Using time and magic to bring workshops to life
The economy is rapidly evolving into a ‘connection economy’: an economy that rewards value created by building relationships and fostering connections. This economy rewards those who know how to build leverage.
Leverage used to be associated with investing capital, utilizing complex financial instruments, or hiring more people to do the (dirty) work. Now it’s available through products (whether physical products like suitcases or watches, or digital courses and apps) and media (podcasts, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds, newsletters, and so on).
If you’re looking for leverage and connection in the connection economy there’s one medium that remains relatively hidden.
I haven’t found a more effective way to build both leverage and connection than through creating workshops. I’ve even seen entire careers springboard through workshops – my own included.
Hold on! What do you mean by a ‘workshop’?
Workshops aren’t like regular online courses or webinars which are largely passive, single-player experiences. They’re not like traditional education; sitting still obediently, listening to an expert who’s been put up on a pedestal.
Instead, workshops are about connecting with others, applying ideas, and trying things out. They’re about developing and improving work, and learning every step of the way. And they offer a degree of interactivity, generosity, and shared experience that’s hard to match.
“Workshops are about the cohort. The other students. The people you meet, the people you learn from and the people you teach.
Workshops involve work, not the compliance inherent in testing and certification.
I’ve been a teacher my entire career, and the workshops we’re running now are the most effective way I’ve found to help people level up.”Seth Godin
Thanks to the internet, workshops now have more scalability than ever. Sure, they’re real-time which means an inevitable cap that other formats can avoid, but the best workshops are global by design. Everyone’s welcome.
The workshop barriers
Workshops are seriously undervalued, but there are perceived barriers that keep people from stepping into the world of what workshops can bring.
These barriers can be summarized as:
“I don’t have the skills to do this. Some people just aren’t cut out to do teaching or workshop facilitation.”
“A workshop will take me way too much time to create and deliver – it’s not worth it.”
You can probably see these barriers are closely connected.
When it comes to the first barrier, our Workshop Creator programs have already proven it’s not difficult to overcome. Workshop skills can be learned, and you don’t need a teaching degree to do so. I’ve talked about the workshop skill set in previous posts, and will address some more specifics in future posts too.
For this piece I want to take on the second barrier: time.
Time for movie magic
Time is the ultimate finite resource. It’s naturally a concern for any creator; anyone who seeks leverage.
The advantages of workshops – that they’re human-first, fluid, exploratory, and connected – can also feel disconcerting when it comes to estimating the time needed to produce them.
In our Workshop Creator sessions, one of the parallels we look to is that of the movie producer – the person behind much of that movie magic.
The movie producer is a:
- Story Builder
- Resource Collector
- Detail Detective
- Compelling Speaker
- Team Enabler
Perhaps most of all, movie producers need to be time pessimists.
The movie producer’s worst nightmare is time overruns, and the knock-on effects they create: miscalculations on a star’s schedule; expensive extra shooting days in a faraway location; a director’s cut that’s an hour too long…
Workshop creators share many of the movie producer traits: building stories; collating resources and teasing out important details; enabling teams. And they most definitely also need to be time pessimists.
Although it’s at odds with being a project optimist, time pessimists we must be.
Workshop Time & Magic
To help you balance this tension and manage your own workshop creation expectations, this guide will help you plan and estimate each stage of creation, as well as iterations to improve your workshop and even create new products.
We’re going to go through a series of simple steps to figure out how much time to allow to bring a workshop to life. Doing just a few calculations can remove much of the cognitive load that comes with the thought of “ugh this is going to take so long”; the feeling that so often reinforces that perceived barrier.
Once you follow the steps here, you’ll be able to confidently get to work creating some of the magic that makes workshops far more visceral, memorable, and shareable than any passive format can ever hope to be.
Here’s how it shakes out:
- Choosing a flavor
- Preparing the process
- Applying the formula
- Iterating the product
- Rebuilding and reimagining
Without further ado, let’s get started.
Part 1: Setup
What’s in a name?
The word ‘workshop’ throws up different things for different people. Some think of a short evening session focused on shaping a skill; others of company-organized training mornings or two-day team off-sites.
Indeed, some workshops last an hour, others may span several days. Some may even run for a period of several months (although these are more likely to be programs with several modules – a topic for a later post).
For this post we’ll work on the basis of building a workshop that’s 1 day or less, but as you’ll see, there’s some mathematical magic to come that’ll work for just about any size of session 😉
Before we get into the time needed to build, let’s talk about flavors.
There are 3 main workshop flavors:
- Strategic: working towards an insight (e.g. surfacing a brand’s values)
- Operational: finding alignment (e.g. helping a team work more effectively)
- Educational: a learning experience (e.g. understanding the principles of blockchain)
Just like the best combo bowls, you can mix and match a few flavors, but what’s most important is to know which flavor you’re primarily focused on.
This is important for a number of reasons – one of which is the build time varies depending on the flavor of workshop.
A Strategic or Operational flavor is generally going to take a little less time. There’s more open space and exploration for participants, and your work is tilted more towards responsiveness in the session as a facilitator, and less to the construction and design beforehand.
An Educational workshop typically means more time needs to be invested. This flavor is more content-rich, and requires more format switching to maintain energy and groove. A really good Educational workshop can be magical because of the blend of content, concepts, and group connection, but there’s a higher upfront cost in the design and development phase (plus more active facilitation on the day, and arguably a higher risk of the magic falling flat, aka the workshop not working).
Here’s the rub: if you think you’re doing a Strategic session, but really you’re doing an Educational workshop, you’re going to have problems. And because of the multiplier effect we’ll encounter later in this guide, the bigger the workshop, the greater the risk of time issues. No bueno.
Once you’ve picked your main flavor, it’s time to move into the mindsets of workshop creation.
4 Workshop Mindsets
Hopefully, you’re already thinking like a movie producer. This should get your creative juices flowing, as well as maintaining an eye on the business side of things.
Let’s build on this with some mindsets for workshop creation.
We use 4 mindsets in our programs. They’re aligned closely to the British Design council’s Double Diamond model which you may have seen used in various design thinking scenarios.
Here are our 4 mindsets:
Thinking: Recognizing the difference between traditional learning experiences and the future of learning; understanding different learning styles; embracing mistakes; becoming part of the experience
Designing: Design thinking essentials, as well as crafting effective outcomes, flexible and robust structure, plus utilizing different workshops formats, and surfacing the narrative of a workshop
Developing: The design phase provides the skeleton of the workshop. Development is about sculpting and crafting; workshop activities, narrative, presentations, and supporting materials. Prototyping will happen here too
Delivering: The actual delivery of the session. This is about preparing in the days and weeks before; applying fundamental principles of facilitation; using story in effective ways, and troubleshooting
Embodying these mindsets happens first, but it doesn’t stop there. The mindsets become the foundations of a process to follow when creating any workshop.
Mindsets become principles, become process.
As you can see, the double diamond above doesn’t look at the effort expended during each stage. As with many things in life, it’s not evenly distributed. An outsize amount of effort in the creation of almost any workshop is going to come at the design stage.
The double diamond helps break down the workshop creation process, but how do you figure out the actual amount of time to invest?
It’s time for part 2: some workshop mathematics.
Part 2: Number Magic
First, take the number of hours of delivery. This is the length of your workshop, excluding any breaks of more than 15 minutes.
For example, a full-day workshop from 9am-4pm with 1 hour for lunch and a couple of 15 min breaks is 6 hours of delivery (7 hour day, minus the 1-hour lunch, ignoring the shorter breaks).
If you’ve done this before, calculating the delivery time should be pretty easy. Alternatively, if you’re doing a workshop within a conference or festival the delivery time has probably been set for you. For example, many conferences schedule workshops to last 1 or 1.5 hours. If you’re not sure, look up the previous year’s schedule or ask your conference contact. Some client workshops will be similar – they have a set slot for outside workshop sessions.
But what if you haven’t done this before and have no idea how long your workshop is going to be?
Work on the basis of doing something that lasts 1.5 hours.
Why this length of time?
There are a few reasons: most audiences both online and in-person are comfortable with an hour and a half session; there are a bunch of workshop creation best practices that map really well to this number; and 1.5 hours gives you some space without overstretching yourself.
Now that you’ve got the delivery duration, we can move onto the multiplier.
The Multiplier Effect
Ok, so here’s a bit of mathematics to get into the real crux of why you’re here.
For every hour of delivery time, add a multiple to cover the time you’ll be spending in the other three phases. Here are the multiples for each flavor:
These multipliers can decrease for an experienced workshop creator, but as you’ll see below there are additional factors that can crank up the multiple too.
Either way, the multiplier matters.
Abraham Lincoln was definitely wise to this:
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”
Although maybe he wasn’t enough of a time pessimist (just the 2x multiplier for his lumberjacking)…
Whether your workshop is on lumberjacking, safecracking, or vacation packing, you need to get your multiple.
Let’s take a pause to see where we’re at. You should now have your workshop flavor, your delivery time, and a multiplier.
Sweet. Let’s look at some of those extra factors I mentioned.
Fun Factors, Fear Factors
The steps we’ve followed so far all look straightforward: one flavor, two numbers.
Alas, life isn’t always as as easy as we’d like. There are a few other things we want to bear in mind before running the numbers. Luckily, we can do a decent job of quantifying these to help us plan effectively.
Here are some of those additional factors, and we can add a multiplier to these too. To keep it simple, just apply the multiplier to the delivery duration, irrespective of the flavor.
- There’s a client stakeholder: +0.5x to +1x
- Attendees have significantly varied levels of expertise: +1x
- Your workshop experience level: -0.5x to -1x
- Brand new material: +0.5x to +1x
- Material you’re already very comfortable with: -0.5x to -1x
- Need for road-testing: +0.5x
- A significant change in audience size from one version to another: +1x
Here are a couple of examples:
Example 1: A 3-hour workshop (any flavor)
- There’s a very tricky client stakeholder: that’s a +1x multiplier
- Duration (3 hours) x Multiplier (1) = 3
- Add an extra 3 hours to your design and development
Example 2: A 6-hour workshop (any flavor)
- There’s with some brand new material: a +0.5x multiplier
- There’s a complex activity needing road-testing: another +0.5x multiplier
- The audience has a wide variety of expertise: 1x multiplier
- Duration (6 hours) x the Multiplying factors (2: 0.5, 0.5, and 1) = 12:
- Add an extra 12 hours to your design and development
Note: Your mileage will vary, but I’ve found these additional multipliers a good rule of thumb for contingency planning.
Alright, that was a bit of mathematics!
Let’s take a look at a real-world example to bring all this together.
All aboard the Express
As the pandemic kicked in I began running a very fast-paced and interactive 90-minute Educational workshop called Workshop Creator Express (it’s now a 2.5 hour session for teams which has been very popular with all kinds of groups).
As it’s an Educational flavor workshop, the multiplier is 8x.
1.5 hours x 8 = 12 hours
The material wasn’t all brand new, which pulled it down by 0.5x; let’s say 1 hour.
And I’ve racked a good couple of hundred workshops by now, but only a dozen or so online, so my experience level dropped it by another 0.5x – again let’s call it an hour to keep the numbers each.
12 minus 1 minus 1 = 10 hours.
However, this workshop was an unknown quantity (open sessions for any audience who wanted to show up): 1x
It was also the first time I’d done this one online: 0.5x
I also didn’t road test it in advance (bad dog): Let’s say 0.5x for that omission
That’s 2x for that little lot. 3 hours.
10 hours + 3 hours = 13 hours
Yup, that was pretty much how long the first one took before delivery.
So this sounds like a lot, right? 13 hours work for a 1.5 hour online workshop?!
Maybe. But just like developing any product, the value comes later – once that big load of thrashing and chopping and cutting is done.
Let’s see how it looks once we iterate. But before that, why not have a snack, a cup of tea, or take a few breaths?
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Part 3: Iterations
Ok, you did it! Nice one!
You’ve crossed the chasm and delivered your workshop. Enjoy that feeling of creating and delivering something that’s engaging and valuable for people. You won’t get sick of it, I promise.
However, just like most early-stage products, you probably won’t have completely nailed it the first time (and if you think you have, it’s more likely you haven’t).
All being well, you’re probably somewhere between the skateboard and the scooter in the product development sketch above: agile, DIY, a bit rough around the edges, but getting attention from those who know what’s hot.
Of course, you can’t be a skater forever (sorry), and eventually you’ll be evolving your workshop into a lean mean solar-powered racing machine – with tinted windows.
To start taking those next steps you’ll want to make some adjustments and iterate your workshop.
The degree of iteration can vary wildly depending on how your first version came out, but if you’ve taken on the Workshop Creator mindsets and principles (and hopefully dived into some of my other guides on workshops), you may be pleasantly surprised at how little there is to change.
After the first of those 90-minute sessions I mentioned in the example above, I had a laundry list of changes to make. These were things I’d scribbled down during and after the session, and also some feedback from my collaborator Josh who was facilitating breakout rooms and also observing the main room session which I led.
At first glance it looked like a ton of stuff to change, but using the tools in this guide and the workshop creation process I try to abide by (!), I was surprised how I was able to move quickly from speedy but wobbly skateboard to sleek racing bike.
Pro Tip: Having a friend/associate join a session (especially your first) is always, always worth it.
As you may have guessed, to calculate our iterations we’re going to use the multiplier once again, along with a couple of other handy tools.
The first one of those tools is to rate the success of your session. This is where having a friend observing is really helpful.
Your first iteration
Step 1: Add a Success Rating
How did the workshop go? To help with this, think about what you need to add, change, or remove. Then, apply a number.
Use a scale of 0-1, but flip reverse it:
- 0: aced it! (increase yourself to a 0.1 if you think this)
- 0.5 a few things didn’t work quite as planned, but overly pretty smooth
- 1: all over the place, horrible, let’s never speak of this again
For this first example, let’s say it didn’t go too well: 0.7
Step 2: Divide by 2
Because you’re iterating, you can reduce the multiplier effect. The easiest way to do this is just divide by 2.
- Multiply your workshop duration by the flavor multiplier (e.g. 4-hour Strategy workshop is 4 x 5 = 20)
- Divide the total by 2 (20 / 2 = 10)
Step 3: Iteration Time
Multiply the results from Step 1 and Step 2
E.g. 0.7 (success rating) x 10 (hours from step 2) = 7 hours
This formula usually comes out a little conservative (especially for longer sessions), but it’s all good. Remember; time pessimists.
Let’s look at my Workshop Creator Express session once more. That was a 1.5-hour Educational session.
- Step 1: It went pretty well. I’m giving the success rating a 0.4
- Step 2: 1.5 x 8 = 12. Divide by 2 = 6
- Step 3: 0.4 x 6 = 2.4 hours
Now, I did a little more fiddling with making slides look nice, so probably came in nearer to 5 hours, but 2.5 hours of iterations covered pretty much all of the snag list from the first version.
In case you’re not keeping count (and I don’t blame you), that’s 13 hours for v1, 5 hours for v2. 18 hours in total.
Iteration Station – versions 3 and 4
For the second and third iterations (i.e. creating version 3 or 4), there’s one change to make to the formula.
This time, in Step 2 divide by 4 instead of 2.
Why? Typically, the amount of work to move from version 2 to version 3 is pretty low. It’s more fine tuning than full engine repair.
Let’s go back to my Workshop Creator Express session. As reminder, it’s an Educational workshop, 1.5 hours delivery time.
Step 1: Success Level
Version 2 went well but I garbled my intro and there was some confusion on the worksheet I shared (yes, both of these happened right at the start – not a good look!). The success level was 0.3. Solid, but some tweaks.
Step 2: Divide by 4
- First, multiply the delivery duration by the flavor multiplier.The delivery time was 1.5 hours. The multiplier is 8x as it’s an Educational workshop. 1.5 x 8 = 12
- Divide by 4. 12 divided by 4 = 3
Step 3: Multiply the results
Multiply the results from Step 1 and Step 2.
0.3 x 3 = 0.9 hours
For this one, I did some clean up on the worksheets for the groups, created a short Bit.ly link, and changed my intro bit. Yup, an hour or so.
You may be thinking this formula will go down to almost zero, especially for short sessions. It may well do. Not much point in doing maths to figure out you need to do 20 minutes of updates.
However, remember that workshops are open format, exploratory, and scalable. And things can change.
A couple of weeks after iteration 6 of the Express session, I found myself booked to run another session for over 150 people – more than three times the highest number I’d had previously.
The changes that kick in at different group sizes (especially online) is a topic for another post, but the success level for that session inevitably dropped a bit. This wasn’t helped by me getting a little complacent about the shift in environment and added logistical complexity.
The main realisation I had was a workshop for a group of that size becomes a different session: in effect, a new product.
I now had a product that could serve groups up to 200 without too much trouble. I could also see a path to a variety of durations, meaning more flexibility to cover different audiences and scenarios.
The downside was additional iteration work. Was it going to be worth it?
For this new product, I went back to the version 1 iteration (dividing by 2 rather than 4):
Step 1: Success Level
This one needed significant changes. It went well overall but felt very fast, and running breakouts with 170 people (some of whom didn’t want to fully engage) was a much bigger facilitation challenge than I anticipated. I also needed to think about how best to manage my energy, as I was exhausted from running it. This one needed work. 0.8 for success level.
Step 2: Divide by 2
- Once again, first multiply the delivery duration by the flavor multiplier. The delivery time was 1.5 hours. The multiplier is 8x as it’s an Educational workshop. 1.5 x 8 = 12
- Divide by 2. 12 divided by 2 = 6
Step 3: Multiply the results
Multiply the results from Step 1 and Step 2.
- 0.8 x 6 = 4.8 hours
The 5 hours I invested here split roughly 50/50 between content and structure updates and prototyping some different delivery methods. The results of the latter led to the first version of what would become a new 2.5-hour session for company teams. 5 hours very well spent.
Scores on the doors
Alright, we’re nearly at the end of part 3!
Here’s the time investment for the first 6 iterations of the Express workshop, plus that sub-session:
= 27 hours of design and development
- 1.5-hour express session for up to 100 people (run 7 times)
- 1.5-hour express session for up to 200 people (ready for the first run)
- 2.5-hour express session (ready for prototyping)
And I’d reached over 500 people along the way – live and direct, for a full 90 minutes every time.
There’s one more area to cover in this guide.
We’ve looked at the fine-tuning; now it’s time to have a look at what a full restoration job may look like.
Part 4: Rebuilds
Depending on the flavor and lifecycle of your workshop, at some stage you may want to do a rebuild.
Rebuilds are most typically precipitated by a shift in trends, clients, or culture. For example, the explosive growth of TikTok could necessitate a rebuild of your social media workshop; a change in government immigration policy probably leads to a rebuild of a workshop for international students settling into US universities.
The other factor that triggers a rebuild is simply old age. Your session will just start to creak after a bit and benefit from a refresh (likely accelerated by the factors mentioned above). As you get better as a workshop creator, you’ll also learn better ways to design, develop and deliver.
For shorter sessions you’ll probably be looking at rebuilding no earlier than version 8-10 (if at all), but for bigger programs it’s more likely you’ll be rebuilding at version 5.
Rebuilds don’t usually take as long as building from scratch, but are definitely more work than just an iteration (although sometimes they can be worse than building from scratch…that’s a discussion for another time).
For a rebuild, the maths is a little simpler than before.
There are two changes to make.
First, ignore the success metric from the previous calculations.
Second, take the multiplier and divide by 1.5 instead of 2.
Here’s a rebuild of a one day (6 hour) strategy session
- 6-hour Strategist workshop
- Multiply by flavor (5x)
- Divide the total by 1.5
6 x 5 = 30
30 / 1.5 = 20 hours for the rebuild
Again, this is conversative – about 2.5 days work. Most strategy workshop creators I know would probably need a little less than that, but then again they do love to strategise… 🙂
A note on flavors: Rebuilds tend to be more common for Educational flavor workshops, especially those that are longer-form and resemble more traditional curriculums. For Educational sessions, content can go out of date more quickly, and there are many concepts and ideas that can be added in (very much a double-edged sword!). The chance of overruns here is high. Suffice to say, plan and price accordingly.
By now, of course, you know: be the time pessimist – especially when rebuilding.
Ok! There was a lot in here. What have we covered?
- First, workshops can provide both connection and leverage. There’s a tension here of course, especially when it comes to keeping a handle on time.
- Next, we looked at the similarities between workshop creators and movie producers – especially when it comes to being a time pessimist
- Before getting into mathematics, pick the flavor of workshop, and take on the 4 workshop creation mindsets.
- Decide on your delivery time, then apply the multiplier. There are always going to be additional factors that can cause overruns, but some simple maths can help us here, too.
- When iterating your workshop, layer in your estimate of success to plan ahead. Sometimes an iteration will become a sub-session, or even a brand new product. This is where a whole load of extra magic can be conjured up.
- Finally, rebuilds happen – especially on larger projects. Once more, there’s a formula to help here.
While your mileage will inevitably vary (workshops are human-first!), the tools in this guide can be used to help estimate and manage the time and energy you need to build, iterate, and rebuild a workshop of any size, flavor, or scope.
And once you know the time, the magic can appear…
Thirsty for more? Check out more guides, resources, worksheets, and courses at Wavetable
Thanks to Tom Critchlow and Josh Upton for giving feedback on drafts of this post.