5 Steps to Moderate a Successful Workshop with Leaders

How to organize and prepare teams for making the most of a meeting


As we get more and more opportunities to meet face to face with our work colleagues, you might be looking to plan a team or project workshop. However, if it’s the first time many of the team members have met face to face in a while, or ever, the excitement of meeting could create scenarios that derail the conversation relentlessly. Therefore, I want to share some of the top tips that have helped me run successful workshops with a diverse group of stakeholders. I have also created a template based on this you can find at the end of the article!


Workshop: An interactive session, often taking a full day or more, in which clients, researchers and/or other participants such as customers work intensively on an issue or question. The process often combines elements of qualitative research, brainstorming and problem solving. They may involve larger numbers of people than conventional group discussions, and often involve more than one moderator or facilitator. — AQR

5 steps to moderate

5 Steps to Moderate a Successful Workshop with Leaders:

  1. Preparation

  2. Introduction

  3. Moderation

  4. Socialization

  5. Activation

We will use the following example workshop: A four-day in-person workshop with 12 stakeholders from inside the company’s financial, procurement, operations, and sales divisions to develop a new invoice reconciliation process that prevents revenue leakage for top customers.

1. Preparation

Have you ever started presenting to some stakeholders but ended up spending the whole session explaining the definition of the words on your first slide? If you are like me, it’s a mistake you only made a few times before taking corrective action because it’s an exhausting experience. Well, a workshop is no different. The more you can prepare the audience for the content discussed, the higher the probability of completing the outputs desired.

The output is the actual “work” in the term “workshop”. It is the designing, discussion, development, and planning between the audience members. However, you must get through all the introductions, prompts and background before you can actually “get down to business” and get work done.

Start Early

Therefore, the best way to prepare everyone for the workshop is to start early. I recommend that participants get double the workshop duration in lead time to prepare. So if your workshop is four days, then make sure that the audience has at least eight full days to review material and prepare their parts beforehand.

It is a terrible idea to have a workshop on short notice. You will not be productive. Your preparation should be proportional to the impact of the workshop’s output. So a meeting to define a four-person team’s annual objectives might need less preparation than a four-day workshop to redefine the core financial processes of a company with the CFO.

How to prepare:

  1. Set the objective of the workshop: what is output required? What is the definition of done? Who mandated that we do this?

  2. Create a schedule with buffers. Ensure that there is always a bathroom break every 90 minutes, a coffee break every 2 hours, and other scheduled breaks.

  3. Assign titles or roles to participants and make sure that you have the right stakeholders in the workshop

  4. Assign workshop sessions to owners. Sessions are typically a short time window for an expert to introduce a topic that everyone must understand to successfully do the “work”.

  5. Set the same deadline for all workshop session owners to submit their pre-read to you to send it out with the final schedule. Request owners to submit any tool requirements to you (whiteboards, post-its, printouts, and other tools).

  6. Send out an official communication with all the materials and the roles and responsibilities of the participants.

Once you have sent out this communication, you are well on your way to a successful workshop!

Introduction



Use your judgment on how much time to allot to “mingling” at the workshop’s beginning. If very few people have met each other (which is often the case given the past two years), you might want to allow 20–30min to allow people to get coffee and casually mingle with each other to do some basic introductions. If everyone already knows each other well, then you can get right down to business.

As the workshop moderator, you will want to set the right tone with a 15–30 minute introduction session. I found the most success with:

  • Take a safety moment. I learned this from my current employer and love it. Take 2 minutes to outline the safety of the building and fire protocols. I have benefited from this as I have been part of many workshops with a surprise fire drill (it’s wild seeing a 20,000 employee building empty into the streets of Pune, India!). Make sure everyone knows what to do. If you are doing this at a warehouse or a building with certain areas off-limits, highlight them here as well.

  • Highlight the objective of the workshop. Followed by the agenda of the workshop. After going over the breaks, sessions and outputs, ask for any questions or clarification from the participants. If there is a specific question on the session’s content, you can divert to the session owner or deflect with a “Let’s cover that when we get to the session”.

  • Introduction of yourself, if necessary. Then a self-introduction of the participants, if necessary. Prompt them on the time limit, i.e. “Please introduce yourself in 30 seconds”. There is always someone who would otherwise take up five minutes with their introduction. It is also good to do a bit of an icebreaker here. For example, ask each person to tell everyone one unique thing about themselves few people know after introductions.

  • Introduce workshop hygiene and tools. I have included a one slider I always use in my workshop introduction session materials for hygiene. Make sure to highlight whether active participation is needed or how to use the parking lot. Also, note where the markers, post-its, and workshop tools are.

  • (Bonus) Bring in a leader to do a 15–30min introduction. To add the right level of weight to the situation, it can be a good idea to get top management to join in for a quick session to highlight the importance of the workshop and how the output drives forward a strategic objective.

Moderation

Moderation is quite an art, deserving of a separate deep dive. For this reason, I will not go too deeply into how to moderate from a communication perspective, as that requires new skills, so it is hard for me to give you a template or a list of steps.

However, there are three essential practical steps you must take to ensure the continued flow of the workshop.

King Solomon

I always like to assign each session or topic a “King Solomon” role. King Solomon had the authority of a king and wisdom during decision making, as in the case of the two women and the baby. Inevitably, there is a conflict between two participants (for example, whether there should be a 3rd validation check on the invoice or if two is enough) that neither side will budge on. “King Solomon” will come in and decide, which will be final. Everyone must acknowledge the authority of King Solomon, and the flow of the workshop continues.

To make this successful, you need to pre-assign the King Solomon role to people for each session and topic ahead of time. For example, if you are in our example workshop, the session for “Design the to-be invoice scanning process” would have the Head of Financial Operations in the King Solomon role as they manage the employees that do this activity and have the most knowledge. Their job in the session would be to take input from the Head of Finance and the Head of Supplier Management for the changes required and make the final decision if they could not agree. Therefore, if no one is qualified to take the King Solomon role for a session, you risk not making the necessary decisions to complete your objectives. Make sure the stakeholders in the workshop can make the required decisions even if management gives the person temporary authority to make decisions on the condition of future approval. It would be best for you to make sure that decisions can be made on the spot.

Timekeeper

Time Keeping is an aspect that gives me the most trouble. I often find myself going down a rabbit hole with a topic that I find interesting, especially when you get into workshops about things like innovation! Therefore, I balance it out by assigning a timekeeper. This person gives session owners prompts on the remaining time. They also call on King Solomon to decide if they feel a debate is dragging on too long. Note that debates allow King Solomon to get the information needed to decide. However, they should stop when they are no longer productive so King Solomon can decide. I prefer that this person is successful when all the topics are covered, and the workshop moderator is accountable for the number of complete objectives.

Parking Lot

Everyone has opinions. Some participants inevitably spit out random ideas or unrelated topics during the sessions. As the moderator, you want to encourage participation. When something that you or the session owner deems is not very relevant to the immediate conversation, it is good to have a whiteboard or wall space to write the input on a post-it and put it in the “parking lot” for future consideration. Having the information visible on a board should keep the participant engaged. Make sure to thank the person for their input!


Socialization


The participants must connect as people as they do with the content. The purpose of this is twofold.

  1. Engagement with the content beyond the workshop will likely be higher if they connected with another participant. If they make a new or enhance an existing connection with a colleague during a workshop, there is a high chance they will stay in touch after the workshop. Given that they are both stakeholders in the success of the workshop’s change, there are more opportunities for informal accountability when the participants connect. For example, Steve, the Head of Finance, talks with Laura, the Head of Procurement, a few weeks after the workshop on a non-related topic. Having gotten along well at the workshop, Laura will feel more comfortable asking Steve what the progress is on his actions.

  2. There is a greater chance of engagement during and after the workshop if participants talk about non-work content. These opportunities can be as simple as dinner together after the first day or as fun as a rope course on Monday before you start to get everyone introduced to each other. I had a workshop this year with an excellent opportunity to meet ahead of the first day. Some participants joined together at 6 am for a 6km run before the first day. I had just started running, and man, was I surprised when some people showed up in their marathon jerseys! It was the first time meeting many of them, but they kept pace with me and cheered me on to their credit. I finished with them, and it has been an inside joke between the six of us for the last few months. These shared stories allow us to remain connected on a personal level.

Therefore, try to plan some dinners or fun activities to learn about each other personally to get everyone more comfortable to open up and share their opinions in the sessions. Try to target these as early on in the schedule as possible.

Activation

As a workshop moderator, one of your essential functions is to prepare the participants’ follow-ups when the workshop closes. Just like you managed the pre-work during the preparation stage, it is also paramount that you collect and collate the actions required by each participant to ensure the activation of the workshop’s outputs.

I have created a simple Activation tab in my workshop workbook template to see the format of the follow-up actions you should be documenting. I want to point out two overlooked sources of follow-up actions, in any case.

  1. Come back to the parking lot at the end of the workshop and write down the parking lot into actions and assign them to the requestor or the appropriate person to follow up. Ensure the participants know all inputs receive actions to ensure they will be engaged in the next workshop.

  2. Make sure King Solomon’s decisions that need additional approval for are given actions for further confirmation. Therefore, before other work progresses, all findings are confirmed.

It is best if you, as the moderator or an appointed helper, set aside time in the last section of the workshop to document the Activation log so that when you close the workshop, you can share the preliminary list with the participants. Make sure they understand that the work does not stop there and that if they have concerns about their ability to complete their tasks, they raise them accordingly. Also, it is your responsibility as moderator to set the follow-up communication. At the very least, align on a call within the next three weeks for stakeholders to update on the progress of the follow-up actions. Or, if your team is using task management software, get everyone’s agreement on who, when and how to update the tool.



Conclusion

Running a workshop with a dozen leaders in your company can be difficult. Running a successful workshop with a dozen leaders in your company is even more difficult. However, if you stick to a formula and structure that keeps all the stakeholders engaged in producing the agreed outputs and achieving the objective, you will get calls to run other workshops in no time. Practice your influencing, organization, and networking skills all together by volunteering to manage a workshop for your team in 2022!


Best of luck, and comment on how it turned out!