Workshops…What Are They Good For?

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Deep Thoughts Series

By Jack Cole

When planning for this latest Deep Thoughts installment, my original intention was to write about boredom. The topic came to me a couple months ago during a two and a half hour extended client meeting that was labeled as a “workshop”. Being that it was not a session that our team had planned, I attended in person merely as participant to represent our primary client stakeholder on their behalf.

The session was scheduled by another internal client partner who had well-intended objectives for exploring potential ideas connected to enhancing an existing digital medical product. About 30 minutes into the somewhat loose workshop agenda, I remember looking around the room seeing participants checked out. Some attendees were looking at their phones and laptops while others were leaving the room in the middle of the session. As I witnessed this inertia happening in front of me, I drifted off into my own thoughts and was humming to myself the 1969 song “War” by the late, great Edwin Starr.

Now, you may be wondering a couple things….

First: “What the heck does a song from 50 years ago have anything to do with workshops?”

Second: “Who thinks of something like this during a workshop?”

To frame this properly and answer the questions above, I’d suggest that you start by familiarizing yourself with the song. You can watch a live version of it here. The soulfully funky anti-war protest song is one of my personal favorites and a musical snapshot of one of the most influential (for better and worse) times in our country’s history.

While “War” pre-dates my birth by nearly 10 years, my entire awareness and musical knowledge was heavily influenced by songs like these thanks to my father. As a result, my pop culture library of references mirror that of a person 25 years older than I am. When it comes to letting my mind wander, I can easily dip back into 1969 genres as I can to 2009 or today. It is both ridiculous and annoying if you ask my wife and daughters but hey, it’s a gift!

So when I found myself in a state of boredom during a meeting disguised as a workshop, I supplanted the word “War” with “Workshops” and followed with the question: “…What are they good for?”

After coming back to the conversations being had in the room, the thought of what workshops actually are and what value they offer sat in the back of my head for a little while longer on my ride home. It gave me pause for self reflection thinking about what workshops are both at their worst as well as considering the power of one properly run and what they can deliver.

Workshops are Good for Alignment

At Motivate, we run a lot of workshops – we call them Reframe Workshops. We include the Reframe tag because it is a reminder that anything we set out to do is done with the express purpose of addressing at least one or all of the following initiatives: DISCOVER. DESIGN. IMPLEMENT. PRESENT.

For any workshop agenda, the focus first and foremost is on alignment. Never underestimate the richness that comes from gathering people who despite potentially working for the same company can be total strangers when it comes to working on a specific initiative. We aim to not only familiarize ourselves with the problem at hand, but to also be more aware of each team member involved and the value they can add to arriving at strategies and outcomes.

With participants feeling a part of the same mission, we can now attack our defined  problem at different stages of the user experience research or design journey with targeted goals in mind defined together. For our part, we believe that if the main criteria of a defined problem statement, discovery materials or key stakeholders are not available, the purpose of facilitating any type of session (in-person or remote) is not a good use of anyone’s time.

Planning each workshop well in advance and setting expectations for our partners is as important as having the workshop itself. Our mission is to spend just enough time together that is necessary while ensuring that everyone involved has an important role to fill. To that end, if we see participants merely present in body and not in mind due to checking email or they’ve gone completely AWOL, we would suggest not holding the workshop as it detracts from the goal of the effort.

Workshops are Good for Building Purpose and Passion

For my team members and I, we would define a successful workshop session as one that engages everyone – leveraging their individual strengths and subject matter knowledge in order to achieve a shared set of objectives and goals for the day. Part of this success is in making sure our modules (aka – planned activities) encourage active involvement where participants can work both independently and in groups to better facilitate personal ideas that then translate into group synthesis.

In my experience, nothing has put our workshop approach to the test and forced us to work harder than when we’ve run sessions for kids. Since 2016, we’ve run a unique set of kid-only workshops called YouthX that engages kids ranging in age from 8-18 both teaching and challenging them through the design thinking practice.

In setting out to try and teach the kids the knowledge and methods we’ve learned in problem solving, we’ve actually learned a lot from them in return. Over the years, we’ve challenged our junior participants to reframe everything from a toothbrush to the NYC subway system and most recently a sneaker with social impact.

The true insight that we’ve gleaned from these kid-driven workshops even more so than their adult counterparts is that you’re 100% aware when a kid is either bored or disengaged in a given activity. Witnessing first-hand when the group has checked out on us helped improve on our workshop experience. After each YouthX session with kids we are constantly reminded that a key ingredient that should be woven into all of our Reframe Workshops is fun (not mention snacks… lots and lots of snacks).

Coming out of these experiences, we’ve learned to embrace the idea that just because we’re addressing a challenge that may be hard or complex or have great importance doesn’t mean we should be looking at it as a chore. Therefore as a cultural initiative and workshop approach, our Motivators are expected to bring passion and joy to each workshop so that an infectious spirit of creativity and boldness in asking “What if?” is brought to each module throughout the day.

Good Workshops Make Good Use of Time

Finally, we look at time as a gift that should not be squandered. When a group of 8-10 people or sometimes even up to 100 comes together, it should not be overlooked that each person’s calendar commitment is a big deal.

When crafting our Reframe Workshop agendas, I look at it as one part an engineering challenge and another part like being the producer of a variety show. Each time block is carefully considered from our library of workshop module activities to build towards our targeted outcomes for the day. In so doing however, each Motivator needs to embrace their inner-improv skills to turn on a dime if a given module is not generating the desired results or we run short on time.

Going back to my extended medical product meeting masquerading as a workshop, my internal dialog of asking what they were good for if at all produced a good example of how embracing one’s boredom can lead to great personal insights. Despite not being able to save that meeting, I can in the future offer support in future sessions to make sure all involved at least feel like a shared goal is established in a worthwhile way where time was well-spent.

Do you have stories of your own of your best and worst workshops that you’ve been a part of in the past? We’d love to hear from you and share your insights on an upcoming Everyday Reframe podcast by Motivate Design – email your story to

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