Relocating the loo could trigger better ideas than a workshop

It’s that time of year when everyone believes it’s a good idea to run a workshop. New year, new objectives, new pad of flipcharts. But are such exercises such a good use of your team’s time? 

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I have my own prejudices. As a planner, I’m expected to run many of these sessions, which can be difficult as I’m still tormented by quite traumatic memories of workshops gone catastrophically bad. 

For example, there was the time I tried to warm up a group by getting participants to tell each other the one thing they had always wanted to do but had never got round to. 

There was the usual: learning the piano, swimming with dolphins. And then there was the man who said he had always wanted to “stamp on the face of Slobodan Milosevic until he is dead”. 

It turned out he had been a UN peacekeeper in Srebrenica, so I suppose his response was understandable, if unexpected. It certainly made allocating him to a breakout group a bit difficult. 

It appears I’m not alone in my nervousness about workshops. But rather than bitter personal experience, many of the objections come from academics, and they are based on sound psychological research. 

Let’s examine some common assumptions about workshops. The first, and perhaps most widely accepted, is that groups create more ideas in a given period of time than individuals working alone. 

In 1958, a study by Yale University found that 48 individuals working alone generated twice as many ideas than those working in groups. The solitary thinkers’ ideas were also judged to be of higher quality by a panel of subject experts. 

The common element between the group and individual approaches was a clear objective and a degree of time pressure. The difference was the absence of self-conscious editing among the solitary sample, imposed by their timidity in the face of more assertive or apparently more productive members of the group. 

I try to manage this tendency by building-in opportunities for individual contemplation and more anonymous sharing through the use of Post-It notes (other impossible-to-open wads of sticky paper are available). 

By asking individuals to write down their ideas and stick them on to a wall, I find that the fear of speaking up, which the less bumptious members of the group feel, is reduced. 

Of course, at Workshop School you are trained to start each group working session with an injunction to suspend critical debate for the period of the brainstorm. 

The first problem with this is that it rarely works. There’s always one black-hatted critic or frustrated completer-finisher who ignores this commandment simply because it’s how they are. 

At this point, the moderator needs to become especially assertive if the critical atmosphere is to be contained. This can itself risk souring the atmosphere further, as a critic cut off in their prime often retaliates by becoming disruptive. Or, as we call it in the trade, ‘an a***hole’. 

A more profound question is whether the absence of challenge and debate is a good thing. A 2003 Berkeley study suggests not. It rigorously compared the output of groups encouraged to debate against those exhorted not to. The answer was clear: debate resulted in more than twice the number of ideas than silent consensus. 

Another issue with workshops is their artificiality. Truly creative organisations manage to inculcate a constant buzz of innovation as part of their everyday business. 

Studies have shown that environment has a big part to play, and I don’t mean bean bags and post-modern art. Something as simple (or draconian) as forcing people to go to a central location to get post, coffee and bladder relief creates opportunities for spontaneous idea exchange. 

Stories abound of the most creative conversations at Bletchley Park occurring not in the codebreakers’ huts but over the communal tea urn in the main house. Had email existed back then, we may not have won the war. 

So here are your innovation initiatives for 2014: less peer group pressure; more constructive conflict; and relocating the toilets. But how to get it all done? Perhaps you should set up a workshop.

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