How To Run A Fantastic Business Workshop

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I am often asked to lead or facilitate business workshops of one kind or another.  Being a NEM partner, these events are sometimes part of a major engagement with a client or simply a stand alone exercise.

Facilitating these types of workshops has certainly helped me earn the trust and respect of business clients. If you are asked to facilitate a successful workshop here are some insights that may assist you to run a fantastic business meeting or discussion. Of course, we are always here to help if you require more information or assistance.

1. What type of meeting is it?

Generally there are three types of workshop or meeting that you will be asked to facilitate:

a) You are simply expected to run the meeting, managing the process to ensure that there is an appropriate level of debate, that everyone is heard and that the meeting reaches some kind of agreed outcomes.

b) You do all of the above, and also provide your own insights into the process, based on your experience, special knowledge or skills. For this you have to be conversant - not expert - with the client's issues. This is a more valuable form of facilitation.

c) In addition to a) and b), you may also be asked to provide your own intellectual capital, in the form of a strategic framework or methodology. In this case, you are defining the approach and agenda for the meeting as well as facilitating it. This is the highest level of value for your client.

2. What is "facilitation", anyway?

Alan Weiss defines facilitation as "the act of organising and conducting a meeting with the intent of reaching the objectives of the meeting, including next steps, dates, times, and accountabilities." In general, facilitation is about helping your client and their employees reach agreement or consensus (defined as something each participant can live with, as opposed to something they would die in a ditch for) on issues that are of importance to them.

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3. How do I setup a good facilitation?

The starting point for a good facilitation is always the initial request or engagement. It's important to spend time upfront to make sure that the conditions are right for the workshop, and that you have a clear agreement with the client as to what is required.

  • Make sure you agree with the client up front what the expectations are for the session. This is an important framing exercise - it determines the level of intellectual capital you are providing, and the extent to which you need to prepare in advance. Often the client will start out by saying "I just want you to facilitate a meeting, no preparation required" and after a good discussion framing their objectives the scope of your engagement can expand considerably to align with their clarified expectations.
  • Understand how the client wants you to approach the facilitation - sometimes they want you to be controversial and generate lots of debate, on other occasions it's about reconciling alternative points of view and coming to a consensus.
  • Agree what the client wants the end result to look like. This may be a simple list of next steps and accountabilities, or it may be a more complex set of outcomes and follow up activities. You should agree what format the client wants outputs from the workshop to take (simple list of actions, a report, diagrams or models etc)
  • Pay attention to the physical details and make sure they are right
  • The room and facilities (right size, enough external light etc.). You may not be able to actually visit the room, but ask about these details - the client may not have thought much about the importance of the environment to a successful meeting
  • Refreshments and breaks - agree when breaks should happen and how long for. Sometimes it is a good idea to allow quite long breaks in order to encourage informal discussion, particularly if the project is high stress
  • Audio-visual and other aids, if they are needed
  • Agree on the rules for the session, including things like when and how they want to deal with interruptions, checking phone and taking messages. These should always be kept to a minimum, of course, but recognize the realities that for most people these meetings represent valuable time away from what they consider to be important activities of their day-to-day roles, so it's important to be practical about this.

I have found that sometimes two half-day sessions are better than one full-day session because people are more engaged in the morning and want to attend to operational matters in the afternoon.

4. How do I make sure I have sufficient authority to run the meeting?

Again, it's important to agree on the rules of engagement upfront with your client well before the meeting commences. It is critical that the client ensures that you have sufficient authority to manage the workshop effectively.

Things you need to agree on include:

  • Your own role - to all intents and purposes, you are in control of the session, and need to exercise a boss's authority. make sure your client understands that and supports it (most have no difficulty with the principle, although the practice can be more challenging).
  • the Client's role. Make sure you understand and agree how they are going to position themselves during the workshop; it is often impossible for them to "simply be one of the team", even if they want to. Remember, after the workshop they will be the boss again, and everyone in the room knows that. Getting an in-principle agreement that they are simply one of the members of the team for the duration of the workshop is a good start.
  • How decisions will be made. This means agreeing:  Your role in listening to and encouraging debate; The client's role in making a decision if that is required; What constitutes a consensus

5. What about the meeting itself?

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If you have done all of the preparation properly, the meeting or workshop itself should be relatively easy to facilitate. Here are some key rules for doing it well:

  • Start out by making sure that everyone understands the objectives and agenda for the session
  • Spend a few minutes right at the start stating the rules of engagement that you have agreed with your client - in particular, things like how disagreements will be resolved, what issues may be reserved for decision by the client,meow you intend to make sure that everyone gets to make a contribution.
  • Enforce time frames assertively. If you have decided or agreed time to be allocated to a particular subject, make sure that you stick to this. That said, it is not a good idea to choke off useful discussion simply to meet a timetable, so you need to be alert to the progress that the group is making in the debate against the timetable. 
  • Summarize agreements and consensus points regularly. This is one of the best tools you can use to keep the session on track - ensuring that everyone understands what has been agreed and what is still to be discussed on a regular basis helps to keep the debate moving along and makes sure it remains focused.
  • Use a "parking lot" area if necessary to park issues that are derailing debate (and make sure you actually do come back to them before the end of the session) often they get dealt with along the way and cam simply be crossed off.
  • Remain objective at all times!! This is what you are really there for. Be careful to make sure that you are within the agreed limits of your engagement - if you are simply facilitating the meeting, keep your won opinions to yourself, or if you feel you must express them, do so with caution. If on the other hand you are providing intellectual contributions to the workshop, make sure that you do so based entirely on your professional experience and knowledge, and don't get sidetracked by the emotion of the debate.
  • Ask for someone to take notes, collate easel sheets and transcribe any recordings. This greatly reduces the labour intensity and makes it much easier to focus on the facilitation task itself.

One technique I have found very effective is to ask people at the beginning of the meeting what they each want to get out of the meeting. You note this somewhere so that you can come back to it at the end of the meeting. You then ask each person if their initial meeting objections have been met. This helps to reinforce the value of the meeting and will highlight any areas still left unresolved to be addressed.

6. What if I need further assistance?

As an experienced facilitator, I'm happy to give advice or assist if I can. I would welcome comments from any readers on other techniques they have found useful. Please contact me directly or use the comment area below. I would be delighted to hear from you.


Chris Pattas

Chris Pattas lives in beautiful Melbourne, Australia. He is happily married with two children. Chris is a successful business leader who enjoys helping organisations reach their full potential. Whether it is driving greater profit or sales, growing market share in competitive industries, inspiring executives to achieve great things, negotiating compelling business deals or working as a board member implementing exciting change programs, he knows how to get the most out of any organisation. Chris has worked in various product and service industries including: advertising, software, IT&T, travel & tourism, utilities and telecommunications. His interests and expertise include: leadership & strategy, sales & marketing, online & social media, science & technology, travel & tourism, photography and music.