Running workshops that work

by David Gunn – June 2020

Instead of tattered roses and candle lit dinners, Valentine’s Day evening saw the culmination of a project with Ravensbourne University to design and run a massive one-week sprint for over 700 students from 20 disciplines, swarming on a live brief for the Museum of London. From zero to many many heroes, the students had just 4 days to respond to the brief. By the weekend, 14 museum clients heard over 70 proposals, ranging from a panic room themed around the Great Fire of London to crazy golf built out of a reconstructed fatberg. It’s a project that we’re proud of in many ways – playing a small part in the transformation of the University’s approach to learning.

Throughout the following week, I saw first hand how far a little extra consideration goes when facilitating participatory activities of this scale. For years we’ve run a series of change workshops on three topics - how we meet, how we see and how we work. The first one is facilitation training for your everyday person - and it's one we’re particularly proud of. How we collaborate and come together is such a vital part of our lives and something that most of us are fundamentally really bad at.

Walking around Ravensbourne University, we found ourselves filled with admiration for the students and lecturers, and scrawled up notebooks full of observations on participation - why it matters, and how to address it.

Position matters

We spend a lot of the facilitation workshop thinking about position, both in terms of roles and power, but also the more practical stuff. Where you stand. Where others stand. Hell, whether they are even standing or sitting on the floor, or lying face down in a stairwell. As a participant or facilitator in a meeting you can pretty much ruin or make a meeting great just by thinking more about position.

The plan is a pretext

A good plan and outline process is important, but kinda like the walking bass of 1950s jazz tracks – it’s there to keep time, create a mood and establish the conditions for SOMETHING to happen. The minute it does, any musician worth their salt grabs the idea, and follows it wherever that idea goes until the juice runs dry. In meetings you’re doing the same sort of thing – you know you want something great to happen, and process is just a tool to get there – the minute it takes off, great facilitators chase ideas. Bad facilitators chase the process.

Every exit is an entrance.

Too often the right-here-right-now of the immediate sucks up all the attention of the facilitator, and everyone can quickly get the feeling they are lost in a dead zone of conversation without purpose. Great processes create red threads between the current task and things that have happened before and will happen in the future. It’s these red threads that help people make sense of – and get excited by – the task in hand. We watched with awe during the sessions as some lecturers effortlessly linked a short exercise to the broader learning of 3 years at the university, and outwards into a vast horizon of possibility for the projects.

Why it matters

These details are at the heart of any change process we work on. Every movement and moment involves collaboration with others. And yet year after year, we have found that many humans are supremely bad at coming together in small numbers and even worse when on a larger scale. We collaborate endlessly but when people try to do it deliberately, the results are rarely productive. By the midpoint of our lives many of us have wasted years in pointless meetings filled with empty words, despondent silence and fake enthusiasm.

Good meetings open doorways to better worlds.

Each bad meeting dims the light on a possible horizon. None of us should waste our time in this way on experiences that are neither interesting nor contain more than a shred of meaning. In the context of change projects, this matters because change is and must be a relational phenomenon, with tiny red threads of meaning held on to and followed from the past and into the future. What we can achieve together is directly linked to how we can gather and work together, proven in the masses of work that the hundreds of students and lecturers were able to produce in just four days.

Want to learn how to put our change work experience into practice and create better meetings & workshops? Get in touch