When you hear, “We’re having a workshop and you need to organize it,” do you fist pump with excitement or groan with despair?

Workshops, Retreats and Planning Sessions can be a highly effective way to bring people together to:

  • Create a new vision and plan an exciting future strategic direction
  • Solve complex problems
  • Make important decisions
  • Design a new structure or service or
  • Unite a team

Terrific… but how can you be confident your workshop will be time and money well-spent?

Let’s face it, most workshops start out with good intent but fall way short when it comes to delivering positive and tangible results.

Opening the invitation, your attendees sigh, wondering how they can possibly spare a day or two away from their full-on day job and relentless inbox. How genuinely keen are they to give you precious time they’ll never get back?

Then there’s the cost. When you calculate the real cost of taking key people out of the business, potentially off-site, with catering, travel and a professional facilitator, it can be eye wateringly expensive.

At best, many workshops are simply a waste of time and money. At worst they can be a total disaster that does more damage than good.

So what makes workshops so prone to failure?

Over many years of facilitating workshops, retreats and planning sessions for corporates, government departments, non-profit agencies and many businesses, I’ve learnt what works and... what doesn’t.

Over many years of ​​facilitating workshops, retreats and planning session for corporates, government departments, non-profit agencies and many businesses, I’ve learnt what works and... what doesn’t.

The good news is that workshop failure is easily avoidable. With awareness and careful planning, your workshop will fast track your team's progress and help them take a giant leap forward.

Here’s why so many workshops fail and what to do instead #workshop #strategy #planning

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12 Common Workshop Fails + Easy Fixes

1. Reasons for Having the Workshop are Vague and Weak

Bringing your team together because it would be ‘nice’ or you always do it in February, aren’t good enough reasons!

If your reasons for holding a workshop are vague and wooly, you’re doomed before you begin! Your invitees will be emailing and calling, wanting to know what it’s about and whether they need to attend. Everyone is busy and they won't thank you for dragging them into a workshop that isn't going to achieve something important.

Fix #1: Define a Clear Purpose, Compelling Goal and Specific Objectives

For people to willingly turn up and actively participate, the reason for holding the workshop must be meaningful and significant. Your Purpose and Goal should reap important benefits, long after the event is over. Each session then needs specific objectives to collectively create a positive outcome.

Knowing your Purpose, Goals and Objectives right from the start, makes it quicker and easier to design, plan and deliver a workshop that hits the mark.

2. No Tangible Measures of Success

Workshops without real and measurable results quickly disintegrate into endless, roundabout conversations which are pointless and frustrating.

Fix #2: Define 'Workshop Success' 

1.  Do your sums and estimate the value needed to get a decent ROI:

Total attendee hourly wages x (workshop duration + lost productivity hours) + cost of organising + venue + catering + facilitator + travel + accommodation = TOTAL COST

2.   Ask key decision makers, influencers and attendees,

How will you know this has been time and money well spent? 

What will be different and how will we know we’ve achieved it?’

3.  Use observable and real success measures plus your objectives to design, plan and test each session.

4.  Give one of your team responsibility for tracking and measuring success beyond the workshop.

3. Wrong People on the Invite List

If your attendees don’t have a vested interest or the authority to decide, you’ve invited the wrong people.

I once facilitated a strategic planning workshop for a team who needed to set their priorities for the next 12 months. Reviewing the invitee list, I realised these people had neither clarity about the strategic direction nor authority to decide the priorities.

We quickly identified and invited the senior managers, influencers and decision makers. This created the opportunity to build shared understanding about where the business was heading and secure critical buy-in from those with authority.

Fix #3: - Identify and Include Key Influencers and Decision Makers.

Brief them before you organise your workshop to ensure they are on board and actively supporting what you want to achieve.

4. Organisers Lack Influence and Authority

It’s not enough to simply invite leaders and decision makers, hope they’ll turn up and support what’s decided. They need to have ‘skin in the game’ and be actively involved in designing your workshop. Delegating to a well-meaning assistant will result in poor attendance and commitment and undermine the Purpose and Objectives.

Fix #4: Ensure involvement and commitment from those with authority.

Allow enough time (senior leaders' diaries are typically full for at least 3 weeks) and gain key influencer input into the Purpose, Success Measures, Invitees and Design. If they say they're 'too busy', put the workshop on hold or reschedule it. Their active involvement is critical for success.

Involve influencers and decision makers right from the start for #workshop success. #planning #leadership

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5. Unclear Roles and Responsibilities – too many hats

While you can be a participant, decision maker and facilitator, it can be tricky to juggle all three. Potential conflicts of interest and being directly impacted by crucial decisions makes role juggling even more challenging

Running each session to time; ensuring everyone is engaged sharing your opinion whilst objectively encouraging others’ views and changing activities ‘on the fly’ if necessary, can be exhausting. Attendees soon become cynical if the process seems biased, progress is stalling or extroverts are dominating.

Fix #5 – Engage a professional, independent facilitator

A skilled facilitator brings objectivity, creativity (alternative ways to achieve the outcome) and quickly grasps what’s needed. They are also adept at managing energy levels, dynamics, challenging personalities and seamlessly adapting the workshop when necessary.

If you choose to wear multiple hats (stakeholder, decision maker, subject matter expert and facilitator), declare each hat as and when you change roles. Transparency ensures integrity of the process and preserves trust.

6. Lack of Preparation and Pre-Work

When attendees turn up unprepared, progress is slow and often compromised. Asking people to decide or gain a shared understanding without time to prepare (read, research, think and discuss) before your Workshop will lead to:

  • Catch-up conversations that revisit past decisions
  • Inadequate knowledge to decide
  • Unnecessary stalling, frustration and tension
Fix #6 – Send the Agenda and communicate important prep 1- 2 weeks prior

Send the Agenda at least a week before your Workshop so attendees know what to expect. Include any pre-reading or prep instructions. This creates shared understanding and enables you to optimise workshop time.

(A list of examples is included in our free SUCCESSFUL WORKSHOP GUIDE).

7. No Pre-defined Guidelines

A common trap for rookie facilitators! Without agreed behavioural guidelines (‘road rules’) your Workshop can quickly deteriorate into a ‘free for all’. Where decisions are contentious, emotions run high, triggering unhelpful behavior. This makes people feel uncomfortable and unsafe and you’ll notice attendees retreat, tune out or attack.

Shared and visible guidelines help manage the dynamics and keep what’s agreed ‘front of mind’.

Fix #7: Establish a set of Agreed Guidelines with your participants in the opening session

These include common courtesy guidelines (eg mobile phones turned off or on silent) and those which encourage constructive discussion (eg ‘respect and build on each other’s ideas’, ‘be concise’)

8. They’re Boring!

Here are the three biggest yawn-fest creators:

  1. Multiple, ‘death by Powerpoint’ presentations. If you’ve ever sat in a Workshop where presenter after presenter droned on with eye-wateringly busy slides for 2 days, you’ll know what I mean!
  2. Too much of the same thing. Two days of repetitive ‘round table’ discussions will kill energy, creativity and focus. You know this is happening when people start checking their phones and answering emails under the table!
  3. Endless, indirect conversations that go nowhere are disengaging. Whispered side conversations creep in and before you know it, you’ve lost them.
Fix #8: Mix things up
  • Intersperse sitting with moving to keep people engaged and energy levels high
  • Include standing, small group discussions
  • Incorporate relevant short challenges and energisers
  • Keep discussions and debriefs ‘on topic’
  • Balance left and right brain ways to engage different communication and learning preferences

Don't let boring talks and endless slides kill your #workshop. Vary activities to keep people engaged. #planning #facilitator

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9. Not Enough Down Time

Workshops can be tiring as they stretch people to think and take part in often unfamiliar ways. Although tempting to ‘pack as much in’ while everyone is together, this is a trap. People need time to relax and recharge to remain focused.

As humans we are prone to ‘decision fatigue’, especially in the afternoon. Leaving important decision making until the end of the day will be counterproductive.

Fix #9: Deliberately Schedule Generous Breaks

Short, regular breaks provide a valuable opportunity to connect informally and strengthen relationships.

20 – 30 minute tea breaks, 1 hour for lunch and unstructured dinners keep people engaged. Trust me, this will do far more to strengthen your team than a contrived ‘blindfolded’ trust walk exercise!

If a session runs over time, a generous break creates wriggle room to get back on track.

Create the opportunity for attendees to ‘sleep on’ and absorb information overnight and be ready to decide first thing the next morning. This creates headspace to reflect, recharge and decide when they’re fresh and alert.

10. Unclear or Controversial Next Steps

Without a clear, agreed plan about what happens next, your workshop will be a waste of time. Workshops are springboards to create change, take action and achieve results. It’s too easy to sit in a room and discuss a whole ‘bunch of stuff’ we could do!

If your workshop finishes without clear action/s, assigned owners and an agreed way forward, the momentum you’ve created will stall when everyone returns to their day job.

Fix #10: Allocate the last Session to 'Where to From Here? Next Steps’

Even if earlier workshop sessions have run overtime, this last session must happen and be documented. It puts your workshop in context, clarifies who’s doing what by when and reaffirms the workshop’s value.

11. Commitment Failure - No Accountability

Failing to gain personal, individual commitment to agreed action undoes everything that's been achieved. As creatures of habit we often default to ‘doing what we’ve always done’ even if we agreed to do something different.

Fix #11: Finish with a Call to Action

Capitalize on the goodwill generated by your workshop. Gain commitment to action and direct agreement to be accountable. This can include:

  • Attendees choosing an accountability ‘buddy’ to provide support
  • Balance left and right brain ways to engage different communication and learning preferences
  • Communicating with and engaging those who didn’t attend
  • Deciding how to track progress; manage risks and issues and celebrate milestones.

12. Facilitator Fails

Whether you engage an external or internal facilitator, check they have the skill and experience to ensure success. You may not have the best person if your facilitator:

  • Is a subject matter expert rather than expert facilitator. This could lead to them taking the role of ‘guru’, making the workshop all about them! If a possible facilitator is a subject matter expert, far better to invite them as a contributor and participant.
  • Is uncomfortable controlling the process, without being controlling. They may feel intimidated by a senior group with more power and authority. Like a bunny in the headlights, when your facilitator is out of their depth, the workshop will quickly deteriorate.
  • Can’t connect and engage all attendees. Workshops involve extroverts, introverts, different personality styles, gender and cultural sensitivities and diverse beliefs.

An inexperienced facilitator may lack the ability to draw people into the conversation without making them feel uncomfortable. They may struggle to respectively contain the talk time of those with strongly held opinions. This creates often unexpressed frustration, excluding people and great ideas.

Fix #12: Identify the type of facilitator you need and recruit the best

A skilled facilitator will listen carefully to your requirements and expectations. He or she will ask astute questions and take time to understand the broader context, business and attendees.

They will work with you to design and plan your workshop and take responsibility for ensuring it runs smoothly.

Recruiting the best, you can rest easy knowing they expect and plan for the unexpected. Whatever could happen or go wrong, a skilled facilitator will have a backup plan for that!

A skilled facilitator will take the pressure off and ensure #workshop success. #strategy #planning #leadership

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I'm often amazed at how people remember how good the food was (or wasn't!), years after a workshop. Tasty food will always motivate people to attend and participate.  Don't underestimate its ability to influence whether your workshop is judged an outstanding success or a real fizzer! 

Workshop failure is avoidable and success more likely, when you know how.

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Successful Workshop Facilitator's Guide

Now you can be confident your Workshop will be long remembered for all the right reasons!

About Caroline

Caroline Cameron is an award winning, master certified executive, career and business team coach, workshop facilitator and speaker. Caroline is on a mission to help mid-career professionals and evolving organisations harness the power of change to achieve success in business, work and life.

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