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5 great lessons in workshop facilitation from Wolff Olins Kitchen

by Dan Southern

Ye loves them, or ye avoids them like the plague. In an era of ever more collaborative and open ways of working however, workshops are being used by more organisations to simply ‘get stuff done’.

But how do you run one well? How does one facilitate, without simply presenting content and taking questions? How can you avoid listless ‘blue-sky’ sessions that meander before sinking in a pile of post-its?

At a session run recently by London-based brand consultants Wolff Olins, Contagious was one of 15 attendees learning about the not-so dark arts of facilitation. Along the way, your reporter learnt five important lessons.

1. Facilitation is leadership

Sure, it’s not flag-waving, manifesto-scribing, strategic-strategising leadership, but it is listening. The responsibility for achieving good outcomes can’t simply be parked at the front door of the participants whilst the facilitator keeps an eye on the clock. Like good leaders, facilitators need to assume responsibility for drawing ideas and insights from a team, then synthesising those nuggets in order to solve a problem.

2. Recognise a style that works for you and build on it

Hold on, aren’t all facilitators meant to be all-singing and all-dancing, always with a jazzy trick up their sleeve to catch the helpless participants off-guard? Well, sometimes (perhaps). But other times will require them to create an environment more conducive to candour and openness. Or they’ll need to roll their sleeves up in order to get to the heart of any underlying issues and tensions at play. And in others they’ll need to be more focused on driving the conversation.   

The likelihood is that you’re more comfortable in one of those than the others. Build your skills there and then learn how to adapt your style to the others.

3. Design to meet the objective

If facilitators need different styles depending on context, they certainly need a range of tools and approaches to meet different objectives. At the heart of a workshop will be a question. How do we change our culture? What is our purpose? Can we create new ideas to solve a problem? It can’t be that one method fits all. So good preparation in advance is vital, and good preparation involves good design. What environment would be most conducive? What content will inspire or challenge us? What exercises will help us think differently? Careful planning, however, needs to be complemented by an ability to be adaptable on the day if required.

 4. If you want to travel fast, travel alone.

If you want to travel far, travel together.This wonderful African proverb was brought to the group’s attention, by Wolff Olins' head of new thinking Robert Jones, whilst discussing advanced facilitation skills. It’s a reminder that as great as workshops are for acting as a catalyst, their real power lies in bringing everyone along for the journey. For facilitators, that means no one should be left behind! When challenging views and opinions emerge, it’s vital that they are heard and processed as a group, rather than left unsaid or festering away, only to resurface later down the line.

5. Push!

At the heart of this lesson is honesty. Great facilitation doesn’t focus on the quantity of outcomes or ideas. It examines quality. Workshops provide unique – and often rare – opportunities to bring a team together, so using that time to take people further is vital. That doesn’t mean facilitating by standing up and demanding “Better Ideas!” or “Deeper Insights!”, but identifying the right questions and levers that will encourage people to think a little harder about a problem, to share that and then build with it.


Wolff Olins Kitchen is the brand consultancy’s new learning platform. At each kitchen, members of the Wolff Olins team share their skills and expertise in disciplines such as service design, culture change, and business innovation. To learn more click here and sign up here.

Here is a more detailed overview of the How To Workshop day if you'd like to sign up to a future session.

Thanks to the awesome Wolff Olins team that led the day, Rich Houston, Camilla Grey and Robert Jones, as well as Kitchen Director Melissa Andrada.