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16 October 2017
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How to run a successful workshop

This resource was produced by Dr Judith Tweedie, FMLM Trainee Steering Group Chair and Mr Stephen Harding, Specialty Recritment Office, Royal College of Physicians.

What do we mean by ‘workshop’?

The term workshop can be used as a broad church to describe ways of meeting that break out from the traditional board room style meeting. Perhaps describing a workshop can be better done by contrasting it to the expectations of a normal meeting:


  • Commonly used to facilitate an exchange of information and confirm agreements/decisions
  • Often have a wide ranging agenda covering disparate topics
  • Structured by all participants discussing together for the duration – usually sitting round a table
  • Led by a chair who manages the discussion and confirms the outcomes

 Where as workshops: 

  • Better method for creating ideas, building or refining processes or problem-solving
  • Designed to produce a particular output or series of outputs, focussing on a single issue, or one issue at a time
  • Use a variety structures to achieve aims, likely to involve breaking out into groups
  • Facilitated by a lead who administrates the session but does not participate in activities

Although workshops tend to have a defined output, there is no limit to what this could be, examples include: delivering training, engaging stakeholders, brainstorming or refining processes.

What are the key elements to a successful workshop?

Well-defined goal (or goals)

The aim and objectives should be clear and communicated to participants. Without a clear goal, you should not hold the workshop.


As with most things in life, success does not happen by accident. Workshops can appear to be chaotic as they often involve participants moving around and can be quite noisy. Therefore it is all the more the important that you have considered everything in advance so you know exactly how you expect it to run and build contingency or flexibility into your timetable. A crucial element is matching the objective with a method which will achieve that in the best way possible and to consider how to make the workshop interactive and interesting for participants.

The facilitator

A well designed plan goes a long way but it takes a well prepared and strong facilitator to maximise the chances of a successful outcome. Facilitators need to be disciplined to stay on track, familiar with the plan and able to control the crowd. It can also be helpful to be good at thinking on your feet, flexible and imaginative if things start to get off track.


Providing an environment which participants will find interesting and fun will improve the engagement and output of attendees. Workshops are a real opportunity to be imaginative and to break out from the highly structure environment usually seen in meetings. Create activities which will allow all participants opportunity to get involved as much as possible.

Engaged and relevant attendees

It is vital that you involve the right people and those people are engaged participants. You can do your bit by achieving the elements above but also making sure that the right people are in the room. Factors to consider include: who are the experts or people affected, getting a range of different stakeholders, ensuring key people attend, getting buy-in from management.

Successful engagement is the building block to a successful result.  Whether the objective is to improve a pathway or create a national consensus document engaging the right people at the right time in the right way is fundamental to meaningful spread, adoption and implementation.  Workshops can be a particularly effective method of engaging with the people who will be essential to the project’s success. 


The pro’s and con’s of workshops


  • Efficiency - allows engagement with several relevant parties in one sitting 
  • Idea generation - properly facilitated workshops can produce a large range of ideas with participants bounce off one another, create new ideas from the synergy of different perspectives.
  • Maximise attendee input – meetings can be daunting for many attendees so workshops can offer a safer environment to speak up for those less confident but whose ideas are likely to be equally relevant.
  • Team building – relationships can be built as participants can work with others from diverse backgrounds within the field, offering an opportunity to network and cross pollinate. 
  • Shared ownership – as workshops aim to utilise attendees to solve problems, a sense of ownership over outputs can be created. This differs from meetings which can become adversarial by taking it in turns to get across your view in the strongest way possible to affect the decision.
  • Workshops also have potential to create an engaged group which can function as an excellent sounding board as the project proceeds.


  • With a broad range of stakeholders in the room, there is always the potential to go off topic and not meet the stated objectives. 
  • Can bring extra costs to the project such as room hire, travel expenses and sustenance. Workshops also require a significant time commitment from participants and organisers.  


Who should attend?

Attendees will be entirely dependent on the aims and objects of the project and what are the desired outputs of the workshop.

For example, a workshop may be a useful tool during implementation of a new admissions pathway for medical patients over 75 years of age. Workshops can be used to either generate or test processes behind the pathway.  In this example, the workshop lead may invite medical, nursing and allied health professionals from geriatrics, A&E, general medicine and general practice, general managers, administration staff, bed managers and patients.  Each is likely to bring a unique perspective to the project and prevent necessary steps being missed.

How do I structure it?

There is no one way to structure your workshop, the key is to start by considering what you wish to achieve and work backwards.

The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless details a variety of techniques for how you could manage your workshop to get you started but use this as a starting point and do not feel you have to be constrained by following techniques to the letter.

Here are some general tips about structuring to get you thinking:

Group work

Splitting participants into groups is a classic workshop trick but the reason why is that it works and it gives more participants the chance to contribute at any one time. There are things you can do to make the most of using groups though:

  • The ‘1-2-4-ALL’ method detailed in The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures, is a way to build up towards larger groups, giving everyone the chance to have their say in a short time.
  • Think about how you split groups up to split up cliques or spread types of stakeholders. One way to randomise it is to allow people to sit where they want and then start assigning numbers for as many groups as you want. You then ask each number to gather together; this automatically splits up those sitting at the same table.
  • When gathering feedback from groups, get one point at a time from each group to avoid the first one grabbing all the glory.
  • Avoid repetition and save time by asking participants not to repeat points made by other groups.
  • If you are covering multiple topics, split groups up to create more networking opportunities and exposure to different ideas.


Many people like putting things in rank order and doctors more than most. Using methods to allow participants to rate options is a sure way to get attention. One way is ‘25/10 crowd sourcing’ or ‘dot voting’

Storyboarding – this is stolen from Liberating structures so better reference it

Can you structure your workshop so that individual elements support each other. For example:

  • an icebreaker to get everyone talking to each other
  • 1-2-4-ALL to generate ideas
  • a ranking method to put ideas into priority
  • identifying who should take things forward.


Maximising time is key to structuring your workshop, how many times have you been in a meeting that runs hopelessly over time or leaves little time for certain items. It is very important that however you structure your workshop that you either stick closely to time or build in plenty of contingency.

This could involve timing activities to the minute and using a stopwatch to keep you on track. Remember that everything takes longer than you think and higher participant numbers exacerbate this.


Think carefully about the space you are using. It sounds obvious but ensure it is large enough and allows people to move around. Also consider what is in the room – for example, do you need tables or flipcharts and if so can these moved?

Advanced information

Do you want your participants to be thinking about anything in particular. If so be sure that you make this clear and are specific about what this is.

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