Workshops seem to be the answer, no matter what the question is.
Remember when acid rain was the poster child of environmental damage? Along with the hole in the ozone layer it seems almost quaint now in the context of climate change.
Time does that. Time is less of a healer and more of a tough-loving mother who gives you something to cry about if she feels you are sniveling over trivia.
Remember when the F-Plan diet was the darling of the slimming community? Remember, for that matter, when slimmers and slimming were the weight-watching nouns du jour? Who calls themselves a slimmer these days?
In the 80’s, the obsession with dietary fibre became such a cliché that Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones made a sketch about it. Sprinkle a “li’l bit of bran” on any nutritional nightmare and suddenly it would be ok again. (The bran section starts at about 1:25.)
“You can eat what you like but you’ve got to have some bran on it.”
Workshops are a bit like that. They have become the F-Plan diet of business. People use them like a magic sponge.
You name it, a workshop will sort it. Such is the almighty nature of the humble workshop that we have witnessed workshop ascension, from noun to verb.
Strategic impasse? Let’s workshop it.
Tricky creative brief? Let’s workshop it.
Can’t be arsed doing the brand plan ourselves? Let’s get the agencies in and workshop it.
Need something in a hurry that takes time to do well? Workshop it.
Content calendar? Workshop.
The next action’s workshop, now what’s the objective?
If two heads are better than one, eight heads must be awesome right? Wrong. Workshops are unfit for certain purposes and many hands can make expensive, mediocre work.
You’ve got a knotty problem and you think you can workshop (v.) the shit out of that baby. The trouble is that, as often as not, you workshop the shit in rather than out. Because they get used for everything, workshops get used for the wrong things a lot of the time.
Workshops are a good environment for a new team to get to know each other, as long as the task at hand is appropriate to the format. Workshops are fine for defining a problem, prioritising issues and achieving consensus. Workshops are fine for doing high volume, low concept work quickly; thrashing your way through an extensive list of user stories for instance.
But workshops are poor at delivering high concept solutions requiring creative thinking. Solutionising and ideation are the feeble progeny of inbred workshop thinking. Unfortunately it is precisely because this kind of work is difficult that it becomes the objective too many workshops.
As with the F-Plan diet it is human nature to seek easy, low-effort solutions to difficult problems. We want to believe that losing weight is as easy as sprinkling a bit of bran onto everything. We want to believe that making progress is as easy as sprinkling some workshops into the project plan. Sadly it isn’t if making progress involves heavy lifting like strategy, vision, original thought, or creativity.
Because they do have their uses workshops don’t deserve the same ignominy that seems to attach to brainstorming these days. But they should be used more sparingly and with a greater degree of consideration.