Stories behind workshop plans, post-its and markers.

Is there workshop magic in your meetings?

For a second, close your eyes and place yourself in Orlando’s Universal Studios at the height of the August summer. It’s hot, humid, and packed full of parents and kids navigating the landscape. You are in one of those never-ending lines to experience Harry Potter’s magic. 

Every time you turn a corner you hope to see the carriages pulling up but instead you see a sea of heads in that all too familiar winding pattern. Out of the corner of your eye, you spot the signpost that reads, “About 45 mins from here” – ugh! 

The line drags on and on. A commotion is happening just ahead of you. Someone’s Dad is having a meltdown and he storms out of the line, leaving the accompanying kids staring in awe. 

Room by room you proceed and the line continues until finally, the end approaches. The moment has arrived and you are being buckled in. You are off into the world of wizards and muggles! 

For 5-7 mins you are utterly transported into the wizard tales of Harry and his friends. You emerge exhilarated, excited, alive and everyone is saying “let’s go again!”. 

There’s a remarkable difference in the part of the experience that is standing in line for the ride and being on the ride itself, right?

Standing in line is the boring stuff, the dull routine. It feels like a waste of time and can bring out frustrations and bad behaviors in people (that dad who stormed off in the story above? I’m married to him – a post for another day!). 

On the other hand, being on the ride itself is amazing, uplifting, and liberating. People are jumping up and down and bouncing as it finishes. We disembark wanting more, excited and bursting to go again. We can’t wait to share the experience and talk about how fantastic it was!

We don’t often talk about the standing in line part unless it’s to lament how long and exhausting it was or to tell the story of the dad’s temper tantrum.

When I think about running meetings and workshops in organizational life, it’s like a Portkey to this Universal Studio experience.

In this post, I’ll explore what makes workshops magical, and consider how we can bring some of that magic into our meetings.

Let’s take a look!

What makes a meeting unmagical?

Most organizational meetings feel like the “standing in line” part, they are inherited rituals of bringing people together. 

First, we’ll look at what makes a meeting feel like the dull part of a Universal Studios tour by using five parameters – purpose, product, people, process and place. Then we’ll see how workshops might differ and create a more magical outcome.

To get started, allow me to share a selection of damaging characteristics that align meetings to “standing in line.”

Purpose

Often we don’t know why we have this meeting, when it started, or who initiated it. The meeting itself has no clear purpose and even less connection to the higher organizational purpose.

Product

Nothing. Nothing is done, nothing is resolved, nothing has progressed, nothing is decided, nothing is produced.

People

There are people in the room who don’t know why they are there and who don’t want to be there. Key people are excluded, and the people who are there have no role or aren’t invited to contribute.

There are ridiculous behaviors at play: from outright power dynamics to blaming and shaming others to passive-aggressive side comments and exclusionary language. No one intervenes to correct this. 

Perhaps there is a meeting chairperson, but they are most concerned about what they need to say or leading the group to their ideas. People aren’t listening. They are constantly interrupting (if they bother to speak) and directing the conversation towards their hidden agendas.

Participants are not focused, they are multi-tasking and continually distracted by their devices. They spend their time thinking about dinner, all the other things they could be doing or wondering how long before the meeting ends.

Process

Most often a time-boxed checklist of items, which may or may not have been shared with the invitees. Most of the items never get discussed thoroughly enough for a thoughtful decision to be made. Or worse yet, the agenda is a checklist of items that never even get discussed and that get rolled over every week for the foreseeable future. The conversation is all one way. 

There is no little or no engagement of the minds in the room. It goes on for what feels like an eternity. There was no preparation. There is no information shared in, before, or after the meeting, and there is no visible capture of outputs, actions, or decisions. Oh, and did I mention it started 20 mins late?

Place

A large square table in the same four walls people see every day. Or more recently TEAMS or Zoom conferencing, with a selection of people who won’t or can’t turn on their video or audio plus all the extra tech challenges of virtual working; “you’re on mute”, “we are losing you”, “you’re frozen”. I’m sure we could go on and on!

What makes a workshop magical?

If you’ve seen some of the above behaviors in action, you know what it is to be in an unproductive meeting with no workshop magic involved.

In contrast to meetings, well-designed and facilitated workshops can be the “exhilarating” ride from my Universal story.

Let’s explore how! 

Purpose

Workshops kick off with a clear purpose. Purpose is central to ensuring their success and they rarely happen without one. Even before concrete planning begins, just the recognition that “we need to have a workshop” means we likely see a need to be addressed or an emerging purpose. 

We take time to set the context and to align the workshop with the higher purpose of the team or organization. Great workshops will even weave organizational values into the design and subtly reinforce the desired culture that the organization is trying to build.  

Product

As time and care are taken to shape the workshop, we get clarity about desired outputs and outcomes. We also get a sense of what we would like the experience to feel like for the people in the room. These are overt, shaped by, and shared with the attendees before the workshop takes place. 

In great workshops, the product is more than the outcomes or outputs created. The product extends to igniting in attendees the motivation and perseverance to make change happen in service of the organization’s mission.

People

Workshops consider carefully who needs to be in the room and if they are the right people to contribute to the broader purpose. Taking this a step further, we then think about the roles required for workshop success and how we can engage different meeting participants to take on these roles. 

A critical role included in workshops and not often found in meetings is the role of the facilitator. The inclusion of this role creates a focus and performance shift for participants.

Facilitators offer an external, neutral perspective. Their distance from day-to-day happenings and conversations give them a completely different view. This distance also permits them to ask questions that others may not feel comfortable asking and to challenge participants to reframe assumptions they may not even recognize. 

Facilitators work to deepen initial ideas around the purpose and products of the workshop before the session even begins. Facilitators also play an additional role that contributes to workshop success: they create and hold space for participants to do their best thinking. 

The best facilitators create a container that reduces the fear we might associate with entering into ambiguity or going outside our comfort zone. In doing this, they help the group course correct and manage the behaviors that disrupt and damage the safety of this container. 

Having someone dedicated to protecting this container allows the group to go to places that they otherwise cannot reach. The environment created by the facilitator encourages them to deepen their thinking and to be authentic and vulnerable with their contributions.

For workshops to be a success, facilitators dedicate a considerable amount of time and energy to designing the workshop experience. Experience, not agenda.

Process

The process before, during, and after a workshop can be quite different than a meeting. As mentioned before, the most ineffective meetings have little or no preparation by the chairperson or attendees. They are often forced to follow a timeboxed checklist and lack clarity about what is to be done next, by whom, or why.

Workshops invite deliberate preparation. Participants are often required to start thinking about the key questions of the workshop well before the session as they are interviewed and consulted about their desires, expectations, and roles. 

Facilitators consider how participants and leaders should show up in the workshop and they coach and shape preparation activities accordingly. Facilitators spend time helping to turn inputs from pre-reads into inspiration prompts. Workshop preparation is intended to excite and attract attendees, pulling at their curiosities.

Facilitators work to design a participatory flow of questions and activities that culminate in outputs that everyone can buy into. They also think holistically about how expectations, environment, and engagement come together in a meaningful collaborative experience for the attendees. 

When a facilitator designs a workshop flow it is with a thoughtful multi-faceted approach. Experienced facilitators also know that this flow is never what happens on the day itself, so they are nimble and flexible. They continually reshape their in-session plan to serve the broader context and conditions of the session. 

Facilitators also know the importance of opening and closing purposefully and powerfully. They ensure that everyone leaves the room with better understanding and clarity than when they arrived. 

Great facilitators hold group focus by designing variation into the session and use visuals and artifacts to strengthen alignment and unearth connections.

Workshops don’t end when the session ends or the time runs out. Workshops are often just the start of much more work to follow. The best workshops leave people inspired and motivated to start making changes. Changes in their work, in their team, in their behaviors, and the organization. 

Place

Most workshops happen offsite, this provides the potential to think creatively about how to use the gathering place to create both ease or comfort as well as creative stimulation for participants. Place becomes a key shaper of the experience.

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A real life example of bringing workshop magic to a monthly leadership meeting

A monthly all-day leadership meeting was leaving the team of 8 feeling exhausted, little work was being accomplished and there was a general feeling of frustration as the monthly meeting drew nearer. 

Team members felt that the meeting took them away from more important work that they needed to be attending to.  Each month there were more excuses why people “could not” attend.  

The agenda was a traditional long list of items that the team never made it through and that carried over from month to month. Each item required a presentation followed by an open discussion of random thoughts from the observers. 

To complicate matters further, there were a collection of big egos in the room and serious power dynamics at play, with each person believing they were the expert and their ideas were the “right” ideas. Interruption and poor listening were standard behaviors. 

Let’s explore what we did to turn things around! 

Reframing 

The first major shift came from reframing the agenda from a list of items to an overarching question. One or two key questions that the group was gathering to explore together and progress that month. The use of the question helped to give context and purpose to the meeting, and people could start thinking before they entered the room. 

Setting ground rules

The next shift came from establishing 2 ground rules that were to be held sacred at all times, no phones in the room (we agreed that there would be frequent breaks to allow for messages and emails) and no interruption (when someone was speaking they had the floor and they agreed to be succinct in return for not being interrupted).  

Introducing flipcharts

The third shift came from banning PowerPoint and introducing “flipchart visuals”.  This meant that anything that needed to be brought into the room, needed to be represented on a flipchart or a large white paper, with a question that the group was being asked to think about while a speaker may have been talking through the visual. 

By the end of the day, the room was filled with flipcharts, flipcharts that were filled with post-it notes and ideas, new sketches, and even tactile prototypes. 

Using facilitation techniques 

The fourth shift came from integrating engagement techniques into the meeting, such as the use of 1-2-4-All conversations structure, small group work, and fist to five voting. These techniques gave everyone in the room an equal voice, improved the way the team listened to each other, and ensured a solution that everyone could support. 

Appointing a facilitator 

And finally, you might have guessed, the last shift came from having one of the team members take on the role of facilitator for the meeting. This person’s role was to work with the team to plan the session, ensure all the inputs were in the “visual format”, design an engagement process for each segment of the meeting, hold the group to the ground rules and keep the team focused!

These changes moved the meeting from a calendar entry that people tried to avoid to one that they looked forward to being part of each month!

In conclusion

Workshops are experiences thoughtfully designed to unleash collaboration and inspiration, leaving people empowered to make change happen. 

We give them more care and attention than we do meetings. We plan them carefully, hold them to higher expectations of performance, design them, and then we facilitate them (often with outside help).

Meetings deserve to be better.

Meetings need more than a stroke of luck and an agenda to be valuable to the organization. We all know the costs of bad meetings, not just in terms of money and time but also in terms of damage to goodwill and the employee experience. 

Meetings are rituals, moments where people gather in a business, they are cultural touchpoints and should reinforce values and purpose. They should bring out the best in people.

Not all meetings need to be workshops but most meetings could do with a bit of workshop magic. We should be thoughtful about the experience we want people to have in meetings and purposefully design and facilitate with this in mind.

About the author

Written by Tricia Conyers, Founder Island Inspirations Ltd., INIFAC Certified Master Facilitator, and Certified Virtual Facilitator. Connect with Tricia on LinkedIn and Instagram.

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