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The secrets of perfect creative workshop facilitation with John Monks

John Monks from Curve talks to Tom about how to run the best creative workshops and the main pitfalls to avoid. Along the way we discuss:

  • How to manage troublemakers
  • Ways to encourage collaboration with teams
  • Why PowerPoint is just the worst

Use the discount code LIGHTHOUSE2020 for 20% off any Curve workshops ๐Ÿ’ธ

Download the workshop planning canvas ๐Ÿ“œ

Check out more from Curve at curve.cc ๐Ÿ‘€

Transcript

Tom:

Hey everybody, welcome back to the podcast, Tom here. I am joined today by John Monks from Curve. Curve specialise in creative leadership workshops. Great to have you here. Thanks for joining us. Always good to start with a bit of background about you. So, why don’t you tell our listeners a little about you and Curve?

John:

I am a facilitator. I’ve come to call myself that in the last few years because I realised that it’s the thing that I love to do most, is to get people working together in workshops. And what that has meant through my whole life, sometimes as a consultant, sometimes working in digital marketing, is literally bringing together groups of people and helping them to come up with new ideas or solve real problems. That’s what I do. Curve, you mentioned is a creative leadership company, so we see that as being the skills that people, all people, need to do just that, solve old problems and come up with great new ideas. So, our medium is workshops and I’m one of three partners in Curve.

Tom:

And I think, when we spoke recently, you told me that a lot of people do workshops and not many do them well, is that right?

John:

That’s true. And I think, it’s one of the things I … Part of the reason I love it is that I really believe that, although there are some people who are absolutely incredible facilitators, it’s one of those things that people can learn.

Tom:

Absolutely.

John:

And actually everybody can be very good at it and some of it just requires a bit of help, some training, a little bit of confidence building.

Tom:

Yeah. What are the things you see from people that they often most get wrong?

John:

Well, I think, the biggest one is PowerPoint, to be honest.

Tom:

Right, okay.

John:

If there was one thing that I would gift to the world, if I had the power to do so, would be to rid it of PowerPoint.

Tom:

Wow.

John:

I’m really interested to see how many people can come up with great reasons to keep it.

Tom:

I’m behind you on that. Yeah. Definitely.

John:

And so many people are, but I use that jokingly, but the reality is that I often say, “That if you’re using PowerPoint, it’s not a workshop.” So, PowerPoint actually does have its place. It’s a really great tool for presentation.

Tom:

Absolutely.

John:

And presentation may be useful in terms of getting information into a workshop, but as soon as you want to actually collaborate with people and you want to really start to co-create, then that slideware starts to get in the way. And it’s interesting actually, why I think people often will do it, is partly because they do need to present information, but actually often it’s because they’re slightly nervous and they feel like their slides give them a little bit of security or they’re worried about, and I’m sure we’ll talk about this, difficult participants and they feel like having a screen up-

Tom:

A barrier.

John:

Exactly. Quite a literal barrier.

Tom:

Well, I suppose, it’s a hard thing to do. I mean, over the years, we’ve done quite a lot of pitches and presentations and workshops, and you get used to after a while, but that first time doing it, it’s quite a stressful thing, right? That isn’t something that comes to a lot of people naturally.

John:

No. Absolutely. And I think it’s one of the paradoxes, I think, that the industry that invented the workshops, so if you think of Mad Men, the people sitting around in their ’50s outfits around the whiteboard, brainstorming about beans names. That was the genesis of the idea of workshops now. And we work with a lot of advertising and marketing agencies and very, very few of them train. So, they don’t give their people the skills. So, typically what we see is people will get, often there’ll be strategists or there’ll be client services people, or they’ll be consultants, and the introduction they get is, “Look at Tom. Tom is brilliant. Do what Tom does.” And you have these new people who are like, “I don’t know what I’m looking at. I don’t really know what I’m supposed to be copying.”

Tom:

So, yeah. You mentioned the kind of people you work with, but who else do you do workshops with? What’s the scale of companies that you work with?

John:

So, Curve basically has two categories of workshops, so our format is always workshops. We’ve got one category, which I like to think of as mass market, they’re broad skills that everyone should be able to benefit from. So, while our flagship product is actually called the Workshop Workshop, it is a master class in how to design and deliver great workshops.

Tom:

Cool.

John:

And we’ve got another one in collaboration. We have ones on how to bring in diverse voices. We have one on how to include what we call the children of the 21st century or millennial voices. So ,we’ve got a number of these workshops that are broad, and for them, we often will go into any company, as I said, lots of marketing companies, lots of big brands. And then, we also do quite more tailored workshops, which we describe under the banner of welcome to the A-Team, because it’s often with a view to creating a team that can work really well together, that can build some new creative leadership skills.

John:

So, for those, we’ve got some clients that are very large corporate, so Coca-Cola, or the United Nations or HSBC, I’ve got a number of those kinds of clients. And then, we have also a number of startups, normally ones that have got 50 to 100 people, so they’re quite significant. They know that they really want to go on a journey. They’ve got the time and the resource to put into a journey.

Tom:

So, yeah. Why don’t you talk to us about creative leadership itself? What does that mean to you? How do you describe that?

John:

Yeah. We hear a lot, don’t we nowadays, about how the future is going to be all of the mundane tasks taken away and automated by AI? Whatever, we have to hope that as technology advances, some of the stuff that is more mundane gets taken away and what that leaves for human beings to do, I think, is come up with great new ideas. So, there’ve been a number of really good reports by the WEF into what the skills for the future are. And there are things like creative problem solving, critical thinking, idea generation, working in teams. And for me, it’s all of those things are creative leadership, the ability to do all of those things. And so, for us, it’s a mixture of collaboration, meaning between people, between individuals and between organisations, and facilitation, meaning when you get a group of people in a room, how do you get the best out of them for the time that you’re there?

Tom:

And so, you’re leaving them with frameworks to use that they can repeat again and again, to use of their teams internally?

John:

Exactly. Typically, people come to us saying, “They want two things. They want new skills, new tools, and they want confidence and a feeling of ability.” So, we will tend to design all of our workshops to do both. So, they’ll work on you as an individual and your confidence and competence, but they’ll also give you some tools to take away. And we’re a big believer in canvases, so we tend to reuse canvases, so that people, once they’ve been on one of our workshops, will have something they can take away and use, ideally, the very next day.
Russ:
Hey, this is Russ. Recently, we’ve been helping our clients overcome huge complex problems using Design Sprints. It’s a really interesting tool for us to get in a room with a client, share this big workspace and come up with lots of ideas and solutions for big problems. If that sounds like something that you could be interested in, head over to wearelighthouse.com for more.

Tom:

So, there were two aspects of leadership that you wanted to talk about. Collaboration and facilitation. Do you want to cover collaboration first?

John:

Yeah, that would be a good order to do it in. Just to say, before we dive in, we’ve thought a lot about what Curve brings to the world, and we’ve got this idea that most people have the ability to solve their own problems, and most teams do, and most organisations, the answers lie within.

Tom:

Absolutely. Yeah.

John:

And so, we’ve got this brand essence, to use a bit of a brand language, of we are enough. So, we mean, we as individuals, we’re enough, as teams, we’re enough, as organisations, we’re enough to solve these scary problems that we hear about in the world. So, we think about all these creative leadership skills as, how do we get people to reach the potential that they really already have within them? One of the things that we thought was very interesting was about literally how do people collaborate? And it’s one of those words that gets used an awful lot, and then when you scratch beneath the surface, nobody quite knows what you mean. I go into so many corporate offices and they’ll say, “We have a value of collaboration.”

Tom:

Yeah. It’s all over the walls, isn’t it?

John:

Exactly. And then, you think, “So, what does that mean? Because I walk into your office and I see you all with headphones on, looking at your screens.”

Tom:

Yeah. Working separately. Yeah, yeah.

John:

So, we were very fascinated by it and observed that it was a little hit and miss as to whether collaboration worked and whether it didn’t. So, back in 2015, so quite a while back now we did some research with Cambridge University and UCL and the Marketing Agencies Association, the MAA, into what made for good collaboration. And it was particularly in the context of agencies and clients, so it was between the service provider and a client. And the findings were really interesting, so what we found was collaboration isn’t just one thing, which is probably why it gets misunderstood. So, we discovered was that there were different forms of collaboration depending on what you wanted the output to be.

John:

So, the first one was collaborating to create, so you wanted to come up with a new idea. So, maybe in your world, like the concept for a new product. What was the collaboration required for that? The second type was what we’re calling collaborates control, so it was where quality was the most important output. We know what we want, how do we ensure that every single one is perfect? So, I love this idea of design outputs where the quality of your product is utmost importance. And then, the third one, we call collaborate to compete, where it’s, how can you ship the most product as quickly and cheaply, as you can? So, think of, in my head I’ve got software developments, sweatshops or widget makers. And all of those three, they all require different forms of collaborations.

Tom:

Completely different. I mean, the first one speaks loads to us, and in fact, I completely agree with what you’re saying. We push that message to people a lot. So, much of the time people are hiring a design team to come up with ideas and tell them what they should be doing, but actually they have the information in their team that can do this.

John:

Exactly.

Tom:

But they assume that some external agency, third party, whoever they’re hiring is going to do this for them, but actually you have that and it’s about bringing that out from within your team and getting them excited to give them the tools they already have, but haven’t surfaced to be able to bring these ideas to the front and actually push stuff through.

John:

Yeah, absolutely. And I think, in your world and many other people’s worlds, the reality is that the clients know their business best.

Tom:

Of course, yeah.

John:

And they will often have a lot of what they need. There might be some specialist skills that you have, that you absolutely need to bring.

Tom:

Oh for sure, yeah.

John:

And quite apart from the skills part, they love it. People love to get involved in creating their own things. It’s a really exciting experience.

Tom:

Oh, totally. And it’s really good fun, isn’t it? I mean, a UX agency, or whoever it might be, brings a certain level of skills that we’ve developed over the years, but I mean, aside from being able to use Sketch or Photoshop or whatever it is, they’re the kind of things that are just normal skills, like talking to people, and being in the room, and coaxing information out of your interviewees. So, yeah, I think, that chance to collaborate properly with teams and take them on a journey, introduce new skills to them, that you know will get reused again, and again, it’s quite rewarding from both sides.

John:

Exactly. And that’s really why with, the workshop we have for that is called Building Brilliant Collaborations. And it’s all about, first of all, getting people to understand the three different types of collaboration, then helping them to say, “Well, knowing what you know …” And most organisations will need each of those at different points, maybe they need them all in different departments. There’s all kinds of interesting things, like they need different kinds of space. Actually, some people love one kind and not another. So, there’s a personal preference. Some people love pacey work, other people really like free thinking blue skies and actually it’s not that any of them is right.

Tom:

Yeah. Of course.

John:

It’s just, you need to know what you’re trying to achieve and-

Tom:

Yeah, everyone’s different as well.

John:

… therefore what … Exactly, exactly. That’s a really interesting one to get into. Just helping people to understand and make use of the knowledge about collaboration.

Tom:

And so, onto facilitation, what’s involved there?

John:

You mentioned earlier about the fact that many people just don’t know quite exactly what they’re supposed to be doing with facilitation, and I think that’s really often the case. And I just thought that it’s a real paradox that it’s such a critical skill and it’s really, really rarely trained. It’s extraordinary. I Googled to look for our competitors for the Workshop Workshop and actually there really aren’t many out there, which is good for now.

Tom:

Okay. Yeah, you’re doing well.

John:

So, for that, to loop back to where you started, on the, “What makes for a bad workshop?” Often it is that people don’t understand what a workshop is and what it’s good for. We help people to say, “Well, actually, what is a meeting? What makes for a good meeting? What’s a presentation and what makes for a good presentation?” And then, “What is a workshop? What makes for a good workshop?” So, we measure our success in terms of number of aha moments, and that’s often the first aha.

Tom:

That does make sense. I guess, if no one’s ever been to a good workshop in the past, they’re replicating what could be a lifetime of boring presentations that they’ve seen. And that might be what they think is the thing you’ll want to be doing.

John:

Exactly. First of all, just help people to understand what one is, and then we spend another chunk of time thinking about, “Well, what about the people?” So, there’s two groups of people in there, first of all, there’s a facilitator. So, you, as the leader, what do you need? One of the things I think is really interesting on this is people often then say, “Well, do you need to be introverted or extroverted? Does that matter?” My personal view is it doesn’t, it changes how you need to behave. It changes how you need to … If you are very introverted, then that’s going to be really tiring experience, so you need to build in breaks. And if you are very extroverted, then it probably means you’re not as good at paying attention to people’s moment by moment emotions.

John:

So, actually, there’s a place for both, there’s a place for the real empathy sensor, and there’s a place for the big stage, big personality. And then, we think about the participants, so often people are very anxious about what they will often call bad participants. We call them challenging, and the reason we do that is because we think that anything that’s going on in the workshop isn’t bad, we don’t put a value on it. It’s just a behaviour, it’s telling you something, we like to think of the most unmet needs. So, you see somebody who’s talking all the time or challenging everything or falling asleep, and then it’s, “Well, actually, what does that person need?” Falling asleep is a great one. People often bring that up as though it’s a bad behaviour, and I’m like, “Well, have you ever tried to fall asleep spitefully? It’s actually impossible.”

Tom:

That’s not possible. Yeah. I mean, if someone’s falling asleep, I take it that they’re pretty tired.

John:

Exactly.

Tom:

I mean, you can’t do much about that, right?

John:

And then when you say, “Do you want a break?” You can take them for a walk, fresh air can help.

Tom:

How do you deal with someone who’s just being difficult? For example.

John:

We’d have to work out exactly what the behaviour is. So, the things that I think are the overarching interventions or things you can do, with any kind of challenging behaviour, are, first of all, you can shift what we call the format. So, for example, often the really, the most challenging behaviours happen in a full group discussion. So, you’ve got one, and it’s often a guy, just to put it out there, it’s often one guy who’s dominating, maybe being obnoxious, maybe taking the mickey out of people. When that’s in a full group situation, it’s upsetting the workshop for everybody.

Tom:

Of course.

John:

We like to think of the role of the facilitator as ensuring that you get the outcome you need. So, the first one, changing that format could be literally shifting it into, “Well, I’m now going to ask you to do the same activity in pairs.” You can then only dominate the pair. But also people tend not to, because it does feel very rude to do that with just one person. So, that’s one thing you can do. We have a change the activity. So, we would often say, when we’re designing a workshop, “If we’ve got one big piece of work, what would our plan B be?” So, if, for example, you were trying to come up with a set of user requirements and you had a exercise, where you maybe were doing a persona, looking at user needs, but that really wasn’t working, you could maybe shift it to doing some web-based research or doing some interviews or having a second tack.

Tom:

Okay. Yeah, changing tack a bit and seeing if that changes it. Yeah. Okay.

John:

And then, the third one, which for us … Because in Curve, we’re very much, we like to think of ourselves as gentle in our approach. We would intervene, personally, and what that normally means is you call a break because nobody complains about an extra break-

Tom:

For sure.

John:

… and then you’d go and speak to the person-

Tom:

Yeah. And say, “Hang on a minute.”

John:

I think the language is quite interesting because if you say, “I noticed that …” Say what you noticed and then say, “Well, what do you need for this to work?” Actually, it turns it around into inviting them in.

Tom:

Yeah. Rather than saying … Confronting it with conflict. You want to understand why they’re behaving like that because there’ll be a good reason for it.

John:

Exactly.

Tom:

They might then open up and you can deal with that, right?

John:

Exactly. We also like to think about designing the workshops as designing experiences. So, I know that in your world, you’ll be very familiar with this, and it’s funny that it’s language that permeates all kinds of different industries. So, if you think about shopping experiences and hotel experiences and holiday experiences, and then you think about the workshop and often what people will do is that they open up their spreadsheet and they start to just put activities against times. And they’re not really thinking, “Well, how do we want the people to feel? What would you want the output to be?” So, we have a workshop planning canvas, it’s on our website for a download.

Tom:

Nice.

John:

I’ll send you the link, to put with the others.

Tom:

We’ll definitely have the link. Yeah, that sounds great.

John:

And it starts with, what are the participants thinking, feeling and doing as they enter? So, you can start to think, “Well, if that’s how they feel entering, now how do I design my workshop?” Very much responding to their state and being a lot more tailored. And I think that what makes for great facilitators is ones who are thinking about where their participants are coming from and how they can shape an experience over whatever your duration might be, it’s often a half a day or a day, that will both give a great experience and give you the output. Because almost always, in workshops we say that there are normally two critical outputs. One is, you build something, you create something new, and the other one is, you enable change. You create enthusiasm and motivation, and it’s never one or the other, it’s always both. You might have a different balance between the two, but whatever you’re doing, you want people to leave the workshop and feel, “That’s amazing. I’m really excited to take my prototype and make it real.” Or whatever your next step is.

Tom:

Yeah. It’s cool to walk out and be like, “That was really good. Everyone really got that and they’re all super excited by this now.” So, yeah. You mentioned the planning canvas that we’ll have in the show notes. Is there also a discount code you were going to give people?

John:

Yeah. I’d love to. So, as I mentioned, we run open workshops. So, most of our workshops are for clients, so they’re in-house, but at least every month we’re running an open one. So, they’re just up there on a link and people pay to come along.

Tom:

Awesome.

John:

So, I’ll create a 20% discount code for your listeners. I’ll put it in the show notes.

Tom:

That’s brilliant. So, that’s, check the website wearelighthouse.com and you can find that. Where can they find more information about you online?

John:

So, you can follow us. It’s Curvecc on Twitter. It is Curve Creative on LinkedIn, and we are www.curve.cc.

Tom:

Nice one. Well, I suggest you all go and check John and the team out and thanks very much for coming in and talking through everything today.

John:

Thanks, Tom. It’s a pleasure.

Tom:

Nice one. Thanks for listening, if you want more product leadership content, then head over to the lighthouse site, wearelighthouse.com for more podcasts and blogs. To find out more about our product leadership framework, check out wearelighthouse.com/plf. Find us on Twitter using @wearelighthouse. And if you’ve enjoyed the show, then we’d love a rating in iTunes to help spread the word. Don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, to see the archive and get any future shows. Until next time, we’ll see you then.