Surviving the Office Workshop Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Surviving the Office Workshop

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A pot of pens.

Anyone who's worked in an office, particularly for a large corporation, may dread the moment they open their email to discover they've been invited to a workshop. These are a bit like meetings, but worse - you'll be expected to take part. Gone are the days when you could file into a room, find a dark corner and catch a quick forty winks while some monotonous geek droned their way through a plethora of projected Powerpoint slides. Workshops aren't like that, oh no.

Of course, if you've never worked in an office, this might seem a bit alien to you. The word 'workshop' conjures up an image of practical industry. Mechanics refit your car in a workshop; blacksmiths fashion metal goods in one; carpenters make cabinets there. In short, they're places where skilled work gets done. The office workshop turns this on its head; you actually have to stop doing anything useful and make your way to a meeting room, often in another location altogether. It doesn't really make sense, as Alexei Sayle1 once eloquently put it:

Anyone who uses the word 'workshop' and who isn't like a craftsman who makes something is a w*****!

Perhaps he’d prefer the word 'seminar'?

Cometh the Hour

You may not even know it's going to be a workshop until you arrive at the designated room and see the tell-tale signs: flipcharts, whiteboards, marker pens, Blu-tac, Post-it notes and, more worryingly, props like beanbags or hats. Maybe the chairs are arranged in a way that forces you to make eye contact with other people, rather than focus on the projector screen. There may not even be a projector.

All of this may make you feel a little tense, particularly when you catch sight of someone smartly dressed, bearing a huge grin and exhibiting far too much bonhomie for that time of morning. This is the facilitator. Their sole aim is to make your experience as uncomfortable as possible under the guise of getting you to contribute to all the sessions. They’ll masonically crush your hand, before either issuing you with a badge or getting you to write your name on a folded piece of card to stand on the table in front of you2.

Mumbo Jumbo

There's another reason to hate facilitators. At facilitator school they were indoctrinated with all sorts of strange ideas, and they want us to know it. They come armed with weird tools and techniques; they have an uncanny ability to shame us into taking part; and however much we try to derail their fancy process they always manage to beat us into submission.

Not only that, they talk a funny language. We're invited to discuss synergies, and help them identify low-hanging fruit. We build a straw man, then take a helicopter view of it. We search for collaborative win-win situations on a level playing field.

Actually, we do none of those things. We tend to do a lot of sitting down in a room, talking, to tell the truth. However, there are a number of proven workshop techniques which we may find ourselves involved in during the day. Here are a few to watch out for:

Thought Showering

We used to call this brainstorming, before it became politically incorrect to do so; a brainstorm is actually a mental condition associated with epilepsy.

Thought showering is a very simple method of generating ideas. The facilitator stands at the front of the room with a flipchart, asks us a question, and we each shout out the first thing which comes into our head. They then have to write them all down, ideally using the actual words we used. They should also capture everything in a non-judgmental way.

This is easy to derail - just shout out anything you like. Be warned, however, that the evidence will be writ large in front of you for all to see. To be a little more subtle, you could instead shout out words which are difficult to spell. Don't try to criticise others' suggestions - the facilitator will reprimand you for this sort of behaviour.

De Bono's Hats

Lateral thinking guru Edward de Bono gave us many of the techniques which we use today to enable creative thinking. His concept of 'thinking outside the box' is now used as a mainstream phrase, as is 'to wear someone's hat', which we use when we think about something from another person's point of view.

In this technique, De Bono gives us six 'thinking hats', each of a different colour. The white hat thinks about something impassively, the black hat thinks negatively or pessimistically, the red hat thinks emotionally or intuitively, the yellow hat positively and constructively, the green hat creatively, and finally the blue hat thinks about things from an overview position.

There are lots of ways to play this game. If we're given a problem to analyse, we may be each given a different hat to wear in order to think about its effects. Alternatively, we may all wear the same colour hat and then swap to another colour when directed. It ensures that we each get to see the problem from all viewpoints.

Bearing in mind that this is a creative thinking process, you'd have thought we could be trusted to imagine the colour of the hat we’re wearing. Not so! Some facilitators may actually bring along coloured plastic hats to assist us in this task, although most make do with giving us a badge to wear, or just writing the colour on the whiteboard.

Fishbone Diagrams

This is a method of identifying the root causes of problems by a kind of cause-and-effect analysis. It was invented by Japanese quality management guru Kaoru Ishikawa, who originally used it in the shipyards of Kawasaki.

For this exercise, delegates are typically given a problem to think about - for example: 'Our customer satisfaction level is falling.' They then have to write down as many causes as possible, each one on a separate Post-it note.

Next, the facilitator draws a large chart on the wall which looks a little like a horizontal fish skeleton. It has a head, a spine, and a number of slanted rib bones coming off the spine at regular intervals. The facilitator writes the problem at the fish's head, then takes the Post-it notes and sticks each distinct cause at the end of a separate rib. In our example, the causes may be things like: 'The product quality is poor' or 'The service desk doesn't answer the telephone.’

Finally, for each rib, we repeat the exercise by writing down the underlying causes of each of these. This time, the facilitator will stick the notes along the relevant rib, sometimes drawing additional bones coming off the rib. At the end of the exercise, we have all the underlying causes neatly lined up in each area. It's a very powerful visual tool.

Visualisation and Metaphor

This is where the dreaded 'blue sky thinking' really gets going. These techniques are a bit like playing the board game Pictionary, but without a card to guide you. They require advanced levels of creative thinking, so we might be asked to do a warm-up first, in the manner of an icebreaker exercise.

Visualisation helps us to solve big problems in the area of organisational change. For example: 'Our business looks like this but we want it to look radically different, so how do we get there?' We don't know the steps to take, so the facilitator will encourage us to draw pictures of it instead.

Metaphor and analogy techniques are similar, but ask us to think about the problem in a completely different setting. For instance: 'We want to set up a new business entirely from scratch, so let's consider what we might do to establish a base on Mars.’

These techniques can be a lot of fun, but in the end we have to translate them into a sensible set of practical tasks. So there's always the risk that we won't ultimately achieve a lot. You'll often find inventors using them, though. One notable example is Brunel's invention of pressurised caissons for underwater tunnelling. He came up with the idea by considering the analogy of a shipworm tunnelling through timber.

Getting to the Point

Love them or loathe them, office workshops probably can't be avoided3. As the techniques show, there's usually a point to them. They're commonly used for things like planning, problem-solving, decision-making, team-building, and learning new ways of working. More than that, they get us talking to each other, rather than hiding behind our email and voicemail. And, if the facilitator organises them well, we can find we're able to achieve things far more quickly than if we worked on our own.
1An English comedian.2Your name card will slowly sink down throughout the day, as indeed you might, too. Especially keen facilitators may teach you how to fold a dog-ear in the crease to prevent this from happening.3If you do, you may end up being assigned a selection of the more unpleasant actions decided on in the course of the workshop - if not all of them!

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