Over the course of the last few years, one of the questions that we get asked most is ‘what is the most effective way to run process improvement workshops?’ Usually it is from a client apprehensive about running their own session. They might have limited experience of facilitating an audience of strangers and can be petrified by the prospect of managing the session and trying to get the right information out.I understand why people might be anxious about running process improvement workshops. I’ve heard a tonne of concerns, ranging from “I don’t like speaking in public” to “the attendees will know more than me” and worries “what if they don’t like me”.
The bad news is that the rest of this post doesn’t contain the secret sauce to get people to like you, nor will it suddenly make you love standing up in public. However, following the points outlined below may give you a start to improving the workshops you run.
It’s my opinion that the fate of a process improvement workshop tends to be determined before the session even starts. That’s right before the coffee is poured or the team spend that inevitable 5 minutes attempting to find the proper connection for the plasma screen. By then much of the outcome has already been decided. By this, I mean possibly the most essential element about workshops is the preparation. The pre-work. It is so easy to overlook but becomes critical.
The first thing to consider is why are we having this workshop? What is the point and also what are we looking to get out of this? Crystallising the key outputs and keeping this in mind as you design the workshop can ensure that the session ticks off all the boxes.
One of the reasons that workshops fail is not having the right people in the room. It sounds pretty straightforward, if you need the view of Police Response Officers then schedule your meeting to have the requisite number of Response Officers and everything will be fine. And possibly it will be, unless on the day you find your room filled with officers all from the same team from one geographical location; the probationer with two weeks experience; the restricted officer who hasn’t been out on the beat for years or the PCs who barely say a word because her Sergeant is sitting across from her! Selecting a range of practitioners can make all the difference in creating a representative picture of how things truly are.
Starting off on the right foot
So after countless phone calls, emails and reschedules, you’ve managed to corral the right bunch of individuals from across the organisation into a room. But now your task has only just begun. When introducing the workshop, it is important to empathise with the practitioners. They’ve been pulled from their day jobs, something that they are comfortable with, to sit in a room with possibly a complete stranger who is about to ask how they spend their day. Put like that; it’s understandable why some attendees get a tad defensive! As such, it’s usually a good idea to introduce the purpose of the workshop and the reason why the attendees a.k.a. the subject matter experts have been invited.
Typical when kicking off a workshop, there may be some degree of underlying sentiment in the room. Whether it’s a lack of resource, constant over-time or lack of training and equipment, generally attendees will have qualms they want to raise. At times these could be wildly off topic, and the temptation would be breeze past them and move onto the agenda items, but I’d recommend allowances be made to hear these concerns. Firstly, the act of listening and understanding the attendee’s problems helps with engagement and understanding, but also sometimes it is these discussions that unearth hidden gems.
As the facilitator of a workshop there are three aspects that you should be attempting to manage at once. These are the content, i.e. the discussion; the people in the room and the clock.
Managing the content
From the content perspective, the key is to remember what you are trying to get out of these sessions and make sure the information is relevant and in a format that can be used later. Where possible have a colleague take notes as trying to facilitate the room, stick to the agenda and ensure that you’ve scribbled down copious notes is a recipe for disaster.
The people in the room are important. They’ve been asked to the session to give their thoughts and opinions but not everyone engages in the same way. You might have some attendees that could be politely referred to as highly assertive; others may reference them as the loud ones trying to take control to ensure that their opinions are heard over everyone else’s.
The other group to look out for is those who are being extremely quiet. If you are running a 2-hour workshop and you’ve got an attendee whose token contribution has been to say their name and eat the biscuits, then I’d argue you’ve both failed. He or she has been unable to involve themselves in the process, but more importantly, you’ve failed to get their attention and engage with them. People can and will be difficult, but even just asking them specifically for their opinion on matters should elicit some form of response.
Most people I speak to who’ve run process improvement workshops reference the fact that the clock is not your friend. It’s easy to get engrossed in the process, an exciting discussion, and suddenly 45-minutes of your precious time has slipped by. It’s essential to have one eye on the time as if you don’t manage the clock; the clock will certainly manage you! On that note, it’s worth thinking about prioritisation and ordering your questions and content accordingly. Prior to the session refer back to the original objectives, what do you need to achieve and what would sit in the nice to have pile. Prioritising the order means that if you do run out of time at least the most important aspects should have been covered off.
Expect the unexpected
As Robert Burns said To a Mouse “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, Gang aft agley” which for those not fluent in your 18th Century Scottish poets, suggests that planning is one thing, but so often life will throw you a curveball and turn out a little differently. My only advice for this is to expect things won’t always go exactly as you had planned but embrace the process and get comfortable with the discomfort, as it’s part and parcel of running workshops.
Write up immediately
Facilitating process improvement workshops is tiring. If you find yourself running multiple workshops, especially on similar subjects, you may find the sessions start to blur into one. That’s why it’s critical to write up the content as soon as you can. I’d suggest that you’d look to get your notes down within 24-hours while everything is still fresh. I’ve also found that it’s good to then compare your notes to that of a colleague – did you both take away the same understanding and has anything been missed?
Practice makes perfect
Getting useful outputs from workshops can be hard work, and it’s a skill that needs to be regularly worked on. Even so, not every session will you find yourself graced with pliable engaged attendees willing to follow your process to the letter. However, hopefully bearing in mind the points above will help you to make the facilitation of your workshops more effective.