Workshop Planning (II): Why You Need A Structure

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This article is part of the series on workshop planning. Check out the whole series!

Part I <<< >>> Part III

In the first part of this series, we focused on how to set goals and why it is so important. Once your goal is set and you know what you want to achieve, the next big step has to be taken: You have to choose an appropriate structure for your workshop.

Planning the structure ahead is essential for your workshop to be successful. Typical counter arguments that I heard from colleagues or friends go like this:

  • But it’s for adults, they will know what to do.
  • I would prefer to figure this out on the go and give everybody their freedom.
  • We’ll just discuss this question and see what the result will be.
  • The workshop we had with this external coach didn’t have a structure, we just went from one topic to the next.

Adults Need Strucure, Too!

Frankly, they are not wrong. Of course this is a workshop for adults. However, adults usually don’t know what to do in a workshop, especially not when you are the only one who set the goal. You can – and should – rely on natural dynamics between your participants, which means that some will take over leading roles, while others like to listen more than talk. This is fine. It is crucial though to align everybody on the desired outcome. Otherwise, you’ll end up with possibly nice discussion rounds, but also with the question: Why did we come together today? The answer to that why is your structure.

Setting Boundaries

One mistake that many leaders make with their first workshop is to be afraid of setting boundaries. And of course they are, because it’s never great to say no to something or someone. By deciding for a structure prior to the workshop, you maybe will have to say no to certain activities, interrupt interesting and fruitful discussions, or guide the group into a different direction although they might agree that it’s important to discuss other topics. Defining a structure upfront does not mean that you’ll be unable to react spontaneously during the workshop – on the contrary, with a great structure, you will be very flexible so that you can adapt to the dynamics of your group.

Look At The Map Before Heading Into Unknown Waters

Just starting to discuss a question and seeing where it takes you is a very lazy approach. It often results from time pressure; if your schedule is already full, you’re swamped with emails and maybe there’s client visits to prepare as well, it might be your workshop preparation to fall short. You can think of your discussion rounds in the workshop as a sailing ship: You start at a certain point, and you are perfectly aware of where you are, and maybe have a rough direction in which you want to go: the question to discuss, maybe a goal you set previously. If the discussion round starts, it’s like the wind steering your ship, turning it from time to time, blowing harder of softer. The well-prepared captain had a look at the nautical map before and knows where they want to go. They will correct the course accordingly from time to time, just a tiny bit each time. The crew will probably not even notice that the course was corrected. The captain will also know where the reefs are or how to go back into calmer waters, and if the crew utters the wish to see a certain island on their journey, they will know if they can afford to take this detour or not. This could be you if you decided for a structure before.

The other captain however had not looked on any maps before. They just sit among their crew and let the wind do whatever it wants to do. Because they never checked where they want to go exactly, they will not correct the course. The ship is in danger of running on a reef, going in the wrong direction, or even going in circles. After a certain amount of time (i.e., the end of your workshop), they will evaluate where they are. There’s no good or bad, because you cannot evaluate how you performed without a defined optimal status. If there was a goal, the captain will probably notice during the journey that said goal is far off, but because they don’t know the nautical map, they will not be able to make smaller turns and instead have to navigate hastily, change the direction completely, and interrupt the smooth flow of the wind and the ship. You do not want to be the second captain. Similar to them, you should take care of your structure before, meaning to define milestones or sub-goals within your workshop activities.

Make It Look Easy

Have you ever seen an Olympic athlete perform their task? They make it look so easy that you sometimes might wonder how great you could be if you did a bit of training, right? The real magic of a good workshop structure functions in exactly the same way: If your structure is good, your participants will not perceive it as a structure. It will come to them as a natural flow of events, similar to the course corrections of the captain. No hasty turns, no dangerous manoeuvers!

If you ever took a workshop with a trained and experienced coach, you will have noticed that they followed an agenda, but for some reason, you always seem to end up at a point that could effortlessly transition to the next step on this agenda. That is because this person had a lot of experience and had planned out everything well upfront – not because they spontaneously decided to discard all their plans and go into another direction. It can only look easy to do so if the person doing it has had some training and is confident that their plans will work out fine.

Start Small

If you are planning for your first workshop, you will need to define your structure much more closely than later on your journey. Thinking about possible next steps, buffers, or time-savers, will make you more confident during the actual workshop. Your participants will notice that you are confident, and be more confident themselves. In the end, it’s great to know that there is someone who knows that to do and where to go. Helping your participants relax will have a positive influence on the mood in your workshop, which will again make your discussions and activities easier for everyone, and will also enhance your results. In the next part of the series, we’ll go through some exercises that you can do to find a structure for your workshop.

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