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Reinventing the workshop

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This post was originally published on Amanda Harding and Terry Clayton's personal blogs.

Imagine a workshop where people come together for five days with the stated aim of producing a range of specific documents designed to carry forward a body of work ten years in the making. No PowerPoint sessions. No orchestrated exercises involving small group discussions and report-backs. No scheduled coffee breaks. The walls remain bare of flip charts and not a single post-it note is evident.

reinventing workshop

By noon on the final day we have produced:

  1. A full draft proposal for a global initiative on the role of hydropower in the water-energy-food nexus
  2. An analysis of learning systems efficiency across the CGIAR ChallengeProgram on Water and Food (CPWF) basins
  3. A set of guidelines for Integrating engagement, knowledge management and ‘communications’ into project pathways
  4. A web-based resource that allows access to 50 fellowship recipients now working in organizations throughout Africa
  5. An evidence-based ‘profile of innovators’ that will help projects identify and connect with innovators at the community level
  6. A critical comparison of Research for Development (R4D) experience across three African basins
  7. A policy brief on water and food security
  8. A guide to partnerships and engagement
  9. A series of ‘desksider’ briefing notes that can be tailored for specific presentations and donor meetings

Each item has a clearly delineated plan of action with a timeline detailing how its named champions will bring them to the attention of specific individuals and groups who will use them.

How is this possible? How did this work?

The essential ingredients:

We suggest there are a number of essential ingredients in this currently unorthodox format.

Stop calling it a workshop and start calling it what it is

We called our meeting, “Capitalizing on insights, results, networks and opportunities, outputs and their dissemination.” A bit cumbersome, but accurate. We suggest simply not using the word ‘workshop’ or its more recently coined cousin, the ‘writeshop’. Why? Because  ‘workshop’ has become a meme.

A meme is an idea that replicates itself from one brain to another, like one of those tunes you can’t get out of your head. As soon as you say the word “workshop”, the planners start contriving an agenda. Walk into any hotel seminar room anywhere in the world any day of the week and you will see pretty much the same thing. People who arrived expecting nothing more than what was handed to them in a tightly scripted agenda prepared by people they have never met, being marched through a schedule that generates lots of lists and points, listening to people talk about things that interest some but seldom everyone, doing their email, working on their office reports, enjoying the local cuisine, and squeezing in a little sightseeing and some shopping. They leave with a few scraps of new information, a few new contacts, assurances all around that it was a worthwhile experience, and fly home. In this increasingly wired and connected world - no longer good enough.

Start with a clear concept

Calling a meeting what it is helps clarify the concept. Our concept was “a meeting of minds to capitalize on insights, results, networks and opportunities arising from the ten years of work done by the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF)”. The concept was framed this way:

CPWF projects are now completed and basin and programme messages established, making reflection possible on the wide diversity of research-for-development (R4D) results. Whilst the CPWF network/community is still intact, there is one last opportunity to connect cross-basin reflection to concrete outputs and opportunities and to identify those elements on which the CGIAR Water Land and Ecosystems program (WLE) and other past and future partners could profitably build. The meeting brings together in-depth knowledge and experience of CPWF basin leaders and external participants to facilitate insightful reflection, targeted outputs, committed follow-up plans and defined opportunities to ensure outputs are effectively communicated and taken up.

Pretty specific right? How can we continue to justify spending tens of thousands of dollars bringing people to meetings and NOT be this specific?

The right mix of people

We worked hard to collectively identify who would come to our gathering, ensuring they complimented each other, brought both 'insider' and 'outsider' insights, global reach, were ‘inter-generational’ and each came with a sense of purpose rather than obligation or for time away from the office, more air miles and per diems. “By invitation” would be a good rule of thumb. Or ask people to ‘apply’ by writing down their reasons for wanting to attend.


In the three weeks prior to the meeting, there was an extensive exchange of emails and Skype chats in which people collectively shaped the work they would do during our time together. We used a modified Delphi technique as outlined in the box below. ‘Modified’ because things got less anonymous as we progressed. People arrived at the venue knowing what they were expected to produce. They had most of the required materials they would need and clear expectations of what was expected of them. Why shouldn’t the people you invite to a training event or program meeting also participate in the planning?

Adaptive management

Our first meeting was 4:30 PM on the first day. We sat in a circle of chairs and individuals and groups outlined the work they wanted to do. Each morning we met at 8 AM, before breakfast, to plan for the day. At 4 PM, we met again to talk about the progress made, to share information, and to ask for input from other members of the group. In between, individuals and groups were left to get on with their work. Sometimes we held impromptu ‘power sessions’ where an individual or group would hold up their work for critical comment. People worked in their own style, at their own pace, uninterrupted as much as possible.

The venue

We chose a secluded venue, in this case, an old wine estate 40 km from the nearest urban center. No restaurants and pubs, no nightlife, no shopping malls. No distractions other than the natural beauty around us. And rather good food that we enjoyed together. Nothing to do but think and write.

Can it work for you?

Some people have said, “Oh, that’s all right for you. You were working with senior people and you knew what you wanted.” Am I wrong in hearing in that statement an implicit assumption that there are meetings where some people attend not knowing what they want?

Walking away from the conventional workshop meme is not that hard. All it takes is a little imagination and a strong desire to do something a bit more creative.

It’s far past time to reimagine the ‘workshop’ format. Given the time, effort and cost that goes into them, we all deserve to get much more in return.