meeting. If the boss brings in a facilitator so that the group can explore options collaboratively and design a strategy together, that’s a workshop.
Another distinction I find helpful is when thinking of the difference between a workshop and a training session. In a training course, you know the outcome before you begin: you will teach your group how to achieve something in a pre-determined manner. They’ll often complete training materials in a pass/fail manner and be expected to come out of the course with a specific set of skills.
In a workshop, you may not know the exact outcome and it’s down to the group to collectively get there. Yes, you know that you want employees to explore creative ideas by going through a process designed to help them come up with ideas, but you don’t know what those ideas will be.
As a workshop facilitator, you leave space for the team to bring their professional expertise, their creativity and their unique perspective to the process.
In comparison to a meeting or training session, a group in a workshop is supported to discuss, explore and ideate together before arriving at outcomes in a process often designed and led by a facilitator. They are more actively involved in directing their learning experience and contribute to the experience of the entire workshop.
The result is a much more creative and collaborative environment that encourages ownership, participation and genuinely impactful outcomes.
While the objectives or goal of a workshop can vary based on the setting or specific topic – a design sprint and a retrospective workshop have very different goals – but the purpose is roughly the same.
The purpose of a workshop is to create a space where participants can think together in a place of safety and mutual trust, engage in collaborative work and arrive at your outcomes in an organized and structured manner.
Whether it’s defining how to achieve a complex project, building skills or working on personal development, the purpose of the workshop is to create an interactive, participatory environment for people to engage fully, collaboratively and creatively and arrive at your chosen outcomes.
The purpose behind that purpose is what makes workshops a special and effective tool. When you create a safe space that empowers your team to find their own solutions, creativity is unleashed.
Your team finds solutions they wouldn’t have discovered otherwise, they build meaningful and lasting connections with other participants and they’re especially engaged and able to focus on making those things happen.
In my experience, a great workshop can be transformative for all involved, and the improvements in communication, collaboration and problem solving have far reaching effects beyond an individual session or project.
This is another way to answer the question, what is a workshop: it’s a means of helping team’s find more effective ways of working both collaboratively and individually in order to achieve their goals.
As we’ve explored, running a workshop can be one of the most effective ways to bring a group together to innovate, solve problems and connect.
This isn’t to say that every session you do should be a workshop. Far from it! There are times when a meeting is the right way to come together, such as doing a daily update or company all hands where people on your team have information to share.
In a university setting, a seminar where a lecturer shares knowledge in their particular field with a large group of students is often the most effective way to disseminate learning materials quickly.
In short, you want to consider running a workshop whenever you want a group of people to do collaborative work effectively, often in a time-boxed or outcome focused manner.
Workshops are great at delivering results in a way that creates space for many voices and perspectives and if you know your group would benefit from this approach, that’s a fine time to consider planning a workshop.
Some of the common triggers for running a workshop include:
- having a complex problem without a clear solution
- a need for genuine innovation and new ideas
- team building or team development
- teaching new skills in an experiential manner
- community building
- working on a project in a deeply collaborative and emergent way
- opening or closing a project
Another great tip for running a workshop is to use a relatively small group (often 8-15 people) in order to create space for discussion, divergent thinking and ideation. When running workshops with larger numbers, you’ll want to add additional facilitators and perhaps run sessions in parallel.
Wanting to simply teach your group how to use new technology or share information from the executive team with the rest of the company? That’s probably not a workshop, and that’s fine! Use the right format for the results you want to achieve and the objectives of your session.
Workshops come in all shapes and sizes, but you might be wondering what they look like in practice and how they are put together. Especially if you’re new to facilitation, seeing an agenda example can help show the value of a workshop before you try running one yourself!
Below, we’ll explore a few example workshops and detail when and why you might run them with your team. You’ll also find an agenda template for each, so you can see the workshop process in more detail.
Workshops are a perfect space for creating innovation and coming up with ideas that you can actually move towards implementing. When you have a complex problem without an obvious solution or many stakeholders and perspectives, gathering your best minds and bringing them to a workshop is an ideal way to move forward.
In this ideation workshop template, a team first generates a heap of new ideas around a particular topic and then works through a process of analysing and selecting the best ideas by pitching them to one another. By the end of the workshop, you and your group will have discussed ideas thoroughly and used tools to develop the best ones into something you could implement quickly.
Companies that encourage this kind of creative ideation and invest time in enabling their employees are often more resilient and innovative. Try bringing such a workshop to your company the next time you need a new perspective or looking for your next great idea.
Whatever your particular field, there comes a time when you need to make a decision as a team. A decision making workshop is a method of exploring various options, aligning on objectives and moving forward as a team. It’s a space for employees to discuss their thoughts, share how they feel and then converge on a final decision that is the best one for the company.
In this template, you’ll use consent based decision making to move from discussion to action and allow everyone from management to front-line employees to contribute. It’s an effective session for building a sense of community and making progress effectively.
If you’ve found that you’ve tried to include more people in your decision making processes and found it ineffective or messy, this workshop is a perfect antidote that creates space for all voices while also arriving at your intended outcome.
For complex projects that require innovative problem solving, workshops can be an essential part of both opening and closing the process. I’ve even found that groups working in university or training settings with an intensive educational program can benefit from using a workshop approach to closing the program.
In this retrospective template, you and your team will find space to reflect together and discuss what went well and what went better before choosing some actions everyone will take in the future to develop their skills and improve the next project.
After a week long event or a longer project, coming together in a retrospective workshop can both help you symbolically close and celebrate proceedings while also creating space for reflection and growth.
Understanding how a workshop differs from a meeting or training courses is often the first step towards bringing them into your organization.
For next steps, you can explore our step-by-step guide to planning a workshop to learn how to put an effective workshop together.
Want to improve your facilitation skills? This article will help you see the key skills for effective facilitation you can use in workshops, meetings and in your general practice when working with groups.
We hope this blog post has helped you understand the what and why of running a workshop and has perhaps inspired you to facilitate one the next time you need to solve problems or create innovation in your organization!