5 Guidelines for Effective Workshops

Outcomes define the success of business analysis professionals in organizations. Whether you work in an agile or waterfall environment, many of those outcomes are produced through working sessions. Workshops are a key technique in the business analyst’s toolkit. But all you need to know is how to schedule them, right? Nope! You need to know what makes workshops produced their intended outcomes. I use a set of guidelines that I learned as part of an organizational meeting culture overhaul a decade ago. In this post I share my top 5 guidelines for effective workshops.

Handshakes, Not Handoffs

This was a favorite quote from the CIO that sponsored that meeting culture makeover. He (correctly) believed that there was a significant return on investment by having the people that would use the workshop’s outputs involved in the workshops. Too often we don’t invite these folks because we aren’t talking about solutions yet or we don’t want to distract those folks from what we perceive as higher value work.

Our project outcomes told us a different story when we applied this guideline.

We were able to:

  • share the why and what behind the changes we were implementing to these people. This knowledge gave them a more complete understanding of the project that the documentation did not.
  • identify risks and issues early and make necessary adjustments before committing to solutions. This expedited later phases of work because downstream teams had accounted for them.
  • give downstream teams time to plan and prepare for their work, which dramatically reduced or eliminated the time needed to create these later
  • create a common understanding which enabled us to accommodate changes faster

I know. You’re saying “we can’t pull in those people earlier.” Is it always possible? No, but if you adopt this principle you can begin to find ways to incorporate them into your workshops and you will see a different in your outcomes.

Workshops are Collaborative, Working Sessions

Meetings are different from workshops. You can read more about what how I define those differences in my post Meetings vs Workshops: Workshops are for Working. What we generally call “meetings” are, in fact, “workshops.” Workshops produced a completed output. Getting to a completed output requires the organizer to plan what will happen to achieve that output.

Workshops must:

  • have a purpose (why are we having this meeting)
  • have an agenda (what do we need to do)
  • identify who is needed and why (ex. Bob, we’ll need you to make a decision on X topic)
  • provide pre-work when possible (so people have a chance to get acquainted with what we’re going to do)
  • define the goals or outputs of the meeting

And this principle includes the word “collaborative.” Collaboration is not a spontaneous activity that occurs when people get into a (real or virtual) room together. The organizer must put some thinking into how best to make the workshop collaborative.

Planning a workshop in which collaboration can occur includes making decisions which support a creative, productive environment like:

  • uninviting people that don’t add value to the outputs,
  • creating psychological safety by building equity among all attendees and reserving judgement of ideas, and
  • making time for fun and socializing

All Attendees Must Have a Defined Role

To have effective workshops, the right people must attend. The organizer must spend time to decide who those people are, why they are needed, and what they are expected to do.  Once you’ve answered those questions, you invite only those who will help you achieve the workshop’s purpose and produce its outputs.

I’m a stickler for ensuring that everyone who comes to a meeting knows why they were invited. The workshop purpose and agenda must be specific as to what will be achieved so that attendees can see why they have been invited.

I’ll share a secret with you. You can become a Meeting Hero. Become known as someone who invites only the people needed for your workshops then use their time effectively. It will make you a legend.

Bonus points for organizing workshops that regularly end on time or early.

Check out my post on identifying the right participants for your meeting or workshop.

Attendees Come Prepared to Work

Imagine for a moment that you plan a workshop, identify the right participants but don’t tell them what they will do. What kind of a result can you expect? Using more time than expected to prepare the group for the work they will perform in the workshop. This almost always results in a follow up workshop.

Imagine instead that you give your invitees time and material to focus on before you meet.

Providing pre-work gets everyone ready to participate. Attendees that come prepared are more likely to generate the outcomes you need. To do this, you must provide them with the materials in advance with plenty of time to prepare.

Your best case scenario is to have materials in the hands of participants no less than 24 hours before a workshop. The longer or more complicated the workshop’s agenda, the more time your attendees will need to prepare. Factor in pre-work to your workshop planning schedule. If you are late getting materials out, don’t ask your participants to cram. Reschedule your workshop or reset your agenda.

Are you having trouble getting your attendees to do the pre-work? That’s a common problem. Check out my post on When Your Participants Aren’t Ready to Work.

Workshops Are For Working And Completing Work

Effective workshops produce outcomes. They have a purpose and they produce a completed deliverables. What do I mean by a deliverable? A workshop deliverable is:

  • an approval,
  • completed tasks,
  • a decision,
  • putting the finishing touches on a work product, or
  • some other output that represents a final state.

Action items and notes are not deliverables. This is meeting hygiene content that can add to churn (will people read the notes? will the action items be completed? and if so, will they lead to another meeting?).

Reading a long document to an audience is not a deliverable (and don’t even get me started about what a waste of time that is). Consider what outcome you want to achieve by reading the document out loud. Is it to get changes? Is it to get approval? Those are deliverables. I would challenge you to reconsider whether getting everyone in a room to do that will get to a completed deliverable.

And here’s where your purpose will help you define the best format in which to achieve your deliverables. Perhaps the best use of time would be to have the reviewers read and comment on the document asynchronously and reserve meeting time to resolve outstanding questions and get final approval, only if needed.

Effective meetings happen when the right attendees come prepared to finish planned deliverables. Want to go into the components of effective workshops and meetings? Read more in my series on workshops and meetings!

Published by Susan Moore

Co-chair Charlotte Carolina Club - Carolina Club Ambassador - Former Chair Jacksonville (FL) Carolina Club - Former Carolina Alumni Admissions Program representative

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