Designing the Perfect Workshop

businesspeople-around-tableWhy workshops? And how long should they take?

You will have seen, from the previous articles that we are great believers in workshops. So much more can be accomplished in well-designed workshops than is possible in roundtable or more conventional discussions. One Undersecretary of the Navy said that we accomplished in 45 minutes with a group of 20 senior people (15 hours total) what would have taken him 100 hours with a conventional approach.

Many people believe that anyone can design and run a workshop. Not true!   Effective and successful workshops require time and attention to design in order to maximize the participation of, and output from, the participants – especially when those participants are General Officers or C-Suite Executives.

There is a lot to accomplish in vision and strategic planning workshops, and many people do not allow enough time to accomplish their goals. This chapter will provide some guidelines for planning and executing an effective workshop. While the workshops that I describe below are for strategic planning, we use the same design for innovation workshops, futures projects and more.

Plenary Sessions/Whole Group Sessions

The main purpose of plenary sessions should be to inform. Some people believe that they can accomplish useful discussions in plenary, but this is not the case. In this type of session, the format is that of a conference or seminar with one speaker or a panel that is speaking to the whole audience. If there is time following the presentation, then the audience may ask questions or make comments. This is a standard approach for starting a workshop. Think of it as an orientation, when all the participants need to be informed about what is going to take place.

In plenary sessions, the intake—or “data rate”—is very slow, and everything takes place sequentially. We do not recommend plenary sessions for exploration of ideas.

Plenary sessions can also take place during or after a workshop in which the large group has been divided into two or more small groups in order to work in parallel. Working in small groups increases the data rate significantly, and it enables every participant to have a say, which increases commitment to the end result. In this type of format, each group has a few minutes to brief the results of their group discussions to the other groups, and a few minutes for questions. Then, if there is time at the end, there is a short, general discussion of all the groups’ results from their working sessions.

Small Group Sessions

These sessions are where the real work gets done. Small group sessions are usually convened to explore a range of ideas, concepts, issues, situations, implications, and so forth. The keyword is usually “exploration.” They accomplish more results by working in parallel, they make best use of people’s expertise and interests, and they ensure that everyone has the opportunity to make their ideas known. They also provide the individuals with more time to get their ideas across and, since people like to speak, they feel as though they have accomplished more—and therefore are more committed to the outcomes.

Small groups can range from 2 to 10 people; the ideal number is about seven. However, due to time constraints, we sometimes have to trade off smaller numbers for time, as we will explain later. In our workshops, we sometimes have many different sizes and numbers of groups—sometimes up to six or seven groups working in parallel—so we have to ensure we have enough time for them to work on the topic and to present their findings to each other. The paragraphs below provide some guidelines about how to structure times.

There is frequently a debate among ourselves as the consulting team, and/or with our clients about how to structure the small groups. Say we have six topics to address: Is it better for all the groups to work on all six topics at the same time, or for two groups to work on three different topics each, or for three groups to work on two topics each? In the case of all groups working on all the topics, we get a greater breadth of ideas covered on each topic, since each group will have a slightly different perspective; however, time constraints mean they can only cover them very shallowly. When each group works on different topics in the same time, the results lack the different perspectives mentioned above, but they have much greater depth. We will illustrate this with numbers later.

There are three considerations for small group sessions:

  • How the topics cluster, if at all.
  • The desired range of exploration (breadth and depth).
  • How much time there is for the whole workshop.

One additional consideration is the time it takes a group to decide what it is going to do about the topic and how it will do it. There are the usual forming, storming, norming and performing phases and included in these phases is the requirement for the group to decide on its focus and approach. This occurs even when the subject is described in detail, as we do using worksheets. (We use specially developed and tailored worksheets for all our small group sessions, as we have found that top-level executives work better when they have control over their own time and when they are able to work in their own way.) That time can range from 5 to 15 minutes. Many people forget this occurs. However, it needs to be taken into account in the timing.

Following the small group sessions, there should be plenary sessions in which the groups present their top/key results to each other. Ideally, a Q&A should take place after each presentation, and time allotted for some kind of general discussion, or even a synthesis of the results.

Typically, a small group session will look like this:

  • 5-10 minutes: Participants decide what to do and how to do it.
  • XX minutes:    Discuss/explore topic (actual work time – generally 45-60 minutes).
  • 10 minutes:     Prioritize ideas and prepare for briefing.

Now that you have the basics, let’s look at the two approaches to small group sessions. For illustration purposes, we will assume two groups, six topics, and approximately seven hours of working time (given breaks and lunch). We have not included breaks other than lunch in the tables below.

Approach 1: Each Group Works on All 6 Topics

Each topic gets a total of 30 minutes of working time from each group, plus 15 minutes of briefing, Q&A, and discussion for each group. Table 1 below illustrates this.


Approach 2: Each Group Works on 3 Different Topics

Each topic gets 75 minutes working time, plus 30 minutes briefing, Q&A, and discussion for each group. Table 2 below illustrates this.


For every extra group added to either of these schedules, we have to subtract time from the group’s working time, the briefings, Q&A, and discussion to keep to the 0800 start and 1700 finish times.

So for groups of up to 20 people, we usually recommend breaking into two small groups. If there are more than 20 people, we recommend dividing into three or four groups. The trade-off is that time for the working/exploration and for the outbrief/discussion is reduced.


One-day workshops are hardly worth the time and effort, especially if people are traveling long distances to get there. We know of workshops/roundtables of 50 people that are convened for 3-4 hours, but very little real work is accomplished.

The tables above do not include any kind of plenary presentations to set the scene. If such presentations are included in the day, then obviously the time for working sessions is reduced. At the very least, we recommend that short workshops start with plenary presentations the afternoon or evening before, since, as we mentioned in a previous article, we want the participants to be actively engaged for the workshops, not in a passive mode. Then the day of the workshops consists mostly of small group working sessions with plenary discussions following them.

In addition, we find that the output from two- to three-day workshops is far greater than two- or three single-day workshops as there is more continuity and the participants do not have to spend time recalling what they have done previously. In other words, the participants build momentum that does not occur in single day sessions.

Key Points from this Chapter

  • Timing is absolutely critical for the success of a workshop.
  • Calculate the time you want to have participants spend on topics before you decide on the length and structure of the workshops. You can always cut it back, but consider the ideal amount first.
  • Decide on the number of plenary versus small group sessions, but remember to add in briefing/discussion time. And consider depth versus breadth.

Excerpted from Strategy with Passion: A Leader’s Guide to Exploiting the Future by MacNulty & Woodall

Originally published at Bizcatalyst360

Christine MacNulty

Christine MacNulty

Christine MacNulty has forty years’ experience as a consultant in long-term strategic -planning for concepts as well as organizations, futures studies, foresight, and technology forecasting, technology assessment and related areas, as well as socio-cultural change. For the last twenty years, most of her consultancy has been conducted for the Department of Defense and the Services, NATO ACT, NATO NEC, the British Army’s Force Development & Training Command, and the German BBK. Prior to that her work was in the commercial arena where she had Fortune Global 500 clients. During the last thirty-five years Christine MacNulty has contributed methods and models for understanding social and cultural change through people’s values. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in 1989. She is the coauthor of two books: Industrial Applications of Technology Forecasting and Strategy with Passion – A Leader’s Guide to Exploiting the Future. Her paper: “Method for minimizing the negative consequences of nth order effects in strategic communication actions and inactions” was published in NATO Defense Strategic Communications Journal, p 99, Winter 2015. Two monographs “Truth, Perception & Consequences” (2007) and “Transformation: From the Outside In or the Inside Out” (2008) were published by the Army War College. Perceptions, Values & Motivations in Cyberspace appeared in the IO Journal, 3rd Quarter, 2009, and The Value of Values for IO, SC & Intel was published in the August 2010 edition of the IO Journal.

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