Why Workshops Fail and How they Win

      5 Comments on Why Workshops Fail and How they Win

Tips for more brainpower to rev up workshops

People constantly complain that workshops waste time, and yet rarely work to spark lasting change or ignite innovative improvements. Have you found that to be true? If so, you’re likely looking at the kind of workshop format created long before the neuro-discoveries that call traditional meeting approaches into question.

I learned over 25 years of offering MITA workshops in many countries to:

1). Ask more than you tell. Start with laying out your bare-boned plan for the session, and invite participants to add or subtract from your offering. Then toss out  two-footed questions to rev up brainpower, along the way. In larger groups use pair-sharing to address the topic. In smaller groups pass a talking stick so that all have opportunity to add wisdom and offer experiences.  To listen to you gains folks about 5% retention, to teach others as they learn themselves retains about 90%.

2). Vary methods to ensure idea growth. Avoid the ping pong approach to sharing ideas, where ideas all must come back to you before they bounce out again to group members. Technology becomes a trigger for brilliant ideas, when used to segue into human interactions,  spark dynamite connections and lead to changed practices. Similarly, theory is a useful prong for change – only if it converts into redesigned approaches. Opportunities to test its claims in practical applications.  Just the novelty of different approaches, can stoke innovative pathways forward.

3). Apply key facts as they emerge. People come to workshops with working memory geared to engages only a few facts at a time. The brain’s best learning tool, working memory comes with a few drawbacks. It’s built to retain only those insights used at the time, and replaces most information as soon as new facts appear. If you’ve seen wild enthusiasm at workshops, yet very little carryover into organizational change this is one chief reason. New ideas need to hook to experiences, and extend into practices before they can change routines and ruts that hold back many workplaces.

4). Exchange critical thinking for lateral reflection, that leads to application of new ideas. We’ve found that critical thinking gets watered down to criticize all new ideas. Rather than naysayers, bullies or cynics jumping in to demolish ideas when change threatens their insecurities, lateral thinking can extend ideas into innovation and invention. Use terms such as, Added to you ideas ____; Have you also considered _____; In addition to your idea here ____.

5). Follow-up with opportunities to apply and test the ideas. Unless ideas are applied, they cannot create the change people long for to rejuvenate broken workplaces. Feel good meetings may make disgruntled workers laugh or play a bit, but they too often plaster Band-Aids on sore spots,  without nurturing innovative change that current organizations crave.

Check out Dr. McMaster’s triggers for workshop flops and tell us how you reboot brainpower to ensure workshops spark innovation and lead to lasting improvements.

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Created by Ellen Weber, Brain Based Tasks for Growth Mindset

5 thoughts on “Why Workshops Fail and How they Win

  1. Robyn McMaster

    Ellen, I started germinating an idea for a blog on workshops about the same time you did. We examined this from very different views. I value the powerful ways you suggest to stimulate people’s brainpower and make workshops of lasting value. Thanks, too, for you generous link.

  2. eweber Post author

    Jeff, thanks for your generous words and also for your innovative touchdowns to leadership solutions!

    Love the child-like curiosity challenge – what sparks this creates for the human brain! As for two footed questions – here is the one I plan to ask an exec MBA class tonight. HOW WOULD YOU LEAD A TOXIC ORGANIZATION INTO AN INNOVATIVE SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS?

    Foot 1 = the stuff that causes toxins in a workplace (such a bullying or boredom) and the stuff that creates workplace well being (such as serotonin, curiosity building that you described so well, and so on).

    Foot 2 = recipient is included in the question – so that question compels practical applications of the solutions, because it involves the person being asked.

    Jeff, on another note – Lolly Daskal is holding a hot conf today (FREE) Who said it’s impossible to create your own Time Mastery Blueprint? @LollyDaskal grills experts and I engaging participants and speaking at 12:00 noon to 1:00 PM (EST) to the question: Do you think the brain has anything to do with time management? at http://twurl.nl/k3joit

  3. Jeff Hurt


    I’m such a fan of your writing and thoughts! Thanks for constantly provoking me–in a good way–to stretch and think differently.

    To spark brainpower in my workshops, I invite learners to return to child-like curiosity and examine concepts/facts from as many views as possible. I often use activities that have more than one right answer and challenge attendees to think of as many, different, unusual solutions as possible. This fires up their curiosity and arouses their brain.

    Also, could you explain your concept of two-footed questions more? I went back through your previous posts and am still trying to wrap my head around what you mean.


  4. eweber Post author

    Mary Jo, your comments are refreshing in that you are not doing “business as usual,” because you have created a finer way!

    Bravo – research from brain fields would support deeply what you do here.

    That is where coaching is especially effective in that people get to follow-up and tweak what could be working better in the newly developed applications.

    WE do MITA brain based certifications with similar opportunities to develop strategies, and try them out as solutions to workplace problems. It works and it also makes learning far more fun.

    Thanks for inspiring and teaching us all, Mary Jo.

  5. Mary Jo Asmus

    Hi Ellen,

    I put a stake in the ground with my own day long Coaching Skills for Managers workshop. No longer will I do just a “workshop”. There must be follow up coaching and encouragement. The skill set is so different than what is currently used in many companies! Even though participants leave the workshop with having had lots of practice in class, they lose the skill once back in the workplace.

    Therefore, part of my sustainability program includes some group coaching with participants following the classroom experience. They learn by seeing it modelled but also by talking to each other about their successes and challenges.

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