Jan 28, 2022 | Facilitation

The art and science of facilitating leadership workshops

Practical ideas for Coaches, Consultants and Trainers

The only limits on you as a Facilitator, are the limits of your imagination. Dare to be creative.

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How facilitation differs from training

There is a big difference in the experience of attending a training workshop and a facilitated workshop. Clearly the two can be sprinkled together on a leadership programme. But let’s assume for now two different events. Here are just a few differences:

  • Facilitation is about using storytelling to convey important leadership lessons, whilst training is often relying on Powerpoint to discuss models and theories
  • Facilitation is about asking great questions and letting participants arrive at their own insights. Training is about teaching a specific skill or capability
  • Facilitation is about discussion and debate in small learning groups. Training is often about learning from a subject matter expert
  • Facilitation is about self-learning, whilst training is often about compliance or learning a ‘right’ way of how things need be done
  • Facilitation relies on the input and participation of the people in the workshop, whilst training can be ‘one-way’ learning.

All your hard work as a Facilitator is done before you walk into the room. You can’t ‘wing-it’ and hope to have an amazing outcome. Always start with the end in mind.

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The science of workshop facilitation

A wide range of research findings suggest learning is retained far more effectively when the whole brain is activated. This makes sense if you accept that we each have different learning styles. Visual thinkers, detailed thinkers, big picture thinkers, auditory thinkers… the list goes on. The more experiential the learning, the greater the probability of the learning making sense and being applied. The famous quote from Benjamin Franklin captures this elegantly simply: Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.

The art of workshop facilitation

Here are 5 activities you can use to bring learning to life:

  1. Graphic facilitation

The art here is to take a complex subject and help your participants to simplify it. One way of doing so is graphic facilitation and this can take several forms. As the Facilitator you may create a visual storyboard of the key ideas you will cover and why they matter. You can have this as a constant reference point, so participants understand the flow and logic of the learning. They can also keep remembering the key ideas they have covered.

You can also bring magazines with lots of pictures and invite workshop participants to cut them out to summarise the most powerful lessons learned in the form of their own storyboard.

  1. Storytelling

As a Facilitator you can use your own experiences and life events to share stories with participants. The whole idea of storytelling is to bring an idea or concept to life. In sharing your own story, you can also ask participants to share their own stories. As each colleague shares their story, you can seek input from the group:

  • What made you think?
  • What insights can you take from this story?
  • How does this story add to your understanding of leadership?
  1. Peer-to-peer coaching

There is so much richness in asking colleagues to partner up and consider how they practice or adopt the ideas they have been learning in the leadership workshop. The purpose of any leadership workshop is to encourage behaviour change or mindset change. Participants need to imagine how things will be better and their lives will be improved by adopting new habits and routines. Coaching is a highly effective way of doing this.

It also helps if you provide coaching buddies with a structure or template of powerful coaching questions, e.g.:

  • What leadership ideas we have discussed have the potential to make the biggest difference to you and your team?
  • What’s your vision of how things will be different 12 months from now?
  • To achieve this vision, what small changes will make the biggest difference?
  • What leadership will this require from you?
  • How ready, willing and able are you to male these changes?
  • Knowing you, as you do, what excuses may sabotage your best efforts?
  • How will you overcome these excuses?


The real power of any activity is the learning and insights it offers. So spend twice as long reviewing the learning, compared to the activity itself. Do this at an individual level and collective level.

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  1. Physical leadership challenges

Sometimes the most powerful lessons and insights arrive, not by talking about a topic, but experiencing it. Imagine the topic is teamwork and how to communicate when you’re under pressure. By setting the team a physical challenge they have to complete under time pressure, you bring into sharp focus the reality colleagues face at work. For example, imagine the challenge is to build a free standing tower out of bamboo canes. The winning team is the one which builds the tallest tower in the shortest time and meets the following criteria: every team member must be involved. Everyone must wear safety gloves. They can ask for additional resources from other teams.

Each team has to plan their tower and submit their draft drawing and their estimated time.

You then ask for a volunteer from each team to be ‘the lead’. These individuals are then informed that due to cost pressures, you will have to take 10% of their canes and resources and the time for completion is now 30 seconds less than the time they submitted.

You can assign an Observer to each team, who observes communication, levels of teamwork, collaboration, levels of listening, stopping and consulting with each other, handling differences of opinion, etc…..

The power of such activities is always in the review. You ask participants to individually write down: what worked, what didn’t work and with the benefit of hindsight, what could they have done differently – individually and collectively?

Each team member then shares their reflections. The team then build up a collective picture. They then review, to what extent does this activity reflect the challenges back at work and HOW can they apply the learning from this activity back at work.

You may conclude by asking them to create a short checklist they will hold themselves accountable for in any future challenge.

  1. Leadership Simulations

Simulations can take on several forms. They can take the form of business simulations. Your participants are running a division of a company. They are managing the P&L and they have a pen-picture of every employee. As they make leadership decisions, the upsides and downsides have real time impact. Often the choices and decisions are input to a computer simulation, which provides data on the impact of those decisions. This clearly requires deep specialist knowledge and access to smart AI or software.

The alternative is to mock a simulation which provides the same challenges they would experience back at work. Think of these as the activities participants on TV reality shows like The Apprentice have to face. You have to create a brand for a new toothbrush. Choose who your selected market is. Create the brand and the advertising. Project your revenues. Get real-time feedback from your ideal customer – record this on your smartphone. Pitch your ideas to influencers and the winning team will be voted for by the influencers. And all of this is done in 24 hours. At each step of the process, participants are required to rake time-out and review how effectively they’re working as a team, or living by the leadership values they had agreed earlier. Individuals also keep a personal journal on their personal impact and effectiveness and what behaviours they default to when under-pressure.

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