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I always enjoy reading blog posts and articles written by Phil Adams. He’s not just erudite, he’s a damn nice chap to boot. It’s rare that I ever find myself disagreeing with anything Phil says – except when he is adamant that I’m a ‘planner’ – that I almost didn’t write this response to his recent ‘rant’ about workshops.

I’ve already commented on this via LinkedIn; however, I think it requires a more nuanced response so I can expound on why I think, for once, Phil is wrong at worst and misguided at best.

Go read Phil’s post first. I’ll pop the kettle on while you do that.

Now, I think it’s fair to point out that what Phil is saying isn’t actually wrong. The use of the word workshop has gone the same way as ‘innovation’ and ‘disruptive’ and all those other terms before it. It’s misused – actually, I think it’s abused – and nowhere more so than advertising agencies, which is the arena in which Phil works.

I used to work in advertising, but it’s been 5 years now since I found myself inside one doing any kind of role one might associate with advertising. That’s not to say I don’t do strategic work, or creative ideas, or whatever, it’s just that I’ve managed to remove myself from the agency cycle somewhat.

I do miss it, occasionally, but let’s not ponder too long. Let’s get back to workshops.

I could go through Phil’s piece and state my case, but instead I think it’s more valuable to consider what a workshop isn’t.

If you find yourself in a room with lots of other people trying to solve a problem and it involves Post-It® notes, flipcharts or people asking you to, “Say anything, nothing is wrong at this stage!” then you’re not in a workshop.
This is called a brainstorm, perhaps the opposite end of what a workshop should be. There is usually very little preparation before a brainstorm; they are often used when no one has any idea of what to do. They rarely generate anything useful. There are many pieces written about why brainstorms are wrong, so go read those.

If you find yourself in a room where someone is presenting slides, then you’re not in a workshop.
This is called a presentation. They often precede a brainstorm. They have their uses, but they are not and never will be a workshop.

If you find yourself in a room where everyone is sat around a table for a discussion, then you’re not in a workshop.
This is a meeting. There should be an agenda, but again these aren’t always available as meetings can shift into a brainstorm and back into a meeting, or a meeting is called without anyone really knowing why, or what the purpose is. Meetings can be useful, but they require preparation. That’s about all they share with workshops. I have some useful tips on meetings.

All of the above are often called workshops. The word appears to give the appearance that things will happen, so it’s employed by those who either don’t want to do the necessary thinking required to get to an idea or a strategy – or, indeed, to create a workshop that will help uncover insights or solve a problem.

They are not workshops; they won’t ever be workshops.

Workshops are, when prepared correctly and used effectively, very useful. However, having done many of them I know that the hard work happens before and after. During a workshop, facilitation is the most important thing – listening for interesting insights, gathering ideas that are important and shouldn’t be lost, or ensuring everyone stays on topic.

Workshops are not designed to give the answers, or perhaps it’s fairer to say they shouldn’t be designed for find definitive answers. Instead, that is the hard work you do afterwards, the hard work that Phil refers to in his blog. The hard work that, for many, the workshop displaces for a short time.

Sometimes it’s just better to sit down and think, on your own or within a small team. Consider that next time you find yourself saying, “We should workshop that!”