Culture Design

Crafting Successful Collaborative Workshops

A guide inspired by a Korean potluck by Robert Trahan

Have you ever attended a poorly organized potluck? Picture this: you show up with your macaroni salad only to find five other macaroni salads on the table, all more appealing than yours. You end up going home with a full container, dreading lunch for the next week.

A poorly organized workshop can leave participants with similar feelings. They arrive anticipating an opportunity to collaborate but leave feeling that their input was neither valued nor needed. So, for those of us who facilitate workshops, how can we avoid such outcomes?

I once had the pleasure of joining a potluck dinner with a group of creative professionals, many deeply connected to Korean culture. Unlike the first scenario, this event was carefully orchestrated, with each person bringing a dish they were passionate about and skilled at making. The result was not only a feast of authentic Korean cuisine but also a showcase of effective collaboration and harmony. In this article, I'll share some insights from this experience and explore how they can be applied to design better workshops.

Section 1: Potluck Curation and Workshop Preparation 

The success of the Korean Potluck dinner lay not just in the organization but in the deep understanding the curator had of the attendees' interests and skills. He observed their everyday interactions, their lunch choices, their leisure discussions about K-Dramas, and their music preferences (BTS obviously). This observation allowed him to connect their shared passion for Korean culture with their personal expertise, leading to each person contributing something unique and meaningful to the potluck.

Similarly, in a workshop setting, a facilitator must possess a deep understanding of the work and the people involved in it. This insight is gained through careful observation and interaction. Some of the most impactful contributions to a workshop will come from those without high level titles, but rather from those actually doing the work of individual contributors. It’s about recognizing who does what, understanding their roles and expertise, and appreciating the nuances of their day-to-day work.

Checklist for Workshop Planning:

  • Observe and understand the work and the people involved.

  • Define workshop goals based on this understanding.

  • Select a unifying theme that resonates with the participants’ expertise and interests.

Choosing the Right Participants: The Principle of Informed Inclusion

Selecting the right participants is crucial for a workshop's success. This choice should be informed by the facilitator's understanding of the work and the people who do it. Inviting those who are hands-on with the work ensures that the workshop is grounded in practical knowledge and real-world experience. Their insights are invaluable for fostering meaningful discussions and generating innovative solutions.

Checklist for Participant Selection:

  • Identify participants based on your observation and understanding of their roles and expertise.

  • Ensure a mix of hands-on workers and decision-makers.

  • Send personalized workshop invitations that resonate with their work and interests.

Section 2: Creating a Welcoming and Comfortable Workshop Environment

The atmosphere of a workshop is vital. Participants should feel welcomed and comfortable, akin to guests at a potluck dinner. Achieving this involves a warm introduction, a well-prepared space, and activities that encourage openness and rapport, such as ice-breakers or team-building exercises. Establishing ground rules for positive interactions is key to ensuring that participants feel safe to share and collaborate.

Checklist for Logistics and Environment:

  • Book the venue and arrange seating.

  • Organize catering and refreshments (if applicable).

  • Prepare materials and handouts.

Checklist for Workshop Content:

  • Plan the agenda with time allocated for each activity.

  • Choose an icebreaker and team-building exercises.

Section 3: Curating the Collective Output

Like blending individual dishes into a harmonious meal at a potluck, a workshop should aim to meld diverse ideas into a cohesive output. This involves guiding participants through a process of sharing, discussing, and refining ideas. The facilitator plays a crucial role in this process, ensuring that the collective intelligence is effectively crafted into collective sense making. Some voices naturally carry more weight than others, but this doesn't mean they have the best ideas. A facilitator needs to ensure that the quietest voice in the room has an opportunity to speak. 

Checklist for Facilitation Preparation:

  • Familiarize yourself with discussion topics.

  • Prepare to guide discussions and manage time.

  • Establish ground rules for participation.

Conclusion: Everyone Wins Through Collaboration

The primary goal of a collaborative workshop  is to develop the 'collaboration muscle' among participants. When everyone leaves they should feel more likely to work with others when looking for solutions to problems, they should feel compelled to seek out those who know the most about a given topic so that when they leave they seek out those with the most information becoming a facilitator of “workshops” all the time. It's about ensuring that everyone feels like a winner because they contributed to and benefited from the collaborative process. When facilitated effectively, workshops can become powerful avenues for team building, skill development, and, as a bonus, the generation of innovative solutions.

Sample Workshop Itinerary: Fostering Collaboration and Innovation

8:00 AM - 8:30 AM: Arrival and Welcome

  • Participants arrive and are greeted with light refreshments.

  • Casual networking and introduction to the workshop space.

8:30 AM - 9:00 AM: Opening and Setting the Stage

  • The facilitator provides a brief introduction, outlining the workshop's goals and theme.

  • Participants are given an overview of the day's agenda.

9:00 AM - 9:30 AM: Defining the Challenge and Goals

  • Presentation and discussion of the main challenge or topic of the workshop.

  • Participants are encouraged to share their initial thoughts and perspectives.

9:30 AM - 10:30 AM: Group Brainstorming and Idea Generation

  • Participants are divided into small, diverse groups for brainstorming.

  • Focus on generating 'bad ideas', followed by identifying useful principles within these ideas.

  • Groups are reshuffled to encourage new dynamics and perspectives.

10:30 AM - 10:45 AM: Coffee Break

10:45 AM - 12:00 PM: Idea Synthesis and Refinement

  • Participants are mixed into new groups post-coffee break.

  • They work on synthesizing and refining the ideas generated in the morning session.

12:00 PM - 1:00 PM: Lunch Break

1:00 PM - 2:30 PM: Prototyping and Presentation Preparation

  • Another reshuffle of groups after lunch.

  • Each group develops a prototype or presentation of their refined idea.

2:30 PM - 2:45 PM: Short Break

2:45 PM - 4:00 PM: Final Presentations and Group Feedback

  • Groups present their prototypes or ideas to the entire workshop.

  • Open and constructive feedback is encouraged from all participants.

4:00 PM - 4:30 PM: Reflection and Closing Remarks

  • Group reflection on the day’s process, learning, and outcomes.

  • The facilitator provides closing remarks, emphasizing the value of collaboration and the power of collective effort.

4:30 PM - 5:00 PM: Informal Networking and Wind Down

  • Participants engage in informal networking, discussing the day's experiences and potential future collaborations.

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