The Workshop: Not Necessarily the Best Place to Work

The Practice Collection

Let me explain … Those who have known me for a while know that the three things I have often say I could do without are … meetings, committees and workshops.

We know that tools like the Standup and Courtyard Café and the Jam Sessions explode the notion of what a meeting is and once you have done your first Workout, you will never go back to that old school committee approach to solving problems.

So why is the poor Workshop on that devil’s list?

Historically, I believe the humble workshop model made some important contributions to workplace culture … for example; actors would workshop some ideas and possibilities. I believe it was tool that suggested we “step outside” our selves for a while and have an outside look at what we might accomplish when we get back inside.

Let us just consider that word “outside’ for a minute … it has multiple assumptions like …

  • We can get outside the building.
  • We can get “out of the box”
  • We can learn something new out there.
  • Be entertained
  • Get something done
  • Solve a problem
  • Spend the training budget (just sayin’)

I think we could say with some honesty that the connection of this year’s workshop offerings to this year’s actual Strategic Plan may have been a bit tenuous at best if not at completely disconnected at times. Again that word “outside.”   Often the workshop is not only outside of the workplace building but may even be outside of the everyday work we need to get done this year. This “outsiders” feature of the basic workshop model, I believe, led more and more to outside resources, outside funding, outside people and even outside issues.

Workshops were often evaluated on presentation, enjoyment and excitement rather than how much good work we just got done here.

The focus of this little piece (better late than never) is to ask the questions … what would it be like to “integrate” the best of the workshop models with the real everyday goals and requirements of our workplace?

So this is an area where my own work has often slipped off the rails …

Lets start by looking at some reasons why it might be important to pull people together into, lets just say, a more intense type of day.

  • It could be for learning. We need to spend some time learning some new public engagement skills.
  • It could be for problem solving. We need to find more answers to this “bullying in the workplace” issue.
  • It could be for some work on organizational effectiveness. Our Ministerial Response process sucks.
  • It could be for organizational change. There is a new policy on environmental impact due diligence coming down from headquarters.
  • It could be for “silo busting” (getting everyone onto the same page and working better together across internal borders.

I am sure there are more reasons to put good people together but let’s look at these as a start. In my early years before I had the good sense to nail down why I was invited into a room, I was blissfully uncertain of what their real reasons were for inviting me.

Again, was I there to …

  • Give instruction (the teacher)
  • Solve a problem for them (the management consultant)
  • Help them run the session (the facilitator)
  • Give new tools and processes (the continuous improvement guy)
  • Mitigate shock abatement (the conflict resolution person)
  • To help everyone be better at their job (hey Coach!)

All these things are really important work but really, what most workers and managers want these days is to find a way to get this immediate pressing stuff done and off my bloody Monday morning desk.

So …

If we were to take all this investment in time, people, money and effort and start to apply it “inside” instead of just “outside” what would that look like?

In my short history, the disconnect happened with my work with Learning Organizations, leadership practice and tools. There was never any real doubts or issues for me around Learning Organization theory. I believe it is still one of the most elegant and practical visions for any organization in the knowledge management business. So if your business deals with policy, regulations, human beings, relationships, innovation, communication and engagement, you are in the knowledge business and becoming a faster, focused and effective Learning Organization might just still be a pretty good idea. It was never a flavor of the month and never will be…it’s a good theory.

But, we know that with great theory must come even greater practice. Theory and practice must eventually come together like peaches and cream. So I and many others loved this Learning Organization theory and decided that those fine tools could help us develop a Learning Organizationpractice that we could teach to our inside people and develop communities of leadership practitioners and capacity.

Whoops …

Soon it was seen as a one core practice…Bob’s Tools you know …

There emerged in the work a single dimension view that did not do us much good service. Now we realize that a full-blown Learning Organization could actually have hundreds of practices … every single, simple thing that one staff person does with a voluntary, amateur, passion based spirit, is a leadership practice that could be developed, shared (community of practice) and celebrated.

Another slip off the rails was the lack of integration in the process and the unholy strength of the old workshop mental model.

Practitioners tell me that whenever they were called to do a Work-out, an OpenSpace or a basic Matrix, it was often seen as a little workshop event rather than seeing it as just a better way to do our real work.

Let me say that again in a different way … ”it was seen as an extraordinary or special event rather than the ordinary.”

This event mentality has not allowed the basics of these great practices to be fully integrated into the warp and weft of our everyday work.

In a refreshed context, we could start to see this work more as basic training rather than always looking for the advance material, the quest for something new and different. We all know the management trap of the “flavor of the month” and the crow effect of looking for the new and shiny.

We something gets used for years over and over again it will often develop what we call a rich patina. Someday perhaps this work will develop its own patina and no longer will we crave the new and shiny.