Workshop expert Alison Coward’s top tips on collaborative working

The rise of the gig economy over the past decade has led to a need for teams to assemble as quickly and as efficiently as Voltron. Unlike the animated television series, teams consist of humans, where personalities and working practices may not assemble so congruently.

Creative team facilitator and founder of Bracket, Alison Coward understands this dichotomy all too well. In order to help teams work together in a range of industries and environments, Alison recently wrote: A Pocket Guide to Effective Workshops, on how to do so.

Alison brings us up to speed on the difference between convergent and divergent thinking, whilst providing stimulating tips on how to ensure your meeting doesn’t turn into a yawn fest.

Q) Tell us a bit about yourself…

Hello! I’m Alison Coward and the founder of Bracket, an agency that helps creative teams to work better together. I facilitate workshops, deliver training and provide consultancy, and have worked with a range of great clients like Google, Etsy, Barclaycard, British Library and Channel 4.

I’ve also just written a book – A Pocket Guide to Effective Workshops, published by Five Simple Steps which demystifies the process of facilitating collaborative sessions.

Q) What was your pathway into the creative industry?

Before I launched Bracket, I started my career working in organisations that provided business support to creative practitioners. I managed event programmes, organised exhibitions, delivered training and gave advice sessions to help people turn their creativity into successful businesses.

I’ve always been interested in the business side of creativity. My first degree was in Fashion Promotion and Marketing, and then after I’d been working for a few years, I did a Masters in Enterprise Management for the Creative Arts.

Q) What was the impetus behind writing your book: A Pocket guide to Effective Workshops, and who is your target audience?

The book will naturally appeal to people who work in roles like UX, service design and product management, because running workshops is a regular part of what they do. But really this book is for anyone that works with other people to develop and deliver creative ideas – for example in design agencies, marketing, advertising, digital, and any team that wants to innovate.

Knowing how to lead great workshops is a big part of innovation, because collaboration is so essential. When you get people together – your clients, colleagues or freelancers – you need to know how to make the most of their expertise to develop great ideas. You’re not able to do this with a traditional meeting format, so the book is for anyone who wants a better way of running meetings to get better ideas and make them more productive.

Q) Can you give a brief description on the difference between a ‘meeting’ and a ‘workshop’?

In the book I talk about the difference between a ‘typical meeting’ and an ‘effective workshop’. I say ‘typical meetings’, because not all meetings are run badly. But most of the time they’re a time-suck.

In a typical meeting people usually have ‘one right answer’ they want to get across. They’re not really interested in hearing other people’s views, and it’s more of a broadcast. If you have a room of people all thinking like that, you’ve got a very dry couple of hours sit through, and people often tune out altogether.

On the other hand, a great workshop is dynamic and engaging. People genuinely want input from others, which means they’ll run activities that get people involved.

Q) In order to facilitate a productive workshop session, what [top] three things should you consider?

The first one is purpose – being clear on exactly why you’re running the workshop and what you need to get out of it. It’s not always appropriate to run a workshop so make sure it’s the right format for the task at hand.

Secondly, preparation. There’s a lot of work that happens before the workshop even takes place – designing activities, inviting the right people, finding a room and getting materials in. Many people underestimate this, but it’s the most important part.

Finally, consider the project that this workshop is part of. No workshop is a standalone event, it always needs to lead to something. Think about what needs to happen after the workshop so that you cover everything you need to.

(If you want to see my top 10 tips for running effective workshops, you can watch this video)

Q) In the book you touch on ‘divergent and convergent thinking’ in a workshop setting. Can you give us a brief description of the differences? And how best can facilitators keep the task in hand to keep focus on the necessary outcomes?

One of the reasons that brainstorming sessions go badly is that people mix up these two types of thinking. Divergent thinking is where you’re exploring possibilities and thinking broadly. The aim is to come up with lots of ideas. With convergent thinking, you’re narrowing down options. You’re applying criteria to your ideas so that you can choose the best one and make a decision.

They each use a different thought process so if you try to do both at the same time, they interfere with each other. You need to know when a task requires divergent or convergent thinking and design appropriate activities. Clarify this in the workshop – set ‘ground rules’ if you like – so that your participants know which mode of thinking they should be aiming for.

Q) What has been a key learning that you’ve taken from learning the ‘art of collaboration’ and how has it help improve your communication skills / and or productivity?

One of the main things I’ve learned is that collaboration is a skill that you need to practise. Every new project brings a new team, a different set of personalities and new challenges. You can’t expect to know straight off exactly what will make a particular team and project work. The best thing you can do is have a mindset where you’re willing to collaborate and a ‘toolkit’ of techniques and tips that you can call on in different situations.

Saying that, there are two things I’ve found that, if you get right, provide the best environment for your team to succeed. These are communication and trust. Work on these elements and it makes everything else – like generating great ideas, staying on track, keeping to deadline etc – much easier.

Q) How important do you think working collectively through collaboration is for creative industries [practitioners]?

Collaboration has always been important to the creative industries and that will never change. We’re seeing so much now about how the future of work is about independent workers, portfolio careers, temporary teams, networked structures, the gig economy etc. The creative industries have been working like this for years, and one of the reasons it’s grown in the way it has.

But on a basic level, collaborating with others helps creative practitioners to access new opportunities, experience new challenges and work on larger projects – more than they could do on their own.

Q) What do you foresee as the potential trends / culture shifts that will impact our ideas of collaboration in the future?

All of the things I said above, plus…Workplace culture is such a hot topic at the moment, because we’re realising it’s not enough just to hire a bunch of talented people and hope for the best. What has the biggest impact is how those people work together. So being able to collaborate is not just a nice thing to put on your CV, it’s a real need.

I think more companies will begin to take it seriously, and not just brush it off as a buzzword. And from what I’m seeing, more individuals will take it on themselves to learn these skills even when their managers or companies haven’t caught up yet.

Q) What’s next?

Effective workshops is just the start! Many of the skills you need to facilitate great workshops – being curious and asking good questions, listening, dealing with chaos and synthesising content – are the same skills that you need to lead creative teams. I really believe that if you master these skills you can use them on a daily basis to do great work with your colleagues.

So my aim is to help more people see the value of facilitation in creativity and innovation, and develop the ability to do that. My mission is to encourage better collaboration everywhere, one effective workshop at a time!

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