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Alison Coward, The Power of Workshops to Transform Teams

The following excerpt is transcribed from the Zoom event that took place on 30 July 2020.

Key points

  • As people begin to work in a more ‘workshop-like’ manner, they start to communicate better, build more trust, open up more and even start thinking about new ways of working together. 
  • Facilitation transforms team cultures by encouraging collaboration while also increasing performance by enhancing creativity and productivity.



Alison Coward is the founder of Bracket, a consultancy that helps ambitious, forward-thinking teams to build high-performing, collaborative cultures. She is a strategist, workshop facilitator, coach, trainer, keynote speaker and author of “A Pocket Guide to Effective Workshops.

With over 15 years’ experience of working in, leading and facilitating creative teams, Alison is passionate about finding the balance between creativity, productivity and collaboration so that teams can thrive and do their best work together.


What makes a great workshop?

Many of us have experienced the energy of leaving a great workshop. We leave with a sense of forward-momentum, renewed creativity and having clarity around ideas that were produced through equal collaboration and engagement from participants. These positive unintended consequences help us to grow a connection with others and we start feeling a purpose, knowing that we’ve been challenged to progress to an end goal. As people begin to work in a more ‘workshop-like’ manner, they start to communicate better, build more trust, and even start thinking about new ways of working together. This means that workshops are not just great for outcomes, but also for team building. 

The question is then, ‘How can we take the impacts of a workshop beyond a one-time event?’


Introducing Workshop Culture

Implementing Workshop Culture is more than just moving from non-collaboration to suddenly become collaborative. Being in a position of facilitating a workshop for a team means there is an opportunity to create a memorable experience and show the participants a new way of working. This includes not only thinking about what is going to happen in the workshop itself but also how it will make an impact after the session. How will you craft the follow up so that people can see the efforts of the day translate into their work? 

Once people are exposed to this new way of working and experience it more regularly, they will start to be convinced that workshops can be a more effective way of getting things done. This can be in the form of improved communication between the team, bringing in workshop activities into meetings, or even through the practice of using sticky notes. As elements of workshops are instilled into the team, there is more transparency, creativity and overall collaboration. As this continues, you will finally reach a stage where there is not much of a difference between workshops and how the team works.


Principles of Workshop Culture

The idea of Workshop Culture can be boiled down to the following principles

1. A workshop can be more than a one-off event

Workshops should not be seen as a one-off, special events where activities are packed in and planned for everything to change in the one session. Workshop Culture is about running meetings in a more collaborative way and naturally opening up the environment for creativity, questions, feedback etc. Looking at the principles of workshops and embedding them into our culture, is more valuable than just having one day set aside for a workshop. 


2. Constantly balance creativity and productivity

There is value in generating ideas and then giving those ideas time to breathe in order to experiment and try new things. However, this needs to be balanced with making ideas actionable so that we continue to make progress. In Workshop Culture, we need to know when it is time to be creative and when it is time to take action.


3. Tiny tweaks, not sweeping changes

Change is and can generally be difficult for teams that are not used to collaborative ways of working. Tiny nudges to test what works and what doesn’t will be more successful in implementing Workshop Culture than trying to overhaul the team’s entire way of working. Slowly push boundaries and take small steps to implement changes by asking more questions to your team or applying a workshop activity into a meeting to see what kind of responses arise.


4. A Workshop Culture is designed

Workshop Culture is designed in the same way a workshop is designed; you create what you want to achieve. The structure, narrative and activities should be intentional and collaborative with your team while having clear purpose and goals.


Facilitation as a leadership skill

“If you are able to design and facilitate great workshops, you are in a position to be able to introduce a Workshop Culture.”
– Alison Coward

Research shows that leadership and management need to move towards a more facilitative style. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, in The Progress Principle, found that the one thing that made a difference to whether somebody felt engaged and joyful about their work was that they were able to make progress. This formed and shifted our view towards managers, as their role is not to tell people what to do but to clear barriers so that people can make progress in their work.

This view of leaders was echoed in The Wolff Olins Report: Impossible and Now

“Leaders… are learning to be less the visionary, less the sage, less the objective-setter, and more the shaper, the connector, the questioner.”

and in Collective Genius by Linda Hill –

“Instead of trying to come up with a vision, and make innovation happen themselves, a leader of innovation creates a place – a context and environment – where people are willing and able to do the hard work that innovative problem solving requires.”

Facilitation transforms team cultures by encouraging collaboration while also increasing performance by enhancing creativity and productivity. However, a facilitator’s skills extend beyond workshops and have value before and after sessions. As a leadership skill, facilitation helps pave an easier path for someone else. It enables leaders to become changemakers within an organisation and helps people navigate through uncertainty while unlocking creativity and innovation.  


What advice do you have for setting the conditions for a better remote working environment?

AC – I’ve learned to embrace the clunkiness that sometimes comes with the digital experience because there is an element of wanting everything to go perfectly. But when you think about facilitating in person, there’s going to be loads of little calamities and sticky notes everywhere. It’s a bit messy, and I’d like to see us start to embrace that as normal rather than expecting everything to be seamless and smooth.

You can set up some expectations beforehand, or even find out about the participants beforehand as you would in a real-life workshop. So if you think it’s important for people to be on video, then I’d ask participants what kind of equipment they already have, and then as a facilitator design the session around that information.


DL – Something that we found is that everyone has a mobile device and most people have a Surface Pro or laptop. If you’re using a collaboration tool like MURAL, ask them to use their mobile device for comms, and take advantage of the real estate on their monitor for the collaboration tool.

How do you ensure the loudest or most senior person in the room doesn’t dominate a workshop?

AC – One situation is where everyone has a strong personality in the room, and the second one is where there might only be some strong personalities, and they’re drowning out the other voices. When I’m doing rounds, I have conversations with the people that are the more dominant personalities to let them know, “Your opinion is really valued, and we also want to make sure that we create an environment for everybody to speak so I might come to you last.” 

If there are more strong personalities, I think that’s brilliant because they’re all quite passionate. As a facilitator, I step up and think, how can I make the most of this energy? Often, it means that I have to match that energy so that I’m also not drowned out by those voices. 

Can you give examples of organisations with a flatter org. structure that collaborate successfully?

AC – The first one that comes to mind would be a social media team called Buffer. They’re quite forward-thinking and have done some great work around their culture. They have a fully remote team, transparent pay scale, and share a lot about the way that they work.

How have you adapted your facilitation style since switching to remote operations in light of COVID-19?

AC – I think the biggest thing that I’ve changed is the length of the sessions. I haven’t done a full-day session and probably wouldn’t. All of the workshops that have been running have adapted to be broken up over a period of time. I think that affords a lot of opportunities that you wouldn’t have had in a real-life workshop as it allows time for people to digest information in between sessions. 

The transition felt quite natural because when I’m running a workshop, I always place a lot of emphasis on the prep. And as a part of it, you’re thinking about the environment and context that you’re facilitating within. So for me, I would consider facilitating online in the same way I consider facilitating in a room. I’d be thinking about constraints and designing around it and don’t see them as a barrier or a problem but just as it is. I’ll ask myself, “What do I know about that situation?” and then, “How do I adapt and design my workshop to fit that environment in that context?”

What resources would you recommend to new facilitators or seasoned pros?

AC – For new facilitators, I would say focus and spend a lot of your time on the prep, because the main worry is about the things that happen unexpectedly on the day. Obviously, no matter how much prep you do, unexpected things might happen on the day anyway, but the more prep you do, the more you’re going to be prepared. You’re going to be very clear on your purpose for the workshop. You’re also going to be very clear on the narrative and where you’re meant to get to. And if things take you off track, you can very easily come back. 

For seasoned facilitators, I would say join a community of facilitators and have conversations with people about what they’re doing and what people are trying. Whenever I teach a workshop master class, one of the things I don’t actually do is teach workshop exercises, because I think there are so many resources out there where you can find workshop exercise. And that’s not the challenge. The challenge is how to put together a good workshop and how to make sure that the workshop has an impact. So, for seasoned facilitators, I would focus on looking for those resources.

Further reading

To see all our speaker Future Of Now book recommendations click here.


More about Alison Coward and Bracket


About the Future Of Now series

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More about the organisations connected to this event

  • morespaceforlight.com.au – A strategy and innovation consultancy specialising in both in-person and/or remote workshops, design programs and Design Sprints.
  • MURAL.COheaps of new templates and tools. Sign up it is brilliant.
  • spacesworks.com – globally located co-working spaces.
  • hacker.exchange – a global education company that is supercharging the next generation of startups & leaders.
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