6 February, 2023

Here’s my Best Advice for How to Run an Engaging Project Workshop


One of the true delights of Project Management (for me) is when facilitating a workshop goes well. But, it’s not easy. And ‘Project Management training’ rarely has anything to say about how to run an engaging project workshop. So, let’s see what the elements are.

Why do We have Project Workshops?

There are many reasons why you may decide to run a project workshop. And, by the way, if you are going to run one, I recommend you choose one reason at a time. That way, you minimize the risk of it being a hot mess of confusion!

Here's my Best Advice for How to Run an Engaging Project Workshop

Some examples of project workshops include:

  • Project Kick-off
  • Team orientation
  • Ream refresh and re-motivation
  • Project planning – especially scheduling
  • Problem-solving
  • Sisk identification, analysis, and planning
  • Stakeholder engagement planning
  • Process refinement and training
  • Next-step planning
  • Lessons learned (or Retrospective review)

Why important

I hope it is obvious why it is important to engage the colleagues you invite to your project workshop. If the topic is important, then it’s equally important that you get the best possible participation and contributions from your attendees. If not, you are wasting their time and yours. Plus, of course, you’ll fail to get the best result you could get.

Yet, too often, project workshops are one-way affairs with the workshop leader speaking and everyone else, variously listening, zoning in and out, or ignoring proceedings. At best, you get grudging participation from most, and domination by a few (that further puts off the majority.

Your job… is to stop this and turn your workshop into a chance for everyone to contribute all they have – and to do so enthusiastically. That way the group of participants becomes far greater than the sum of its parts.

Agenda

I like to keep my ‘how to’ articles simple. We’ll follow the four stages for running an engaging project workshop.

  1. Design an Engaging Project Workshop
  2. Set the Frame for an Engaging Project Workshop
  3. Facilitate an Engaging Project Workshop
  4. Follow-up on Your Engaging Project Workshop

Definition of a Workshop

A workshop is a place where people do some work, that is configured and equipped for the purpose.

Yup: when we use the term workshop in our context, it’s really a metaphor. But this point is informative. In my definition, I deliberately emphasize the need to set up your workshop and equip it for the needs of the work that you will do

So, let’s start with that process…

Design an Engaging Project Workshop

If you want to run an engaging project workshop without preparation, you need to be incredibly skilled and experienced. But, chances are, by the time you are both skilled and experienced, you will appreciate the value of preparation and it will be a natural part of your process anyway!

Begin with the End in Mind

Start with where you want to end up. That is, begin by being 100 percent clear on the outcomes you want and need from your workshop:

  • Why are you creating it?
  • What will success look like?

This will give you your primary objective. Now, you can plan to achieve the outcome you need.

Secondary Objectives will Set the Mood

And there is also value in setting secondary objectives. Things like a desire to:

  • Raise morale and motivation
  • Improve team-working and collaboration
  • Train and educate
  • Energize and excite
  • Enhance efficiency, quality, or pace of work

Any of these may, of course, be primary objectives for your workshop. But often your primary objective may be linked to something like my list of examples of workshops in the introduction to this article. 

But there is no harm in considering how your workshop design can also enhance some other aspects for those present. Knowledge of your main objective will tell you what outcomes to design-in, but your secondary objective may help you choose from among a number of options for how to achieve this.

Everything You Do…

Now, everything you design into your workshop needs to serve your primary (or secondary) objective. If an activity has no benefit for either, drop it.

If it only benefits your secondary objective, ask yourself if it is important enough. Is there a better activity, which can deliver on that secondary objective, whilst also serving your primary goal?

Who to Invite

Deciding who to invite (and therefore, who not to invite) is also critically linked to your objectives. Who needs to be present to deliver your primary objective? And, who else can help? 

If your presence does not deliver benefit, then either you should not be there, or I need to consider what other objectives I have, which need a different workshop that will demand your attendance?

Activities

Now think of the activities and how to sequence of them, which will allow you to deliver the outcomes you need.

Each one needs to have a clear trace-back to the workshop objectives. And you should also minimize overlap, to use people’s time as efficiently as possible. 

Each activity should aim to;

  • Deliver some aspect of your primary outcome and, ideally, contribute to your secondary objective
  • Contribute to the variety of the workshop
  • Engage all participants – and certainly be accessible to all
  • Have enough time to work well – but no more time than it  needs

Icebreakers: Yes or No?

Icebreakers get a bad rap. And deservedly so sometimes. Chosen poorly and led badly, they can make participants feel exposed and uncomfortable. We have all experienced this kind of exercise that seems to be run more for the benefit of the facilitator than for the participants. And, sometimes, as an out-and-out power trip! 

May I remind you of the section on ‘Everything you do…’!

There are two reasons to run an icebreaker – with different needs for each:

  1. The Participants don’t know each other
    So, your icebreaker is there to introduce them to each other and give them a small taste of personalities to help them remember one another and see each other as interesting colleagues.
    Critically, the lack of rapport means they will not be like to feel comfortable with anything that demands too much emotional exposure. Keep the icebreaker simple and what you ask people to say about themselves superficial
  2. The participants all know each other
    You want to help them relax and switch context from the daily work to the workshop environment
    Now you can use something a little more involved. But keep in mind two critical design constraints on your choice. First, consider the culture of the people and team involved. Keep the icebreaker consistent with that culture. And second, use your secondary (and primary) objective to inform the style of icebreaker you select.

Set the Frame for an Engaging Project Workshop

Once you have designed the workshop, it’s time to go public and let people know about it.

Invitations

Send out invitations to your workshop. Your invitation will be are people’s first impression of the workshop and, as my father used to say:

‘You only get one chance to make a first impression’

So, your invitation must be ‘inviting’. It must make people keen to come. For this to work, think about how to:

  • Be crystal clear on the purpose of the session
    This will include the value of the workshop to the organization, the project, and the person you are inviting. Your invitation must answer their question ‘why should I attend?” Especially as they probably have other things they could do.
  • Explain the priority
    And, crucially here, if their attendance is mandatory, how can you say so clearly, without being too heavy-handed? This, by the way, may require a lot of cultural sensitivity. In some places, people expect to be told what to attend. In others, it can spark resistance or even offense.
  • Make it inviting
    If they decide there is value in attending, the next thing is to make them feel like they positively ‘want’ to attend. How will they know that they are welcome?
  • Build anticipation
    The best possible invitation is one that leaves people looking forward to the event with excitement and curiosity.
  • Lay out the logistics
    Where, when, how long, what to wear, what to bring? All the things they need to know to make their attendance easy.

Welcoming

While your project workshop is about to begin, and at the start of the workshop itself, you job is to welcome participants. You are their host. Act like a party host and welcome them to the workshop. Your job is to make them feel comfortable… ‘at home’.

Ask simple open questions to check that people have what they need and know what they feel they need to know. Cover all the usual housekeeping matters like safety, emergencies, breaks, refreshments, and bathrooms.

Positioning

Once people have settled in, your first order of formal business is to position the workshop for them and to set out what they can expect. I often use the COMB acronym to help me remember what to say and in what order:

  1. Context
    Why we are all here and who we are, as a group. Who is represented and what contribution do you hope we will make? And, therefore (without being heavy-handed), your expectations on people.
  2. Objectives
    What are the objectives of the workshop and what outcomes do you hope we will leave the session with?
  3. Map
    Set out the agenda – the sequence of activities throughout the workshop, with indicative timings. In particular, be clear about when the workshop will finish.
  4. Benefits
    Remind people of the benefits they, the project, and the organization will get from their participation.

Facilitate an Engaging Project Workshop

Before I start, you may like to see my recent video on How to facilitate a meeting…

Let’s consider three critical aspects of the actual running of an engaging project workshop:

  1. The vital aspects
  2. What makes a good workshop great
  3. How to engage everybody present

Non-Negotiable Aspects of a Good Project Workshop

I am going to select what I think of as the five most critical aspects of running a good workshop. I’ll say a little about each.

Psychological safety

First – and most important of all – is that everybody at the workshop needs to feel emotionally (and, of course, physically) safe. Nobody can contribute to their best abilities if they feel the threat of deprecation or worse. Your job is to create an environment of complete respect for one another, where everyone feels safe to say what they think.

Managing time

Next, I consider the end time for the workshop to be a contract between me and my participants. If I break that contract, I am letting them down at best, and causing harm (to their other work commitments, family relationships, travel plans…) at worst. 

And anyway, if you plan your workshop carefully, time is your main lever to ensure you deliver on the plan.

Managing mood and energy – breaks and changes

But, people will only be at their best if they have the energy and emotional resources they need. As important as managing to the clock, is managing the breaks and changes that allow people to recharge their batteries and reset their emotions. Important aspects of this are breaks and changes:

  • Speeding up and slowing down
  • Working together and working alone
  • Sitting down and standing up
  • Doing, discussing, and reflecting
  • Serious stuff and playful stuff

Clarity 

Whatever you ask your group to do, you need to be clear with them about what you are asking. This makes a good briefing a vital skill. I use the mnemonic OARR to help me remember that, for any activity, I must spell out:

  • Outcomes
    What I am expecting them to produce at the end of the exercise of=r activity
  • Agenda
    The steps or process I want them to follow
  • Roles
    What parts different people in the group will play
  • Rules
    Constraints like timing, resources, behaviors

Adaptability – to serendipity – ‘utilization’

Yes, there are rules. And yes, too, you need to manage the time. But if you are too rigid, you can deliver to the plan you made when you designed the workshop – yet not achieve the outcomes you need. Or, not as bad, you may achieve some outcomes, yet know that this was not the best you could have gotten.

The workshop will unfold in its own way, with its own dynamic. Your participants will bring their own individuality. So, there will be chance events and opportunities – serendipity. And you need the flexibility to spot these opportunities and seize on them. It’s what psychologists call ‘utilization’. Your willingness and ability to use what is there, in the room, at the time.

Good to Great

Moving from good to great means having a vivid selection of exercises that fully engage your group. The different activities will bring out the best in everyone and the results will come from the interactions between team members that you have designed into the workshop.

Add to this a set of carefully prepared resources. These need not be super-smart. But they do need to be vibrant and fun to use and, at the same time easy to understand and fit for purpose. Invest a little extra time and money in:

  • Choosing fun props
  • Making posters colorful and fun
  • Getting pens that work – in a variety of colors
  • Nice (but not showy) stationery
  • All the tools and equipment the group could need

Once you have all these, don’t rely on them to carry the session. Your job now is to stay alert for confusion, difficulties, conflict and breakdowns, or flagging energy, enthusiasm, or mood. And, as soon as you detect a challenge, act quickly to resolve it.

Engaging Everybody

Perhaps the biggest challenge for new workshop facilitators is to engage everybody. Some people are keen and easy to engage. Others simply want to dominate or take over. But there are always a few people who are naturally reticent to contribute. Yet, ironically, that group is usually sitting on more than their fair share of great insights and ideas.

So, it is vital to get the best from them. 

And there is no magic to this. Simple techniques work well.

  • Being welcoming and encouraging from the start and never letting up on it
  • Arranging small groups where shier people can more easily feel comfortable
  • Selecting groups to deliberately move over assertive people away from less confident participants – and maybe put the shy people with your most encouraging team members
  • Turn-taking ‘Round Robins’ where everyone has a say in turn and the rest of the group listens respectfully
  • Parallel working where the group works ‘all together on our own’ and then presents their idea – or simply posts them anonymously for everyone to review
  • Deliberately asking ‘I’d like to hear from you, Chris…’ to get input from someone who has not spoken

Follow-up on Your Engaging Project Workshop

This section is, perhaps, a little ‘off-topic’. But, don’t squander the value you created. This is important, for the sake of:

  • Getting things done
  • Retaining positive motivation
  • Recall

So, because I don’t want too much scope creep on this article, I shan’t spend time reminding you how to follow up – or what to follow up on. But I will simply remind you. End your session with a promise to follow up. And then… Keep your promise!

What are Your Tips for Running Engaging Project Workshops?

I’d love to read about your experiences, your tips, and your questions. Please use the comments section below, and I will respond to every contribution.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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