Running workshops – Tips & Techniques

08 Jun 2018 | Research & Business Knowledge

These days, I enjoy running both groups and workshops.  But when I did my first workshop, I assumed that having learnt to moderate qual groups quite well would mean that running a workshop was a breeze.  It wasn’t!

With the benefit of a lot more attempts, here are some thoughts on how to avoid that fate …..

Top tips

Be clear on the goal

Often the team says they want a ‘brainstorming/idea generation session’ when actually it’s more about bringing a strategy (or some research insights) to life and the real goal is getting buy-in to a strategic direction not coming up with a new one.  Other goals might be team-building or coming up with different propositions for a brand. Developing an awesome workshop agenda that does not address the real objectives will leave you trying to adjust things on the day.  Not a fun experience.

As with a research project it’s also very helpful to know what the expected outputs are at the end of the session (also the format of those outputs, check to see if they expect something written up and cost for that)

Clearly set up the 'rules of engagement'

Once you’ve run through these rules, it can be nice to put a copy up on the wall for the rest of the day.  The rules will be things like

  • Green light session
  • No right or wrong answers
  • Be nice to each other
  • Say 'yes .. and' instead of 'no, but …'

Bring lots of post its

They allow you to improvise a new task on the fly.  You can get big ones that are easier to read from a distance (good for putting up around the room).  You can even get post it note flipchart paper which is great (although not cheap)

Visit the room before

Not always possible.  But more important than for when running research groups (in my view).  Some of your techniques may not work in certain room configurations.  Eg ‘Break-out sessions’ need extra rooms to send each break-out group to (or at least different corners of a large room). 

I did a 60 person workshop for a soft drinks client where we had printed 15 very large sheets to bring to life different ‘moments’.  The idea being to stick the sheets to the walls to create different workstations for each moment.  When I got to see the room for the first time (in Johannesburg), three out of the four walls were windows with blinds you couldn’t stick anything to.  Not ideal!

Allow more time than you think you will need (but have back-up things to do)

Build in enough coffee breaks and time for lunch for networking or team-building or cross-fertilization of ideas.  Plus this makes for a nicer day!

If you are running a workshop with a larger group then inevitably you will need to split them into smaller groups for sessions.  And then it’s useful for each group to present back key findings.  This almost always takes longer than you think/than you hoped.  But arguably is the most important bit.  So allow time for this.  A good trick is to schedule these feedbacks before a coffee break, so you can run into the coffee break if you absolutely need to. 

Pre-plan anything you can to save time on the day

If you know you are splitting people into groups, then pinning a sheet to the wall (that everyone crowds around), or putting up a slide or reading out names can eat into precious time. Put coloured dots on their name badges so there is a blue group, green group etc.  If you want them in different groups at different times then do a number or a shape as well as the coloured dot.   Or a page in their welcome pack also works well.

Give them worksheets for tasks even when the task is blindingly obvious

If you know the attendees already and know they don’t need this, then less handholding may be necessary. If the group is small enough for you to be facilitating everyone when they do a task – again, you can skip this.  But generally, when you put people into pairs or smaller groups they can lose time faffing as they sort out who is in charge or how they ‘should’ do it.  Something as simple as a one-pager with eg 3 boxes ‘positives’ ‘negatives’ ‘most important thing to remember’ can keep things moving forwards.  And some of the groups won’t need it – but some will.

Techniques that have been road tested

My background is brands, advertising, positioning – so I have done more workshops in those areas than, say, team leadership.  With that in mind, here are some of the techniques that I have found most useful:

Icebreakers are a good way to start

For a simple icebreaker, get them into pairs and ask them to interview each other and find out two truths and a lie.  They then report back to the rest of the group who have to guess the lie. 

Or – if you want something a bit more focussed on the day itself – then using the 'Wishing Well'.  Bring a bowl, box or plastic bag (or use the wastepaper bin) for the 'Well'.  Everyone gets one piece of paper – and anonymously writes out three sentences "I wish …."  "I hope ……"  "I fear ….".  Fold the paper and put it in the wishing well.  Then you read them out one at a time – and ideally get three flipcharts with a person on each flipchart. Your flipchart scribes then create a list for wishe or hopes or fears.  

Attendees need a bit of context so you could set it up as “What do you wish/hope/fear for the workshop itself?”  Or it may be more useful to explore “What do you wish/hope/fear for the brand? or the company? or the school?” or whatever makes sense for your client.  It sets a context for the day – gets any negative thinking voiced (and parked for later) – and it's great to come back to at the end of the day because usually a lot of the fears have gone away and the wishes/hopes have been sorted.  To make it shorter just do two sentences – “I wish ….”  and “I fear ….”

Bringing a brand personality or a customer portrait to life

Perhaps you want them to get really clear on what the brand stands for.  Or get inside the mindspace of their key customer.  A campfire works well for this.  It’s also fun so can be used towards the beginning of the day to get the group dynamics going.  Or after lunch to avoid that post-lunch dip.  It also generates useful information in its own right.  The instructions are:

  • Imagine that you are sitting around a campfire.  You are remembering an absent “friend”
  • You want to develop a full picture of this person: what they looked like, what their past was, what are they doing now – lots of rich detail
  • Take turns around the circle, each person offering a memory in turn
  • Each memory must include the person speaking; and indicate the relationship between the two of you, not just state facts about the character
  • It is good to let the circle just move on its own.  Go around the circle once, a few times, whatever
  • You can nominate the next person’s relationship to the character if you want to.

The absent friend can either be the-brand-come-to-life.  Or the company’s core customer (or lapsed customer or whatever is useful for your objectives)

Jumpstarting their creativity for New Product Development/Innovation workshops

For getting people to think laterally – you could use the SCAMPER technique.  The letters stand for: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify (Maximise/Minimise), Put to another use, Eliminate, Rearrange (or Reverse).  Each letter suggests a way to be innovative.  It gives people a systematic way of being creative.  Giving them examples helps ….

  • Substitute – Diet Coke where sugar was substituted by sweetener
  • Combine – Keyboards combined with solar panels, Andrex toilet tissue with aloe vera
  • Adapt – ATM machines were adapted from vending machines
  • Modify – KitKat Chunky (they made it bigger)
  • Put to another use – WD40 stops guitar strings from going rusty

There are a whole load of ‘helper questions’ that give your attendees ideas on how to ‘Substitute’ etc.  This website is a good resource:


The DISNEY strategy is another technique that can be useful. The basic idea is that you have three hats (ie three roles).  And you are the Dreamer, the Realist or the Critic.   Teams start by being the Dreamer (think up lots of ideas – some may be a bit crazy), then the Realist (who works out how to make the ideas happen/build the thing) and then the Critic (who criticises the idea).  You can go through the cycle more than once – so after being a critic – go back to dreamer mode to see if that helps fix things.  People can either stay in their group for all three roles.  Or a nice way to cross fertilise ideas is to have one or two people stay at the table while everyone else moves on to the next group.  The people who stay at the table then tell the new people what ideas they dreamt up.  Or what ideas they were criticising.

This website gives a bit more detail