Building a great workshop for kids, or executives.

Not enough peers know that workshops and group meetings follow basic rules.

Case in point, I recently taught one of the more demanding workshops of my career — explaining the Pop Art movement to a group of 5-year-olds — but the rules I used to build this workshop followed the same outline as workshops I run for professionals and executives.

It might appear gimmicky to explain one of the most challenging parts of our business lives (working in a group) with a list. However this list should be seen as a starting point, a helpful reminder, that whether your audience is 5 or 50, we all react and approach group work in some surprisingly similar ways.

Everyone likes to include the word ‘leadership’ on their CV, but we all know that actually leading a group meeting or workshop can quickly become overwhelming. Grand visions of marketing and sales mixing with frontline staff to create the next great idea quickly fall flat against the cold reality of app-based distractions and egos.

If you volunteered or were blessed as the point person of a group project — and if you can’t hire a professional moderator — your best approach is to make sure the basics of the workshop are solid.

Although I already had the answers to this test, let’s back-up and think about the audience for my recent elementary school workshop. What are the worst reactions they could have to the workshop? Or what should they not being saying out loud, during the workshop?

How about:

  • I’m confused!
  • This is boring…
  • Why do I have to?
  • I’m still working!
  • I was wrong.

Let’s translate that list of childish honesty into some common — but often unsaid — workshop reactions:

  • I don’t know why I am here.
  • I don’t like working in groups.
  • I am doing all of the work.
  • I feel overwhelmed by the amount of information.
  • I know the outcome is predetermined.

Now that you’ve got a bit better understanding of what you don’t want to have happen during a workshop, we can start putting together the basic rules for a successful workshop.

Building a workshop with these basic rules will help develop the purpose, identify good exercises and help you connect with the group’s expectations. You don’t have to share this list with the attendees, but you will share the results of it.

1. Explain why you are doing this (I’m confused!).
Call it a theme or a purpose, it is important that everyone in the workshop understands the point of the workshop. Repetition helps with kids just as well as smartphone-distracted adults. Start by giving everyone a purpose worksheet (here is the one I use) and ask them to fill it out — once at the beginning and again at the end of the workshop.

2. Do more than talk or write (This is boring…).
Unsurprisingly a few kids in my daughter’s class were more than happy to shout out opinions and random thoughts at the slightest request for participation, but just like your office, some kindergartens prefer to communicate in different ways. A good workshop should include exercises that let people move, build, use their hands, draw and act. Don’t assume that silence means acceptance or confidence.

3. Use their experience or knowledge (Why do I have to?).
Perhaps the biggest mistake in workshop and moderated retreats is lecturing rather than guiding. And it was certainly one I did not want to make with this group. Anyone could come into a classroom and read ‘Pop Art: A Critical History‘ to a group of kids, but just like a group of adults, the retention of the information will be very limited (ie., they’re not listening to you). A good workshop needs a good guide — or director, navigator, mentor or host — someone who understands the topic well enough to help participants connect to it with their own knowledge and experience.

How can you spot that? By hearing kids say things like:

“Pop Art is like comics.”

“I made a collage like that with my mom.”

“It looks like a coloring book.”

Small connections to existing knowledge can help anyone remember new ideas and processes.

4. Give them thinking time (I’m still working!).
Although I had just an hour, I only created exercises that would take up around 40 minutes (3, 12 minute exercises to be exact), leaving 20 minutes for conversation and contemplation. Thinking requires time. Far too many workshops feel rushed due to a condensed schedule, often designed to impress by keeping people busy. My rule? At least 30% of workshop time should be dedicated to talking and thinking.

5. Allow for multiple answers (I was wrong.).
For my daughter’s classmates it was important to give them a goal (art can be more than portraits and landscapes) but let them get to that goal in their own way. By keeping the purpose of the workshop clear, but open-ended you can allow for and encourage multiple outcomes. Your goal should be to create a space for thinking that allows people to create ideas and discover their own conclusions.

Running a workshop without following some basic rules can be the difference between ongoing collaboration and a one-off, clichéd example of pointless group work. But building a workshop with some basic rules is a proven strategy that help guide your team, stakeholders and customers to innovative new ideas.

When you are working with groups — 5 or 50 — the basics matter.

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