Using alternatives to workshops

Using alternatives to workshops

Workshops have become the “go-to” solution for many projects. They’re seen as highly effective ways of generating and validating ideas and building consensus around proposed solutions. Yet they’re also expensive to run, tying up hours of everyone’s time, are difficult to schedule and can easily be derailed by the demands of “business as usual”. The less committed someone is to the cause, the more intense they can. Add in a weak facilitator and poor preparation and it is little wonder we’ve heard sponsors openly question what they’re paying their agency for.

Rather than reach for workshops as the first port of call, we’ve increasingly backed away from them, only using them where absolutely necessary and acceptable. There are a variety of alternative approaches that are less demanding on time. For many clients, particularly smaller businesses or less high-profile projects, they’re willing to the speed of a workshop for the comfort of limiting disruption. In our experience, adopting these has made it far easier to schedule single, longer workshops and build strong stakeholder buy-in over several weeks. 

One-on-one meetings

Meeting with people singularly might seem ineffective as you risk repeating the same one-hour interview over and over again. Yet meeting someone for a private conversation can bring out issues few are willing to discuss in public, as well as start the all-too-important process of building confidence in you as a member of the team. These sessions can take any form, and while we will sometimes use a formal interview approach with pre-prepared questions, we are equally likely to bring pads, post-it notes and marker pens.

Pros: Easier to schedule, private conversations can be more open and builds trust.

Cons: Can find yourself repeating the same session over and over.


There are times when you need more than one person’s insight into a particular challenge. If this is the case, we’ll arrange a “pair meeting”, a mini-workshop that lasts 40 minutes. Set up with a clear agenda, a singular focus and with two (sometimes three) people who have direct experience of the problem area, the aim is to quickly work through the specific issue and devise a broad solution that can be refined further. 

Pros: Easier to schedule, encourages co-creation and buy-in.

Cons: Demands tight facilitation and a strong focus, so limited scope.

Team meetings

When stakeholders are within a similar reporting line or peer group becoming an agenda item on their regular team meetings can help. Asking for a five-minute slot to provide a quick overview of where the project is, how you solved the last challenge and the one you’re facing now builds trust and commitment. When we’ve been invited into team meetings, we’ve found it incredibly easy to get otherwise busy managers to agree to give me some time to walk through a solution thanks to a mix of peer pressure and being pointed at the person who can actually provide the answers we need.

Pros: Shows the project is something that everyone needs to take account of.

Cons: Limited time available. Peer pressure can be seen as “unbecoming”.


Occasionally we are given rooms dedicated to our projects. We use an “open door” policy that gives people permission to come in and review progress or debate particular points issues. On one notable occasion my client became so passionate about resolving a particular blockage that he arranged an impromptu meeting by calling people into the office and walking through the experience from end-to-end. We cleared it in under thirty minutes.

Pros: Encourages informal collaboration and buy-in.

Cons: Demands a “war room”.

Print, draw, scan, repeat.

Particularly useful with international teams, one technique we’ve found effective is to send a copy of the wireframe or process flow to team members and have them print it out, draw their comments and remarks on it, scan it and send it back. We’ve used their comments to refine our work and repeated the process. One Spanish team we did this with went through six iterations in three days to agree a new sales process that had full commitment as they could see how we were incorporating their concerns and suggestions throughout.

Pros: Low time overhead as it can be fitted in between work. Good technique for virtual and international teams.

Cons: Can be slow if multiple iterations are required. 

Internal workshops

Sometimes there is nothing else that can be done but run a workshop, even if the client doesn’t attend. This is a high-risk strategy as it can be easy to start creating solutions that the client will ultimately reject (whether for legitimate reasons or they feel as if “it’s being done to them” rather than with them). This can be mitigated by involving the client’s “product owner”, by using a business analyst as a proxy for the client or limiting the scope of the workshop to avoid overextending yourself.

Pros: Helps the agency team to gel, builds consensus internally and presents client with clear decisions.

Cons: Risk of client rejecting the outcomes, limited client buy-in, can result in “the agency is doing it to us” mentality.

Use technology

Numerous technology solutions exist that allow you to share work with clients and have them comment or vote on ideas. The biggest issue we’ve found is it can’t be relied on. Busy people won’t contribute to a project hosted on a clever technology than they’ll commit to a multi-day workshop. We’ve rarely used them and when we have it has been largely to maintain an online record of what’s happening rather than rely on them for co-creation.

Pros: Low time overhead is possible depending on solution, greater convenience and everything is recorded.

Cons: Easy to be forgotten, still requires effort to keep momentum and buy-in.

Lessons for leadership

When you start planning your next project and the rumbles of discontent come about scheduling, consider alternatives. Adopting a less intensive way to creating solutions might not be the most efficient approach for the project, but it might get the best result.


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