Silver Bullets, Workshops and Workbenches


My dad has a workshop at the back of his garage.   He builds, he hacks, he plays.   It’s magical.

Dad’s great with craft projects!  Sometimes, he does all the work, like cutting scrap wood into paintable shapes for our little people.  Other times, I’ve seen how to use a new tool — like a drill press (for a bookbinding project.)

At work, we often want to “workshop” a people management skill.  Or a team-building challenge.

We want the workshop — or retreat — to be a solution.   Sometimes we want too much.

At best, workshops give people:

  • Exposure to new skills.   Maybe a bit of practice, in vitro.
  • Novel ways to meet colleagues, outside of the daily flow of work.
  • Ways to search, together, for a common understanding.
  • (Fulfillment of compliance requirements.)

Before jumping into a workshop — especially if we want to solve a problem — ask a few key questions:

  • How will workshop content/design move us towards our desired end state?
  • Do our people see workshops as great development opportunities?   Or a barrier to getting their “real work” done?
  • In the weeks and months that follow, how will our leaders support and reinforce people’s learning?

Also ask, “What might go wrong?”

Layering a team building exercise on top of existing relationship issues?  It might not end well.   (I still remember the relationship fallout of a 1990s exercise in game theory.)

I suspect that the term “workshop” comes from the entertainment industry.  “Workshopping” is a low-cost, high impact way to test and get feedback on a play.

Workshops and retreats are expensive in time.   And potentially in relationship, too.  (Ask the boomers in your life about Trust Falls.)

After working with my dad at his workbench, maybe I’m qualified to drill holes through paper, fabric, and cardboard.   I wouldn’t use the drill press unsupervised, or on wood or metal.

“Begin with the end in mind,” is a Stephen Covey principle.   It’s a good one to consider when investing your resources in a learning program.

Leaving a workshop, I expect to have a change in state.  A transformation.

And yet, no workshop or retreat is a silver bullet.

It’s also not a workbench.  When I walk away from Dad’s workbench, we have created a tangible artifact.  Something that will exist in the world.   I’m thinking about this lately, out talking with people about useful workplace learning experiences.

Photo:  Workbench, by Lenore Erdman, via Flickr under CC 2.0 license.

(Hu)Man Up

PA110476Though some of my best childhood memories involve family tramps through the woods, I grew up in the midwest.  It was flat.

As an adult, I was a recovering distance runner the first time I went to Nepal, in good shape for someone who mostly sat at a desk.

I had never hiked in high altitude conditions.   So I trained.  A couple of local hiking trips, lots of stairs, and “hiking” around lower Manhattan with a heavy daypack.

Near the end of that long first day, our guides pointed out our campsite.   To get there, we’d have to cross a river.  Via a suspension bridge.

And, oh yeah, I was kind of afraid of heights, too.

Looking across the bridge, terror wasn’t completely eclipsed by the desire to lay down my pack, eat, and collapse in my tent.   Traveling with a group spurred me on.  Nobody would eat until everyone made it to camp.

One foot in front of the other, I crossed the bridge.  Heart in my throat.

I’m not sure what could have prepared me to hike up to 18,000 feet.  Except for attempting to hike up to 18,000 feet.

This is true when we manage people.  We can prepare ourselves through study and reading.  Our managers, mentors, and coaches can guide us, and point out landmarks.   And we can stoke our motivation with knowledge that the rest of the group needs us to keep moving.

The rickety bridge, for many, is letting someone on your team know when they need to tweak their performance.   Or if they’ve made a misstep.   Or maybe a new person needs a little more coaching on how to fit in.

The best time to do this is almost always today.

And we’re verging on mid-year:  if your organization has year-end performance reviews, it’s wise to invest time evaluating how your team is progressing towards your goals.

And then (hu)man up.   Step onto that bridge.   Have that conversation.

And by the way, this is smart even when the whole team is on target.   Let them know what they’re doing well!

The thing that prepares you to manage, is actually managing.   The essential work of managing is talking to people about how they’re performing, and finding out how you can support them.  Do it.

By the trip’s end, I had crossed many more of those bridges.

And I’m not afraid of heights any more.

You can find some of my performance management resources for managers at

Crossing the Suspension Bridge, by John Pavelka, via Flickr.   Used under Creative Commons License.