What are the benefits of running workshops for international teams?

Frances Hendry | 22nd April 2016

Working in pharma, we’re used to international teams, travel and technology. For some teams, technology in particular overcomes the challenges of working at distance, but could the lack of side-by-side team-working actually be compromising how teams work cross-functionally?

Senior Associate Consultant Frances Hendry takes a deeper look at the benefit of workshops and how clients can use them as a tool to develop cross-functional alignment, reach ideas, and define projects more quickly.

What is the value in holding workshops?

Why not simply have a conference call with your wider team? It’s budget friendly, there’s no travel involved, you can continue with other work throughout the day, you can present a topic or a range of topics, and the list goes on.

In this day and age, with technology playing such a significant role in our working lives, it would seem to make sense to opt for a web conference rather than a face-to-face workshop

So why are workshops valuable?

Think about your most recent conference call with your colleagues; if you were presenting on the call, what was the challenge? The first challenge is that they are on the other end of the phone; you can’t see their general body language, which means you can’t tell how they are reacting to what you are saying. The very problem lies in the fact that your colleagues are not present, and therefore not engaging with you; they may very well be attending the call, but they still have access to their email, mobile, and in fact, they can put their phone to mute, picking and choosing when and if they contribute to the call.

They are not present.

Workshops are not a status update

The purpose of workshops is fundamentally different to teleconferences; they are not status updates where you can pick and choose where people feel they can contribute. They are an opportunity to address a problem in a collaborative manner, face-to-face. 

Understanding the problem is really what drives a workshop, and once we understand the problem, we work with our clients to understand how we can we reach the best outcome. Our role as consultants is always to plan with the output in mind, however, key to delivering the desired outputs is the preparation of the workshop itself, the questions we ask, and a certain level of flexibility on the day.

75% of workshop success is in the preparation

At Blue Latitude Health, we genuinely believe that workshop success is a direct byproduct of good preparation, and we’d go as far to say that this accounts for 75% of its success. In planning your workshop, we always make sure that we have a high level strategic view of how possible outputs might impact your strategic objectives and what this could mean in terms of your internal needs and external stakeholder needs.

Workshop pre-reads: Set the stage before the day

In our experience, having attendees fly into your workshop early in the morning, followed by sitting through 1-3 hours of presentation is not the optimal use of your colleagues’ time, nor the best way for you to reach your desired output. Think about all of the studies that we read on a daily basis saying that our productivity is at its best in the morning, or that standing at a desk is better for us than sitting. (In fact, none other than Victor Hugo wrote some of his finest work standing at his desk.) 

It’s important to take an engaging approach with workshops and get everyone on their feet contributing as soon as possible; as by the afternoon everyone is de-energised and less inclined to contribute. From a productivity point of view, it’s then too late to start the exercises, and many will choose to sit down and start checking emails. 

Our suggestion?

Introduce your colleagues to the major topics of the day through a pre-workshop call and/or a pre-read that gets them up to speed. On the day of the workshop, you will only have to present a recap, rather than a long series of slides, and this enables you to go straight into the exercises; maximising your time, but also making sure that your audience is fully engaged (and awake).

Another important aspect of how we design the day is ensuring that each exercise is inter-dependent. Whilst not a guarantee, this can play a part in ensuring that your colleagues are invested in the outputs of the day and maintaining their attention span for a longer period of time, resulting in better outcomes from your workshop.

(*Mr. Bean image accessed 20/03/15; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bh__g-ZZ6WA)

Flawless facilitation, internal knowledge and structure

One thing that we will always remind our clients of is that all the knowledge you need to answer your question will be in the room! In preparation for workshops, an important part of structuring the day is knowing who will be there and how they will contribute; we also like to know which specific subject matter experts are in the room. Having these types of colleagues in the room can be invaluable, especially if you don’t often have a lot of face-to-face time with them. Accessing this information is important to ensure that the workshop is designed to best fit your needs.

Being able to extract knowledge from the room is key to the role we play for clients, and the way we do this is through the structure of the day (usually kept very simple), the questions we ask, and facilitation techniques. We want to make sure that everyone can contribute, and in particular, that the experts in the room are given the space to exercise and impart their knowledge at the right level.

Part of facilitation is also about reading the audience’s body language and being aware of the energy in the room. It means understanding which conversations are valuable and which are not; when your audience needs a timeout, and when the conversations are so valuable that lunch can definitely wait for another 20 minutes. Stopping conversations can be tough, but using fun props like cards or whistles can be a fun way to bring your audience back to the point!

Prioritise your outputs to ensure action

At the end of your workshop, there will be a significant amount of information, which is fantastic, but knowing where to focus can be challenging. Working through how you prioritise these outputs can be done as a group at the end of your workshop or following the workshop via survey. Ways to do this at the workshop are by a simple dot vote (although this is not always the best thing as people can see numbers of dots, creating bias), prioritisation grids, and group discussions.

Making the priorities visible helps in terms of everyone in the room being able to see where any trade-offs lie. Depending on whether the workshop is cross-functional, it can also enable everyone to have a full appreciation of where everyone else’s priorities are, and it becomes a team decision.

Running workshops is a great way to get answers to important questions quickly. You have all of your decision makers in one room, and everyone has the opportunity to voice their opinion in a structured environment. They are present.

 

Team collaboration will improve, because everyone will have an appreciation of the work that was completed during the workshop, feeling a sense of ownership. And those who didn’t know each other well will feel more comfortable exchanging ideas in the future. Finally, good facilitation, the capturing of key conversations, and sharing these as a workshop write-up, means that teams have a clear sense of direction moving forwards.

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