Running a great workshop

I’ve just finished delivering two weeks of digital workshops on behalf of different organisations. Mostly, I really enjoy planning and delivering workshops. There’s a nervous rush in anticipation of the characters you might meet, and an opportunity to be creative in how you set up the session.

Workshops are an integral part of our Digital Action Plan program. They help us to understand the participants a little better, share some fresh ideas for discussion, and encourage them to identify the digital skills they may not already have, or would like to develop.

The Action Plan program supports people to identify and work on their individual needs, but the opening workshop is a team event. To deliver this element at a competitive price, at scale, these can’t be a totally unique agenda and content each time.

However, I’ve got to thinking that there are some common elements to delivering a successful workshop, which have to be in place. You may have the best and most exciting-sounding workshop agenda ever, but if the following elements aren’t right, then participants will struggle.


It’s one thing coming up with lots of exciting exercises, clever presentations and discussion points. However, you need to be clear on the purpose of every section of the workshop, as well as the activity. Doing something collaborative with sticky notes is usually a bit of fun, but how will the output contribute to participants’ learning?


I’m a stickler for this, having been a participant in too many badly-run meetings and events. Participants will always turn up late – fact. But everyone will expect the workshop to finish on time, and you need to be aware that attention and energy will be tailing off well before the stated finish time.

People will never criticise you for finishing on time, but if the session overruns (particularly if they perceive this to be due to poor facilitation), that’s pretty much all they’ll remember.

Technology, only when it’s needed

Depending on the purpose of our workshops, we have varying dependencies on technology. I’m keen to encourage participants to be trying things out on their devices as we’re talking or presenting. However, some of the venues we are asked to attend have less than satisfactory wifi. For this reason I tend to make sure we are not reliant on participants having to work online for the whole workshop.

In addition, there’s nothing more frustrating than tech for the sake of it. Interactive voting systems or video embedded in presentation have their place, but use sparingly as any glitches on the day can be disruptive and annoying.

Flexibility in content

This is the trickiest one for us to tackle, when planning and delivering multiple workshops. The content has to be relevant to the audience, but the purpose and overall messages are usually the same.

There is also any paired combination of up to six people who might deliver workshops of a similar format. Everyone needs to feel confident about the supporting material, which means presenting case studies and sparking discussions about which they feel knowledgable.

I think we’re learning how to segment agendas and supporting decks, to allow different combinations of presenters to insert their favourite content – and more importantly, make sure its relevant to the participants.


I used to think this was all about having bags of energy, making people laugh and holding their attention. That’s still true to an extent, but the single most important activity is managing contributions from participants. This means nurturing those who are less confident, focussing the contributions of those who have a lot to say and challenging those who feel the activities or case studies aren’t applicable.


Check temperature, open blinds (if you’re lucky enough to have windows), sort lighting so people can see what they’re doing, and the slides. Oh and fruit, chocolate, drinks. These things go a long way to helping people feel comfortable and alert.


Participants always ask for copies of material they have found useful – project planning grids, how-to guides, book recommendations and so on. I’m a little hesitant about issuing copies of slide decks for the sake of it – they rarely make sense on their own – and if people are inspired or curious about a particular case study or fact, there are other ways to find it.


I use this planning grid to try and keep me true to the purpose of the workshop, the timings, and the activities.


A couple of times my commute has included the #timetunneltrain. As a passenger it was a little awkward at first, but turned in to good fun.

Steve the driver reads out clues across the speaker system in the carriages, and passengers have to guess a year that is the common answer. If you’re inclined, you can tweet the answer using the hashtag, and connect with a few fellow passengers, online. Or offline, if you’re feeling un-British and want to talk to the people you share a carriage with.

I’m the first to encourage giving staff a public voice, and to do something fun or different.

In between flicking through my phone, any ambient noise is welcome, over and above posters for charities inside the carriage that just make me feel guilty, or the endless safety notices.

However, I’m not sure how I’d feel about #timetunneltrain after a bad run of delays or cancellations. Perhaps Steve chooses his days carefully, but looking around the carriages, I’d be surprised if everyone feels as warm to this idea as Twitter appears to.

Steve is doing this of his own volition and I imagine it’s difficult for Southern to control something like this. You could argue that it is great to see staff within a big organisation being creative, but it could be seen as something that Southern shouldn’t be encouraging. Train companies need to run a safe and efficient service. Anything else is a distraction, and most definitely not a priority.

The challenge for Southern is to ensure they, and particular their marketeers and social media managers, don’t try and ride off the back of this. And, in the event of delays and leaves on the line, they’ll need a plan to manage upset commuters further riled by one employee’s best intentions.

You can hear the experience for yourself:

Building digital skills in the workplace

I helped facilitate a session on digital skills at the 2015 Digital Leaders conference, today. This network is worth getting involved with, or revisiting if you haven’t attended any of their events lately.

There was a lot of discussion about digital skills in the public and private sector. Quite rightly, much of this focussed on preparing tomorrow’s workforce.

My concern is with today’s workforce – particularly the managers and leaders who will still be in post in five or even ten years’ time, and will need to understand and inspire their new colleagues.

I recounted the story of a senior civil servant who, during an experimental digital coaching session, told me of his experience of learning new technologies in the workplace:

First, I was trained in how to make use of the typing pool. Then came personal computers at everyone’s desks. Now you’re here showing me how to use the internet to understand what people are saying about our policies.

These are big steps. These people (however senior) need to be ready and able to inspire their next cohort of recruits.

They must be able to think and ‘do’ digital in practice – not just talk about strategies and throw around vague words like ‘impact’ and ‘vision’.

I suggest there are four traits we need to keep an eye out for, in the workplace:

  1. Get staff confident. Recognise that fear often hides behind talk of security or lack of time. Level the playing field, and explain that no-one is the definitive expert. We’re all learning.
  2. Encourage staff to draw direct links between the things they do online at home, and how this might be relevant to work. Think: online services, sharing and building of information, news consumption.
  3. Properly incentivise and reward learning in the workplace. Skills won’t be developed if people aren’t confident, and the only thing that’s rewarded is long hours and a perception of ‘busy’.
  4. Don’t make digital a silo. That’s the whole reason that most organisations are in a pickle today. Not only does this prevent digital skills establishing a baseline, but it also gives those lacking confidence an excuse not to bother.  The guys in jeans downstairs will take care of it.
    Some of my colleagues at the conference made compelling cases for retraining the staff you have – the DWP Academy is a good example.


Leaders: what don’t you know?


There’s no shame in being in a position of responsibility and not knowing how to tweet. Or perhaps you don’t really like social media, after, y’know, what happened with the bullies and your daughter when she was at school.

Your son builds websites in his bedroom, and The Sunday Times keeps running features about Code Being The New Maths in the schools, and the basis of survival for British industry.

At work; digital, social media, or whatever, keeps appearing on the senior management team agenda. So far, you’ve nodded along to the strategy – move customers online, attract millennials on social media – but fortunately your division hasn’t had to contribute any time or money.

Jane over in retail tweets a lot and talks a good game, but no-one can explain to you how this helps her meet her targets. Russ in operations always has a new gadget on the go, but the one time you read his blog, it came across as, well, a bit preachy.

The problem is, Tom who used to do your job was seen as a bit of a digital pioneer, and it’s only a matter of time before people start asking you when you’re going to pick up that baton. Plus, you’re really pleased with Nadine, Guy, James and Lucy – the latest recruits to your team – but you feel the pressure from them. They see opportunities to use the web, but you just don’t get what they’re saying.

Time is the big issue. You struggle to keep on top of an inbox and calendar, let alone have the phone bleeping away with yet more alerts. If that’s even what happens? You don’t really know.

You know digital is part of The Plan, and that it will have more of a bearing on your career in the years to come. But what is it, and how can I do it, usefully?

That’s the story of Amy. In the past six weeks I’ve met Amy, Jane and Russ in a variety of organisations. All of them successful, all of them in ‘leadership’ roles.

Sometimes they have opted to meet me, other times I’ve probably been an annoyingly vague entry in their diary. A blinking red light reminding them that they haven’t done much learning and development in the past year.

Ignore the technology. Focus on your audience

Either way, I’m asking them to each take a slightly different approach to digital. For Amy, we’re ignoring the tech, the language and the strategy. We’re focusing on what she needs to achieve in her role, and where her audience are online. We have been thinking about how the channels her audience use might help her understand the audience better, and how she can listen to these, little and often.

Most importantly, she’s going to talk to her team and find out what they already do online, and how these skills might help the team’s objectives.

Amy is also thinking about she can empower her team to work with a digital mindset. This involves interrogating the data that they gather and developing their work iteratively.

Work out loud. Don’t broadcast

Russ’s needs are different. He loves to use social media, but isn’t getting much feedback. Often he’s using it simply to share a status update, or show people where he’s been. Russ is worried about follower numbers and trying to layer digital on top of everything else. So we’re going back a few steps and thinking about how this might actually be useful for him.

This is beginning to look like some reflective thinking – blogging about the successes in his teams, as well as the, er, ‘learning points’. I think I have convinced him that this is proper, brave use of social media, and much more human.

Overcome personal fears. Look at data

Jane has a brilliant team, who she protects and encourages, and she seems confident. However I had a niggling doubt about the depth of her own knowledge and how confident she really is.

Jane’s situation is one of the trickiest to identify, but easiest to solve. We had an open conversation about her experience and feelings about digital – what she does online, how often she uses Google, her fears about security and reputation. Revealing these concerns and an apparent lack of confidence to get online was difficult for both of us, but cathartic.

The result is that she’s committing a little time to set up her tablet so that she feels more in control of the settings, and sharing her new-found knowledge. She has set herself some goals to look more carefully at data, and evaluate her team’s activity more carefully – getting beyond clicks and followers.

The digital comms team: a warm, safe blanket

This month we’ll complete a project to kick start digital engagement for a relatively small, but important, organisation. The delivery has involved reviews, planning, strategy, pilot projects and training: I feel like I have spent time with everyone, from the CEO to the newest recruits.

What made this project tempting to us, was the fact it had been commissioned by a team other than communications. This is unusual for us, but very welcome. We’re always keen to work with people who are on the front line, seeking audiences beyond media and wanting to get involved in conversations.

This wasn’t a case of the communications team hogging the sweetie jar, or not being helpful. But the impetus to do more online came from elsewhere in the organisation.

The challenge for an established organisation is that they’re used to channeling conversations, statements, broadcasts and engagement, through the communications team. Typing this blog post as I am (as I would have done years ago when employed by big Government departments) and hitting the publish button of my own accord, has been a completely alien concept for the staff we talk to. Without evidence of regular digital engagement from within the communications team, the rest of the organisation feels a little more nervous.Woman under a blanket with laptop

Digital can, and should, live everywhere in an organisation. But it really helps if the communications team are confident digital practitioners. They should have oversight of the critical messages coming out from any organisation, but they also have a responsibility to disseminate digital engagement, and empower their colleagues.

In the case of our latest project, the communications team became some of our best participants and proved to be fantastically flexible, encouraging and enthusiastic.

I used to think it was all about wresting digital from shrinking communication teams. Now, I’m changing my mind. Organisations need a safe blanket: confident digital communicators who encourage and empower.

Late night via photopin (license)

‘PDF me a coffee!’ Where does it all go wrong?

In 2003 I worked for a small Anglo-American company publishing journals, magazines and websites. The company had moved with the times, sort of, but was still predominantly an advertising sales-led, offline publishing company.

Useful technology was making the production process easier and faster. But we still used a fax machine for certain processes.

PDFs were still something of a novelty in certain quarters and the term was bandied around, without everyone fully understanding what it was. Hence, one morning I was walking through the office kitchen when I heard a senior director say to another colleague 'and PDF me a coffee, please'. Needless to say, I wasted no time in taking the piss.


Now, what could possibly have happened for him to think that a file format could also help deliver a hot beverage, I know not.

In hindsight I was arrogant and stupid to react the way I did to the PDF comment. Why should my colleague have known or cared? He wasn't on the production team. His work was a million miles away from the Macs and wires and printing presses.

But his words come back to haunt me when I peddle presentations about digital engagement around Government departments.

Until now I have never worked in any organisation where there is such a broad range of ages. I really value it, because there's a corporate memory there that has often been lacking in the young, high churn companies I have worked for. But it also makes me think twice about assuming too much knowledge or confidence when it comes to digital.

I don't think for a second that age automatically relates to confidence or knowledge of digital. But its fair to assume that while my career started in a digital environment, many people's did not. And for some, that does affect confidence. I do my best to allay fears and preconceived ideas.

This got me thinking about what, where or when will be the break point for me? I would consider myself reasonably close to the innovative end of the modern workplace, but presumably so did lots of other people at one time. I don't have much to do with open data or code, so maybe that is the future and therefore where I might be left behind. Or perhaps there is some yet unknown platform or channel out there that I just won't be able to get my head around?

I feel like I am waiting for my own 'PDF me a coffee' moment. Has anyone else identified theirs?

Image courtesy of