– Thoughts on Strategy and Management

The workshop from hell

Today I like to share with you the story of a workshop I was supposed to lead. It was a true workshop from hell. In terms of results, it was a complete waste of time. (In my defense I’d like to state that I was fairly inexperienced at that time).

I am sure you’ve been to your own workshops from hell. Anyway, read my story, smile about my mistakes, and take away some lessons:

The initial situation

This episode happened when I was working in the central strategy department of a global player – a manufacturer of various high-precision metal components. It was shortly after the first round of the newly established strategic planning process. This process ended with a 3-day strategy workshop with about 30 participants from top management. Every business unit (in this case: product group) had to carry out a strategic analysis, derive proposals for strategic options, and present its findings in the strategy workshop.

The responses to this whole process were mixed. It was neither a complete failure nor a tremendous success. Everybody acknowledged that it was the first round and that it was by far more than they had before. However, there was still much room for improvement.

Especially the managers of the business units were unhappy. It was the explicit requirement from top management that all business units were analyzed and presented in the same pre-defined way. Not surprisingly, the business units were fairly diverse – operating in different markets with different customers and different market dynamics. I already have described the problems we faced in this situation in two previous posts: Strategic Planning for Different Business Units and How not to calculate your market share.

The purpose of the workshop

After the strategy workshop we discussed what we could improve in next year’s strategic planning cycle. We in the strategy department too felt the dichotomy of a standardized planning methodology and varying situations in the business units. Thus we came up with the idea to have a workshop with the business unit managers to solve this problem.

The purpose was

  1. To identify the business units’ particular issues and requirements with regard to strategic planning
  2. To develop a unified methodology that still allowed to analyze all business units in an identical way, yet was flexible enough to take into account their different situations
  3. To improve the acceptance of the central strategy process amongst the business unit managers / to make them feel involved

From the hindsight, goal number two probably was a “mission impossible”. However, an accepted compromise would have been a great result too.

How the workshop went

Almost all business unit managers welcomed the workshop. They appreciated the chance to give their input – and to make sure that their individual requirements were properly taken care of.

My colleague and I from the strategy department had a particularly good working relationship to a team member from one business unit. During the whole strategy process we had often used him as a sparring partner and a test user. Hence, once again we had preliminary talks with him about the workshop.

My colleague and I were fairly nervous and felt uncertain since we had no clued how we should solve the dichotomy described above.

On the workshop day, we found ourselves in a room with about 20 business unit managers, all of them with their own agendas and priorities.

I admit it could have gone worse. All participants remained friendly and supportive. However, they simply brain dumped their various expectations on us. I could virtually read in their faces that they were curious to see how I would solve this dilemma.

Since neither my colleague nor I were able to really lead the meeting, the above guy from the business unit took over. He volunteered to take notes, which he did in the form of a mind map on a big screen. This was about the only positive experience from this workshop. The mind map turned out to be a really good tool for collecting and clustering diverse issues.

The downside was that – after several strenuous hours – we ended up with the largest mind map I had ever seen. We had compiled a huge pile of requirements and expectations. Nothing else. What was missing was a common understanding on priorities, compromises, and ideas what to do with that list.

The business unit managers left the meeting room with visible relief. Since we hadn’t agreed on anything else, it wasn’t their task to cut this “Gordian knot”.

What happened afterwards


For me, the problem felt even more unsolvable. I still had no idea what to do.

I talked about the workshop and the expectations it had raised with my boss. He was the kind of guy who could quickly sense if a task would lead to honor and success or to failure. So he wasn’t inclined to become much more involved.

The whole issue came to nothing.
To my big relief, nobody really asked for any results.
The next annual strategic planning cycle was still far away. (I suppose everybody silently hoped that this whole strategy thing would be dropped anyway.)

How I solved the initial task

I found a really simple solution during the preparation for the next strategy cycle. This was a solution that our CEO totally liked (which tells you a lot about the culture at that place):

  • The central strategy department has the authority to specify planning methods and tools that are binding for everybody.
  • All business units apply the same tools and methods.
  • When they feel that this process does not fully reflect their particular situation, they are free to explain that in their presentations.

To my big surprise, nobody complained (again a cultural issue).
I did my best to help business unit managers to fit their special features into the standard tools and presentations and everybody was happy.

What I learned from this workshop

I guess I made the typical beginners mistakes. To put it in positive terms – this workshop taught me a lot about projects, meetings, and getting things done. Thus, it was a valuable experience.

Here are my learnings. Feel free to add some more if you see any:

  • Always know what you want to achieve in a workshop and how you’re going to do that.
  • Have one or more rough ideas for solutions in advance.
  • If you really don’t have a clue – find someone who is able and willing to help you.
  • If you are pretty sure your objective is an unsolvable task for a workshop, reframe the question or find other ways to solve the problem. In other words: Don’t hold an alibi event.
  • Speak in advance with key participants (i.e. opinion leaders, constructive thinkers, key decision makers) in order to learn about their expectations, priorities, reservations, and ideas.
  • Thus, try to find allies.
  • Don’t let anybody else lead your workshop. He may have his own agenda. At least, he may not be as committed to getting results as you are.
  • Provided the problem isn’t finally resolved, always agree on next steps, responsibilities and a follow up.
  • Don’t let your participants off the hook once the workshop is over. It is not your task to solve the problem all alone. Your task is to coordinate and to steer the joint process of solving the problem.

[bctt tweet=”If a workshop won’t solve the problem: Don’t hold an alibi event”]

What was your workshop from hell? What did you learn from it?
Share your experience in the comments below.

Our book recommendations on strategy workshops and other meetings


  1. Pingback: My strategy workshop from heaven | Eddielogic

  2. You described this as a “workshop from hell” (several times) and a complete waste of time. Yet, it seems like there were some productive conversations and, I surmise, some common understanding of the issues facing the organization. The material is there for a productive next step.

    It seems to me that the frustrations may have originated from a few points of confusion. First, the word planning was used a lot, so I’m guessing that there was a long listing of goals. Goal setting and strategy are often confused: they are not the same thing. Becuase you had diverse business units, it seems like the organization skipped over developing a corporate strategy (what businesses do we want to be in?) and let this simply become a forum for each business to make presentations to each other. If there is not guidance from a corporate strategy, the allocation of resources to the businesses becomes an internal competition.

    I got the impression that insights, on the nature of the business challenges, were missing. Even if the insight is, “we’re clueless and disorganized” you have a reasonably good starting point. I suspect that if the organization could admit it needed some guiding ideas it would know what the next step should be.

    At the heart of this, I suspect is that people confuse the actions of creating plans and budgets with the art of creating good strategy. Yes, plans and budgets are important, but they lack punch unless put into the context of industry dynamics and competition.

  3. Hello Greg, Thank you so much for your insightful comment.
    You are absolutely right with all your conclusions. This workshop could have been the starting point for something good. At that time, the whole organization mixed up strategy making, goal setting and planning. The corporate strategy department (including me) missed the chance to solve this problem.
    At least it makes a good case study today.