In our work, rarely a week goes by when we are not planning or running a client workshop, usually with cross-functional participants, ranging from small groups of 10-12 up to 100 or more. Our average client feedback score for the quality of our workshop facilitation is 4.7 out of 5, so we know what it takes to create a productive and engaging experience and we recognise the challenges and pitfalls that derail the process. If you’re planning a workshop, whether you’re running it yourself or working with a third party, we’ve outlined our top tips with some tried and tested tools and techniques to ensure it is high performing.
Workshops are a familiar feature in most pharma and healthcare team calendars. It’s a useful format for a range of business-critical issues, from strategy development to idea generation. But all too often we hear the reality falls short. Have you experienced the ‘blue sky thinking’ session, where brainstorming seems the aim itself, rather than a forum to stretch thinking with a specific goal in mind and a focus on a tangible, practical output? Or maybe you’ve endured the ‘talk shop’, where there are lots of sharing of views and opinions but no actual agreements, decisions or actions? Or even ‘the glorified meeting’, packed with PowerPoint, where it’s more monologue than dialogue and you are more audience than participant? On all counts frustrating and truly a missed opportunity! So how can you deliver a workshop that really works?
In our view, no one can deliver a high performing workshop without planning and preparation. Though some try! In summary, it needs a carefully thought through process with stimulating and engaging content that stretches thinking and gives teams the time and space to discuss, align and then plan what next.
What does that mean in practice? To help us explain, here’s an analogy … let’s go on a plane journey! Taking a flight is a totally different situation but there are many parallels, and we’ll start with the three stages of the journey:
Success begins with the planning. How do you prepare for departure and be ready to fly high?
Think about taking a flight – before you even begin to check out routes or pack a case, you know why you are making this journey and have a destination. It’s the same with a workshop, know where you want to get to. Define the purpose and the endpoint: why are you running this workshop? What you are going to use the outputs to do?
Decide who has to be on board. Who will be your pilot, cabin crew, mechanics, air traffic control, to bring the wide circle of roles, expertise and perspectives you need? Who should you involve early at the planning stage and who should participate? Consult key stakeholders early in the process (even if some won’t attend in person) to ensure the scope and objectives of the workshop will meet their needs. With the right people on board, you will address the relevant issues to keep the flight on track and avoid diversions.
Location is important. Though a staycation sometimes works, going off-site helps participants get in the right head space, away from day-to-day distractions. A great venue positively contributes to mood and energy and can enrich the process. It could be somewhere that puts you close to your customer, like a recent event we ran at London’s Royal College of Physicians, or somewhere that takes people to a totally different space, such as the Technology Museum in Berlin – a great venue for a more creative and ‘think differently’ session. Remember the soft elements too, like layout and room size, spaces for plenary and sub-group sessions, break-time areas, natural daylight, air con, lighting, sound and (always important) food.
Map out the route to your destination. Share a high-level agenda at this early stage. For senior stakeholders who can’t be there, it means you incorporate what is important to them and later it’ll help gain buy-in to outcomes. For participants, it avoids disruption of having to discuss the flight path and its rationale on the day and shows you value their input.
An airline considers every passenger touchpoint to create a full ‘on brand’ customer experience. For your workshop, maybe an informal dress code and upbeat communication style is a starting point but think about all the details that will set the tone, pull people in and tie the whole experience together. Here are some ideas:
Now you are prepared for take-off, with a clear plan, a defined end point and stakeholders on board. Participants are engaged and excited about the journey ahead, and already sense that this workshop is going to be a little bit different. Read on … it is.
Your passengers have checked-in and boarded. We share our insider’s tips to upgrade the workshop experience to first class.
Get everyone fired up and ready for take-off with a warm up activity. Ideally, get people moving and on their feet. It might be getting to know each other with an icebreaker, like Human Bingo. Or a task that links to your challenge and helps to gel the group. For example, for a competitive situation, a quick sub-group brainstorm to list scenarios when David has beaten Goliath in other business sectors.
Share key information about roles and responsibilities (facilitators and participants). Use a directive style but make everyone feel a valued part of the journey. Project positive personal energy from the start, it’s contagious!
No need to synchronise watches but do run through the agenda and timings. Share the route to reach your destination and ask each participant what success will look like to them – you can check back at the end of the workshop.
Situations arise, weather conditions change, so be prepared to flex the inflight schedule. When the weight of a relevant issue needs more time, adapt the agenda to allow valuable discussion. On the other hand, if an issue arises that’s high priority for an individual but not relevant to now, take action to avoid disruption. ‘Car parking’ is a useful technique to recognise the issue (write on a post-it and pick it up offline) and bring the group back on course.
Take a moment to mention behaviours that are off-limits. You’re seeking contributions from all, with equal voice and shared ownership, so there’s no hijacking air time and no one is ‘under the radar’. Include rules around use of mobile phones, laptops, talking, etc.
Maximise output and minimise drag. Not all people learn or interact in the same way, so plan a variety of session styles and activities to engage different personality types. Try splitting into break-out groups, then regrouping for plenary sessions; switch between longer and shorter sessions; get people up on their feet; swap seats; give roles within groups, e.g. nominate sub-group scribes and timekeepers, give them a device like an egg timer or a countdown clock to play their part. Keep coffee and sweets on standby for a useful energy injection.
You won’t break through the sound barrier by sitting back and cruising comfortably. Don’t be afraid to challenge and push people for quality input, and then probe and stress test their thinking. Boost creativity by introducing new and surprising stimulus:
Long haul flights are tiring so plan regular breaks and introduce physical energisers when energy levels drop or creative thinking need a recharge. This is particularly important if you are running a workshop stretching across 2 or 3 days. By pushing your group too hard on day 1, you could find there’s no fuel in the tank on the last afternoon when you try to land a decision and action plan.
The cabin holds a mix of characters – some more demanding than others. Find out the tricky personalities in advance and plan your approach. Include everyone, think about the introverts who take time to process information and feedback – actively ask them for their perspective, for some tasks ask people to write down their individual thoughts before joining a group discussion. Don’t worry about silence, sometimes it’s a good thing. Remember your primary role as facilitator: to guide, direct but also to remain impartial, fair and objective. This can often be a challenge when you are wearing more than one hat.
Avoid delays by making regular time checks and prioritise activities to ensure you achieve the objective for each session. Be crystal clear about when and how you want people to complete a task; when it’s time to move on, e.g. from discussion time to decision time; but don’t close down what’s important by limiting good discussion; summarise each session before moving on to keep everyone with you; prepare strawman content to move things forward faster. It wouldn’t be a workshop without post-its to capture responses quickly and we find pre-prepared templates are useful tools to help structure responses.
At this stage, you have participants thoroughly engaged in a lively, productive workshop experience. As we approach the final leg, it’s now all about the landing.
We conclude our flight with arrival at your destination, all set for the onward journey. High performance means collectively landing the outputs, ensuring alignment on the position and then agreeing clear next steps and a tangible plan of action to make it happen.
Don’t rush or under-estimate how long you need. Allow plenty of time to bring the outputs together and land your position with precision, particularly if you have broken into sub-groups to work on different topics. Remind people sharing back to the group how long they have and what to share exactly, i.e. the critical points only vs a full recap.
For a smooth landing, check everyone is aligned. Synthesise key points as you go and summarise key decisions and takeaways, ‘Are we all comfortable with our position?’. If there are different views, try to tease out a consensus or land a strongly held minority view as an alternative perspective.
You don’t want any last-minute surprises so make your final checks – have you met the workshop objectives, and individual participants’ earlier idea of ‘what success looks like’?
The landing gear is down, the runway is clear … touchdown!
You’ve landed this thing with precision and on schedule. Are you all ready for the onward journey? Remember, this workshop isn’t a ‘blue sky thinking’ session, you need to ground your next steps plan. Identify who needs to do what and when to turn all the wheels and make this happen. By gaining collective commitment and shared ownership of the process, you will propel the plan into action.
Finally, avert the risks of a post-flight slump. Employ tactics to maintain momentum for the days to come: ask each participant to commit to ‘one thing’ they are going to do. Share key outputs and the action plan after the workshop, include photos of the completed post-it boards as a reminder of the journey. Is there value in a post-workshop follow-up to connect back, stimulate action and check-in on progress?
So now you have your wings. Whatever your workshop objective is, it’s about applying these principles to your situation. Whether you run your own workshop or bring in a third party, we hope this ‘How to’ guide gets you up and away.
Sometimes, independent expertise is worth the extra investment, particularly when you want to contribute to the process yourself, when the outcomes are of high business importance, when there are difficult dynamics to overcome, or you want a real stretch. Of course, we’d love to hear from you if we can support your journey.
A high performing workshop delivers a real return on investment for all. When done well, we know it makes a positive impact on tomorrow for pharma and healthcare brand teams and, in turn, it can make a difference to their customers and importantly patients too. We know because our clients tell us!
“In one day, you have moved our thinking on what would have taken us 6 months to achieve.”
To find out how our workshop experience could support your business goals, then please get in touch with Debbie Allman firstname.lastname@example.org or David Coleiro email@example.com
If you’d just like to find out more about who we are and what we do, then take a look here www.strategicnorth.com
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