Do facilitated workshops bring about the opposite of what they intend?

Taking Experience Seriously
7 min readMar 13, 2023

Facilitated workshops are a very common feature of organisational life and are sometimes very good examples of the kind of thinking that assumes we need to design a process to have a process. This doubling of process arises from the idea that groups of people called managers or facilitators can control the interactions of other people, thus encouraging them to act in particular and more predictable ways. It’s about optimising people’s time together. Additionally, these designed processes of engaging are often informed by cult values, such as inclusiveness, openness and honesty. The point of designing workshops according to these values is intended to make them highly participative, democratic and transparent. By doubling process, managers and facilitators believe they can achieve particular outcomes which tend towards the good and the innovative. They are designing a culture for the workshop where people can express themselves freely, and have a safe and perhaps fun experience with others and ‘share learning’.

My own experience of a number of facilitated workshops has made me question whether they really are such positive and productive events, and whether they tend rather to suppress opportunities for learning rather than encourage them, the very opposite of what they intend. My concern is that they help reinforce the old order, rather than encouraging novelty. I am also sceptical about the degree to which one can agree and plan to have fun. I am concerned about how the focus on ‘fun’ can tend towards collusiveness and an avoidance of the exploration of difference and power relationships, and in particular the power of the facilitators and the guiding principles of the workshops themselves. To call the design of the workshop into question can appear as though one is against the cult of participation and transparency.

One workshop I attended a while back was a particularly egregious example of this. It may be an extreme example, but in exaggerated form it is demonstrates what I am trying to explore. At the beginning of the workshop we spent a long time exhaustively playing games. These games, usually known as ice-breakers, are based on the idea that we all had to know each other’s names and backgrounds before we could begin to talk to one another. We had to repeat the details back to each other to demonstrate that we had in fact mastered them. No one was to be left unrecognised, no one was allowed to stay quiet. It was a familiarisation game, but it was also a way of establishing order and control. In this particular workshop participation played itself out as conformity, one of the characteristics of a cult value. As we played the games one of the facilitators praised us for being an ‘obedient’ group, and of course, as the workshop wore on, it became increasingly difficult to be ‘disobedient’. ‘Disobedience’ could be construed as asking questions when it was not the time to do so, not playing games along with everyone else, or perhaps simply disagreeing with someone else. It might also manifest itself as appearing not to be having fun. One of the things that was happening in the playing of games, then, was the establishment of a particular order, a discipline of meeting in this particular social object.

In situations where conformity is valued, it is not surprising that there is often a big emphasis placed on rules of engagement, which we have to agree before we can start. Often this will involve agreeing to be ‘constructive’, ‘open’ and ‘honest’ with each other, as though we could know in advance of acting what would turn out to have been constructive. I wonder to what extent it is possible to be fully open and honest, particularly in such an intense social gathering, and whether the injunction to be ‘constructive’ can impose a kind of self-silencing on the participants.

Moreover, it is interesting the way in which the role of the facilitator encourages dependency from the group and infantilises them. We are unable to proceed until the facilitator tells us it is appropriate to do so, or even to take a break unless the facilitator gives permission, despite the fact that the timetable clearly delineates break times. On one occasion one of the participants who was presenting finished on time but was uncertain whether just to announce the break. She ‘handed over’ to the facilitator, who in turn ‘handed over’ to the allotted time keeper, who agreed that it was indeed time to take a break. We needed two facilitators to tell us it was time for tea. Taking responsibility can feel like an irresponsible act.

However, tight constraints can provoke disobedience in some. As an example, I tried to ask a question during a particularly long and uninformative PowerPoint presentation, but was prevented from doing so by the facilitator, since it wasn’t the right time to ask questions. I persisted, asked my question, and once I had succeeded in asking my question despite the facilitator’s attempt to shut me down, he intervened rapidly to get everyone up on their feet to play another game — we needed another facilitative moment to re-establish order. Despite the appeal to the idea that we were having fun, and were participating ‘democratically’ together, there was little doubt that some forms of participation were more valued than others. Discomfort was to be avoided at all costs.

Additionally, in highly organised workshops there is often a pronounced anxiety about time, about achieving ‘outputs’ and about ‘capturing the learning’. The deliberate techniques to achieve all three can drive out all spontaneity and substitute mechanism for meaningful exchange.

Concerning time, for example, orchestrated activities are often very prolonged. The longer the activities take the greater the anxiety about time becomes, and what usually suffers as a result is the opportunity to discuss what has just been said. Many of the slots which are dedicated to discussion then have to be cut because we have got so behind with the timetable. What becomes most important is sticking to the timetable, rushing on to the end, rather than sometimes diverting to discuss what has arisen, which could be very important.

Small group discussions are often very disruptive of serious engagement, particularly if facilitators encourage techniques such as World Café, where group members are expected to change every ten minutes. No sooner has a discussion begun than it is time to move and disrupt. When small groups have finished their discussion after often short duration then each of the groups will be expected to ‘feed back’ to everyone else what they have been talking about. ‘Feedback’, on grounds of inclusivity, is deliberate and exhaustive, and notes are written about notes in order not to ‘lose’ any insight.

Small groups are often sent away with highly idealised questions, such as ‘what would your ideal organisation look like?’, or ‘how should we organise ourselves in the future so that we can maximise our efficiency and outputs’? Unsurprisingly this generates lists of ‘shoulds’ which are also of a highly idealised kind, which, when aggregated, begin to look as there is a high degree of consensus in the group about what we all ‘should’ be doing. This in turn leads to action planning about how these ‘shoulds’ might be realised, which can often involve changing our ‘culture’ and ourselves. This can of utopian idealising, is both banal, but compelling and uplifting at the same time. Perhaps it is uplifting because it is so abstract and idealised — we are imagining a whole, transformation of the self and of our circumstances, which can never be achieved.

Workshops can tend towards conformity and obedience, organise away opportunities for spontaneity, and provoke the very acts of rebellion that they were designed to render unnecessary. The experience has felt for me more totalitarian than democratic with its endless array of rules, lists and abstractions.

If we were to take the more radical insights from the complexity sciences seriously we might find ourselves less anxious about time and ‘outputs’. There is no way of knowing in advance how to optimise different people with different life histories meeting together: there is no optimal. Indeed, it would be in the exploration of these differences which would be most likely to lead to surprising and perhaps innovative thinking, although there would be certainly no guarantee that this would be a comfortable process. Discovering what is ‘optimal’ for a particular group would probably involve quite a lot of negotiation, rather than blindly sticking to the agenda as pre-planned, and would emerge moment by moment. There could well be a role for the facilitator, but the fulfilling of it would partly be about encouraging others to take responsibility for the way that the workshop is running, the things we might choose to talk about and how we might talk about them. One of the things to talk about would be our fluctuating power relationships and what these constrained and enabled. We might like to hear about what other small groups have been discussing, but we might also chose to let things go and not try to be part of every conversation in reduced form. There would be no necessary injunction to have fun, but this would not necessarily mean that every one would be sitting around po-faced. Any group meeting together would certainly operate according to ‘rules’ but these would be likely to be discovered in the meeting together, rather than setting them all out in advance. Whether the workshop was participatory could only be discovered in the experience of meeting together, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.



Taking Experience Seriously

Chris Mowles is Professor of Complexity and Management at Hertfordshire Business School. He recently published Complexity: a key idea for business and society.