Killing my darlings: the workshop

Last week I facilitated a really hectic workshop on the fascinating topic of ‘community-based adaptation (to climate change) and resilience in the East and Southern African Drylands‘. A number of us (in the organising team) wondered at a point or another if the workshop was the best venue to create new meaning around this complex topic.

Workshops... are they still any good to express ourselves and create new meaning? (Credits: UNAMID / FlickR)
Workshops… are they still any good to express ourselves and create new meaning? (Credits: UNAMID / FlickR)

Simultaneously – aaah serendipity… – my friend Amanda Harding posted about ‘Reinventing the workshop‘, giving the example of an event (that suspiciously looked like a writeshop, if you ask me though).

Perhaps ‘workshops’ are indeed past their prime?

And since change is here to stay and we have to facilitate it, one of the things we’ll have to do on a regular basis is to kill our darlings, our pet ideas and approaches, our professional hobby horses.

At least review them critically. To see if they still strike a chord in our changing environment.


So one of my darlings is about to be killed right here: THE WORKSHOP

Particularly if the objective of ‘THE workshop’ is to carve out new grounds…

The problem of wishy-woshy workshops… Idealistic without a focus…

Amanda points in her post (co-written with Red Plough‘s Terry Clayton) that the workshop has become a ‘meme’. And indeed a number of things are wrong with workshops: They can be terribly designed and end up like orchestrated death-by-Powerpoint anti-learning operas; they may tend to solve everyone’s problems without any clear focus (see meme here); badly facilitated, they can actually contribute to worsening understanding AND relations between people.

But what I’m thinking about here, together with another mate who attended the same workshop last week is this:

Even if well designed, even if well facilitated, have workshops not become a standard solution that we revert back to, in a standard mode and in our comfort zone?

Where is the triple-loop learning here?

It’s not the first time that I have my doubts about workshops and what they can achieve… And one of my conclusions is that despite the best intentions probably the single most important aspect remains building and strengthening connections and relations: the social weaving. But that doesn’t stop me from looking at possible options.

Isn’t there an alternative?

Should we not follow the example of the World Bank’s John Heath (see 12th minute onwards in this excellent videotaped discussion of how The Bank learns) and focus on making time for learning by not jumping on what it is we want to achieve with events or happenings.

 Should we not follow the recommendation to bring diversity and argument at the centre of our deliberations (recommending again this great BBC article about the fallacy of the wisdom of the crowds on this topic) and rather focus on bringing very small groups of very diverse people together, outside their normal work environment, in a sort-of retreat, to explore promising new avenues and explore old topics with fresh pairs of eyes and complementary brains?

Should we not leave our voice and our pens/computers outside to let our other senses guide us in exploring the edges of our consciousness? Creative drawing, using metaphors, miming, observing (e.g. animals), using our body to solicit other avenues of our resourcefulness… ?

Should we not encourage more walking about, more journeys together to reflect on work, more cooking and eating together to explore new surfaces – indeed perhaps a cookshop might be as ground-breaking as a workshop for that matter?

Should we not refuse to bring people together physically and rather bring together virtually a group of people who practice Personal Knowledge Management to explore each other’s questions and musings and build upon that? Could a duo’s journey be not innovative than an entire room full of people?

Hmmm… lots of options hanging up and I’m not sure any of these would bring us further?

And what if the answer is in the workshop itself?

If un-conferences and workshops are sticking around, can we not think of a set of alternatives – which are already tested anyway:

    • Pure Open Space Technology workshops?
    • Other events without a preconceived agenda where perhaps organisers get participants to think about hard/complex questions they want to explore and filter out the most complex/interesting questions in a crowdsourced manner, to go more deeply in the fields concerned?
    • Happenings with staged ‘conversations and interactions for change’ such as this useful idea below…

The bottom line is also that we should clearly understand and distinguish when we want to have a workshop, a workstop (where we would stop working and explore relationships), a talkshop (where people have the entire liberty to explore anything in conversations), a writeshop where the point is to write some outputs etc.

One of the most important questions (from the BOSSY HERALD) to ponder when thinking about organising an event is whether we want to level knowledge or deepen it, and whether we want some output or some interaction. Totally different dynamics are at play in either case…

And all that said, I am still pondering the following, perhaps you have some answers:

  • Can we genuinely ‘explore new grounds’ with a group beyond 40-50 participants?
  • If so, what have been the ingredients, principles or heuristics that worked in your experience and that you would suggest following?
  • If not, what have been the best alternatives to workshops to bring up a totally different experience, that you think could be reproduced in other settings?
  • What have been your best examples of events or happenings that led people to change, not just to learn new ideas and share much? How did IT work?

Phew! Sounds like this reflection might go on for a while still…

Related blog posts:


Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. Very astute observations Carl (particularly about the justification of spending public money on these events). I use gatherings a lot for informal networks like our KM4Dev Addis/Ethiopia gatherings, and it is a very good word for what we want to achieve I guess.

    I also agree that Almada was a fabulous event with respect to paying attention to all of these aspects and working out like a charm. Perhaps we ought to do a better job at documenting these events with a view to influencing orthodox/conventional workshop/event planning in organisations.

    Certainly something’s gotta give about using our time together well. The facilitation revolution is on the go.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Great challenges in what you shared here Ewen. I’ll be happy when we have a new word to describe the kind of event that replaces the workshop. The problem is that the reason workshop sticks so firmly in the public / social sector is that there is a level of guilt associated with time taken away from delivering services that means that words that describe a more social, creative, experiential event are too embarrassing to embrace (party, festival, happening, hang-out). In the meantime though there are elements from those kinds of events that we might be able to sneak into workshops a little more. A focus on the venue is important – a private, uncluttered, large, light and interconnected space. A focus on the relationships – bringing the personal to the forefront through time and ways to meet and mix, especially really simple and informal buffet meals together. A focus on ownership – everybody creates the objective and finds a way to achieve it. One of my touchstones for this was that KM4Dev gathering in Almada which rented out a whole youth hostel, used open space and drew out the musicians, dancers, and artists among us. Maybe ‘gathering’ is the word I’ll try to use more 🙂

  3. True! It’s our job to raise awareness of the people we work with on aspects they may have overlooked or not considered deeply enough.
    It’s also part of the relationship you build with your client over time. That event I’m just coming back from this week is the third of this kind in three years and we have finally been able, now (only), to really inject much more interactive features into a workshop that was otherwise a fairly conventional scientific event (death by PPT and all the rest of it ;)… One little step at a time.

    Thanks for engaging this way Martin, and have a great day!

  4. Thanks Ewen, yes very often my clients aren’t really clear what they want or need from a process when they first get in touch, or they think they are but thgeir thinking changes during the contracting and design process – which is all part of the role and value of a good facilitator, in my view! In my experience the intangible or experiential is often the most important and the least well understood or appreciated, which is why I think it is so important to raise! Many thanks,

  5. Hello Martin, and sorry for this late reply.

    Yes that is the bottom of it, though the difficulty is that sometimes (often?) the clients themselves are not necessarily aware of what it is they *really* want to get to.

    And I also agree on the fact that in any event there’s a bit of both. In fact I personally cherish interactions and deeper social connections very much because that is usually part of the immersed part of the iceberg that makes people work together and joint activities work out, projects come out etc.

    Perhaps in the briefing, ahead of the event, the time to discuss this balance ought to be taken properly, so as to manage expectations and as you said design the event in the best possible way.

    Thanks for interacting and once again my apologies for replying so late, it’s unusual on this blog.

  6. Hi Ewen, for me you hit the nail on the head with the line “One of the most important questions… is whether we want to level knowledge or deepen it, and whether we want some output or some interaction”.

    Whatever the process and whatever you call it (workshop, workstop, writeshop etc), if the aims are not clear and appropriate (or the process is not well designed and delivered to help particular people meet those aims in their particular context) then you have a recipe for disappointment.

    For every process, I suggest you should consider both ‘rational’ and ‘experiential’ aims (or ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’), ie: whether the aims are mostly about the output or the interaction. However, expect there to be an element of both – the greatest output in the world may be worthless if the necessary people don’t understand it or feel some ownership and commitment to it and to each other…

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