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When Harvard Business Review surveyed 182 senior managers, 71% said meetings are unproductive. When Miro surveyed 2,000 knowledge workers, they said that collaborating closely with colleagues and managers on a project is the number one way to build relationships in the workplace —which vastly increases their likelihood of staying in their current position. 

These two things combine to tell us that we need to do better in our meetings. If we convert them to workshops we can make them more effective, engaging, and truly harness the power of collaboration in our projects. 

I’m Annie MacLeod, a passionate and seasoned project manager and coach who thrives on building collaboration experiences for remote teams and their projects. These experiences cross the entire life cycle of projects from soliciting input from project customers, creating collaborative workshops to resolve problems, getting final decisions made, and improving team culture.

A big part of making meetings and workshops more effective, particularly in the distributed world, is understanding the new roles of facilitator, contributor and designer. When you are meeting, doing workshops, and building collaboration experiences in the distributed world, it takes some planning to make sure these sessions are as effective as possible. 

the three key goals for effective meetings

Key goals to make meetings and workshops effective are:

  • Respect people's time: meetings need to start and end on time and be structured to make them as efficient as possible
  • Solicit input: meetings should not be about broadcasting information—we need to have people engaged to make them feel valued and engaged
  • Leverage the knowledge of the collaborative team: meetings are expensive—everyone that attends should be providing value and to get that value we need to have workshops that take action

Focusing on these goals, utilizing facilitators and designers effectively, and understanding how to best engage your contributors will take your project meetings to a whole new level! 

What Are Key Collaboration Roles?

paying cards with the three key collaboration roles on them - facilitator, contributor, and designer

I’ve found that particularly in digital collaboration there are three new team roles that contribute to making meeting experiences as effective, efficient, and engaging as possible. Collaboration roles have existed for a while, but the ones I outline are new because of the huge move to distributed teams and the need for effective collaboration. 

These roles are: 

  • Designer: the creator of the meeting workspace or workshop experiences
  • Facilitator: those that conduct the actual meeting or workshop
  • Contributor: the folks internally and externally who will be adding expertise and knowledge to the meeting 

So let's take a typical digital project management meeting to illustrate the different roles. Your agency may be having a design meeting with the client to work out key design elements, how they look and feel, what content is required, who has that content, and other details. 

These meetings would often be standard practice for your agency so it would make sense to invest in doing them in a standardized format and having some branded activities within the meeting. These could then be templated to allow multiple people to utilize these assets in client meetings. 

In this case you would have a designer build the whiteboard space or other collaboration tool (like the PM Gameboard!) to ensure it adheres to your brand standards and has the look and feel consistent with your agency's brand voice, fonts, and other design elements. Also, a designer can help make sure the key collaborative activities in the meeting are visually appealing and easy to follow. 

You would have the facilitator work with the designer on the flow of the meeting and have the facilitator conduct the meeting. All of this would be done with the contributors in mind—in this case, your internal and the external client folks who will be in the meeting. It will be important to make sure your meeting board has appropriate activities for your contributor audience. 

I find that if you’re dealing with C-suite types, you want to get down to business quickly, rarely use icebreakers, and stick to the facts. If you're working with peers and collaborators, it's important to add activities such as icebreakers and have a look and feel that is fun and engaging to build those relationships! 

Check out more collaboration best practices here.

Why Are These Roles Important? 

In our digital projects there are all kinds of meetings! At every stage or milestone of a project we have meetings and it's particularly important to ensure that our meetings are as effective as possible so people can get back to delivering value on the project. 

Now that we are conducting so many meetings digitally for remote or hybrid teams, it takes a great deal of forethought to make meetings effective. 

Luckily there are solutions exploding to make these meetings more technically interactive. Zoom has added a whiteboard, Apple has announced a new app, ClickUp has integrated whiteboard features, Miro boards can be added to MS Teams spaces, and everyone is getting the point that meetings need to be a space to interact, not just talking heads floating in digital space. 

What we need to do is move our meetings into workshops. I love this quote to describe it: 

Simply put, meetings are where things get discussed. 
Workshops are where things get done.

comparison table of meetings and workshops
A comparison of meetings and workshops.
Purpose sometimes unclearAction oriented
Most senior person gets the most attentionPurposeful
Loudest person gets the most air timeEveryone participates
Tend to broadcast information - limited interactionEngaging & collaborative
Duration can be a problem, don't start or end on timePlanned duration and flow

In our digital projects, we have numerous meetings that can be converted to workshops whether it's a planning meeting, brainstorming to resolve a problem or design a solution, or retrospectives to reflect on our work. 

I like to tell my clients that there are actually only four reasons to have a meeting: 

  • Solve a problem
  • Make a decision
  • To co-create
  • To build relationships

All of these types of meetings can be converted to workshops, rather than a meeting just for discussion. When we convert meetings to workshops there are key techniques and specific roles that will ensure we get things done: 

GoalTechniqueDesigner RoleFacilitator Role
Respect people’s time AgendaMake activities that are time effective and inclusive to get the resultTechniques to keep the group focused, get clarity, and get results
Solicit InputActivities to solicit information, knowledge, and feedback. For example brainstorming, brainwriting, or collaborative decision makingMake activities that effectively engage meeting participantsFamiliar with techniques to ensure that all workshop participants are actively engaged and have the opportunity to provide input
Leverage team KnowledgeBreakout rooms where small groups solve problems, make recommendations, develop solutions, and present back to the larger groupMake activities that harness the creativity of participants, allowing the group to subdivide and come back to present their workEffectively oversee individuals and groups to ensure that everyone is moving forward and able to complete their assigned task in the allotted time
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5 Techniques To Convert Your Meetings To Workshops 

five techniques on a spinning wheel - agenda, activities, designer, facilitator, contributor

Now let's explore a couple of techniques and the designer and facilitator roles in more detail to understand how they will ensure our meetings and workshops achieve our goals of:

  • Respecting people's time
  • Soliciting input from the team 
  • Leveraging the knowledge of the team

1. Agenda

board game with an agenda card

Meetings without agendas don’t respect people’s time or value their input. At the bare minimum, there must be an intended outcome for the meeting and it must be sent out with the meeting invite—otherwise, people don’t know why they are attending or what is expected of them. 

In the agenda you also want to outline the activities that will be completed to get to the outcome—by going through this when you develop the agenda, you are being thoughtful about people’s time and you are making it apparent how the team will contribute to the outcome.

2. Activities 

hand holding coins that spilled out of a bag with the word activities on it

These are critical to move from a meeting to a workshop—in other words, to go from a discussion to actually getting things done. These activities are based or structured on the type of outcome you are trying to achieve. 

Some key examples are:

  • Brainstorming: for problem-solving, scoping, developing alternatives and retrospectives
  • Ice breakers: to build relationships and to get groups refreshed to tackle your meeting content
  • Providing input or feedback: planning, estimating, alternative development, prioritizing, process mapping, user story development 
  • Synthesizing information: research data reviews, root cause analysis

All of these can be turned into activities where the group can collaborate to complete the activity, which will bring the benefits that go with team collaboration—soliciting different opinions and areas of expertise. 

3. Designer

designer levitating pencils and note cards with their hands

Whenever we are moving our meetings into workshops or utilizing a new suite of collaborative whiteboard tools, there needs to be someone responsible for preparing the digital space for the workshop and activities. 

That person could be our project manager, it could be fulfilled by utilizing templates for the activities that are available over the web or the MiroVerse, or alternatively if the workshop is of sufficient size, complexity, and profile, it may even warrant having a professional designer create the workshop space. 

Designers bring specific skills and methodologies to make your workshop visually appealing, easy to follow, logical, and effective. By working with the facilitator they can enrich your collaboration activities, to make them fun and engaging. 

Considerations on whether to use a professional designer could look like:

Workshop sizeIf it will be greater than 10 to 12 people, size matters. The space needs to be able to get people to their working area seamlessly and have them effectively provide their input efficiently with minimal technology friction. 
ComplexityIf there are multiple activities that will be done in the workshop, multiple groups in break-out rooms, or if there are multiple categories of research or other material and data available to the workshop participants, a designer can organize it so that all the material is readily accessible. 
ProfileIf your workshop is going to involve customers, external experts, or advisors then the experience needs to have a professional look and feel. 

4. Facilitator

cardboard figures of facilitators next to a list of their features

As with the designer role, we’ll want to determine who is going to be the facilitator of the workshop. This is the person who will orchestrate the workshop. They are very much like that of a symphonic conductor—getting the most out of the experience and all the participants! 

Good facilitators have great skills in active listening, timekeeping, asking clarifying questions, are objective and provide a neutral perspective, and can encourage a psychologically safe environment for the workshop participants. 

Also, they have techniques to do interventions. For example: shutting down inappropriate conversations and enforcing meeting norms, or ensuring there is one conversation at a time.

As with the designer role in our project, this facilitator may actually be the project manager or team leader, but there could be a number of project situations where it might be most appropriate to use an external facilitator. 

Think in terms of:

  • A project problem arises where the project manager has a unique or significant viewpoint to express when it comes to resolving the problem but still wants to ensure that the rest of the team is heard. A facilitator can ensure that all voices are heard. 
  • A retrospective is being done where the project manager has had a conflict with the team. In this case, it would probably be inappropriate for the project manager to facilitate the retrospective, as they may have contributed to the conflict. 
  • The project manager may not have the skills or experience in facilitating a particular activity or with a group of a larger size. A professional facilitator can not only complete the workshop but may be able to coach the PM to conduct the activity in the future or deal with larger groups. 

5. Contributor

project team members around a table with the contributor roles pointed out

Here are some considerations for getting the most out of your workshop contributors. People like: subject matter experts, project team members, sponsors, and stakeholders. 

I’ve found that in the distributed and remote world, there are some unique considerations to ensure that you minimize the friction that the technology creates with your workshop experience. 

Here are some examples:

  • The skills of your contributors are paramount to making it successful. Often their technology skills will be inversely proportional to their education level. PHDs and lawyers—professions that depend on oration—may struggle with keyboarding skills. In this circumstance, you want to have multiple ways for them to provide input, either by having someone able to transcribe chat notes onto boards, or even having someone work with them to capture their inputs. 
  • You’ll want to have materials available prior to your workshop for contributors to practice key skills you’ll be using in the workshop. Another technique can be to incorporate the required skills in an icebreaker at the start of the session so they can practice in a ‘safe’ space before getting into more complex activities. 
  • You’ll want to have rules of engagement or team norms for your workshop. Here are some great resources from Indeed to get you started.
  • Be aware that some of your participants may not be familiar with certain techniques or activities that you’ve designed. These learners need to be instructed and possibly coached through the activities—allow for that in your design and make the facilitator aware of these situations. 

Get Away from the Meeting Madness! 

a barrage of notifications and icons for messages and to-dos

Move as many meetings as possible to workshops! When you're doing that conversion, look for opportunities to fulfill the individual roles of designer and facilitator, but also remember to clearly understand your audience. 

You can take the opportunity to introduce contributors to new techniques or leverage their knowledge and experience in creative brainstorming activities such as silent brainstorming

Also, don’t forget to check out resources on the web and MiroVerse templates to get you started. They can be your inspiration and designer all rolled in one.

Also, I wrote five expert brainstorming techniques that are worth a read. Comment below—I’d love to hear what you’ve tried, your successes, and what you’d like to hear more about in relation to collaboration!

Don’t forget to subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter for more on project collaborations.

Annie MacLeod
By Annie MacLeod

Annie MacLeod began her project management career in the tech sector in the 80s and started her own consulting firm almost 25 years ago. More recently she has become a Miro Expert and is an evangelist for harnessing the power of collaboration in project teams. She has facilitated hundreds, if not thousands, of brainstorming and team collaboration workshops over the last 30 years and has a real passion for ensuring that her clients are successful, both personally and professionally.