Our group runs a lot of workshops in many forms: structured decision making processes; expert elicitation; targeted analyses with many participants; brainstorming of broad issues; and everything in between. Collectively we’ve learnt a few dos and don’ts. In a previous post we covered workshop facilitation and introduced the four Ps: here, we expand on these points and add a fifth (Place).
This is perhaps the hardest ‘P’ to make generalisations about because workshops can take so many forms, and determining the purpose is entirely up to you! However, in all cases you need to be realistic about what you can achieve in the set time. Aim to dedicate adequate time to the one thing that you absolutely must get done, and if there’s extra time, have some sessions for side projects or issues that crop up during the workshop. Make sure the purpose is clearly articulated and appealing to all participants, so it’s clear how each will benefit.
It’s easy to underestimate the amount of time spent on workshop logistics, and perhaps the biggest consideration is the venue. From a cost-saving perspective it’s best to hold a workshop close to the city in which most participants reside, but rather than holding it in the city itself, it’s often good to get people away from distractions, other sneaky meetings they might organise during the workshop, etc. Ideally, suitable places are a bit out of town, but near enough to an airport so that travel time doesn’t dissuade participation of those who are only available for part of the workshop.
It’s also vital that wifi facilities are sufficient, and that people’s dietary requirements are accommodated (ask them about this early!) If the venue and accommodation are basic (e.g., due to budget constraints), advise participants in advance such that they can make alternative arrangements if they prefer a higher standard. Having said that, if you have a sizeable group you might get away with bargaining for a better deal, especially in the ‘off’ season.
It’s also easy to overlook the little extras. You might have a great workshop room, but is there a communal space where people can relax, or a good pub close by? Down-time and informal banter facilitates a friendly and productive working atmosphere, and is often as important as the formal sessions. Also make sure participants are provided with adequate information about logistics beforehand: maps, schedules, public transport timetables, etc.
Getting the right balance of people with a broad range of experiences is pivotal to running a successful workshop. If possible, avoid inviting the ‘usual characters’; instead, ask colleagues to see if they know of valuable people you hadn’t already considered. Also think carefully about how different personalities will interact. Talk to others who have run workshops or worked with the people you are considering inviting to scope them out. You want thinkers, not just talkers!
Pick a couple of individuals whose attendance is vital and identify dates that suit them, then invite everybody else. More senior participants may have a deeper understanding of the issues, but are unlikely to have time to do the leg-work, so it’s important to think about who might be able to actually execute the ideas.
Don’t forget that time is money, so make sure everyone has something to do at all times and is contributing. If you anticipate part of a workshop being geared towards a subgroup with particular skills, make sure you’re making use of the others in a different way. This is essential for efficiency, but also ensures that participants feel their time and input is valued.
Production of papers is a primary goal of academic workshops, and getting these completed and through the publication process is a challenge (see our final note on follow-up below). If the idea is to canvass a broad issue and write several papers, it’s advisable to prepare a back-up plan for a paper that the group can attack in the event that ideas generated during brainstorming sessions don’t capture people’s imaginations (or you suspect they won’t hold water). From the beginning be clear with all participants about how authorship on subsequent manuscripts will be handled.
Of course, not everyone is interested in papers, and it is often difficult for non-academic participants to justify their workshop attendance to their employers. Make sure you check that everyone is happy with the proposed outputs, and ask what you can provide that would make their participation justifiable: this may be a short workshop report, newsletter article, presentation to a department etc.
It is vital to have a good workshop facilitator (again, see this previous post), ideally not the workshop organiser, particularly when stakeholders are involved. Ask colleagues to see if anyone is available and willing to help out on the workshop days. In some cases, you might want to run pre-workshop mini-sessions if there are people who won’t be available or groups you need to liaise with to get particular information – these can be a good opportunity for the facilitator to get ‘practice’ and become familiar with the issues. It’s also a bad idea for the workshop organiser to be the note-taker: see if there is someone else willing to help out on this front. In some cases, postgrad students might appreciate the experience and the opportunity to meet new people in their field.
Again, the best approaches to use for a workshop will depend on your desired outputs, but a good general principle is to ‘mix it up’. Different participants will respond best to a range of session types: whole-group interactions, smaller break-out group brainstorming, writing etc., but also a range of media. This means that using Powerpoint and computer-based material alone may be suboptimal – test out a range of tools including the old faithful butcher’s paper and other interactive approaches. This helps maintain participants’ focus and interest, and their sense of contributing to the workshop. In general, try to keep presentation-style stuff to a minimum, and think about how you’ll communicate and share workshop outputs (review of collaborative writing tools here).
Finally, make sure you have a follow-up plan organised before the end of the workshop, so everyone is 100% clear about the tasks assigned to them, and about who’s in charge and responsible for ensuring everything gets done. It’s very easy to come up for a grand vision about all the things you’re going to do and then get overwhelmed by the real world when you get back to your desk.
These are our suggestions for ensuring you run a smooth and productive workshop – if you think we’ve missed a key point, feel free to comment below.