The Workshop Paradox: Why Silent Individual Work is the Secret to a Successful Workshop
How silence can boost efficiency, creativity, and psychological safety
Eight people sit in a Zoom call together. One of them is sharing his ideas. He continues until someone disrupts him and starts building on the idea. Another person joins in and shares her perspective. This goes on for the rest of the hour-long session. When the time is up, no single idea has stood out from the conversation.
Does this sound familiar? If not, I have something to reveal. This, my friends, is what most people call a workshop. And that’s not good.
After working as a service designer and customer insight specialist for four years and facilitating and participating in dozens of workshops, I’ve identified the key problem of these so-called workshops: It’s never being silent.
I believe that the secret to a well-designed workshop is knowing how to balance silent, individual work with teamwork. As the below meme eloquently puts it, “One does not simply meet and talk.”
In this article I’ll show you why silence is such a crucial part of workshops. I’ll do that by explaining how silent individual work can boost efficiency, creativity, and psychological safety. Towards the end I also share a simple structure that you can apply to easily incorporate silent, individual tasks into any kind of workshop.
Why Silent Individual Work is the Secret to a Successful Workshop
According to Google, a workshop is “a meeting at which a group of people engage in intensive discussion and activity on a particular subject or project”. And here I am claiming that working silently and individually is the secret to a good workshop. This is what I call the workshop paradox.
But before I get into the three reasons why we shouldn’t just sit around a table and discuss things, I want to explain what I mean by silent, individual work and teamwork.
Silent, individual work includes tasks such as reading, writing down ideas or comments, sketching, mapping, voting (like marking favorite ideas with a dot or sticker), and clustering without talking to others.
Teamwork includes tasks that are done in a group and that involve speaking with others such as discussing ideas and opinions, grouping or selecting ideas, and presenting.
To make things a little more complex, there is a hybrid of these two: silent teamwork. A good example would be grouping sticky notes into themes on a shared Miro board or wall without talking to others.
Now, we can get started.
1. Silent, individual work is more efficient than teamwork
A key reason why working silently and individually can be so powerful is that it’s simply more efficient than working in teams. This is driven by at least two factors.
Firstly, reading is a lot faster than listening. The average talking speed is 110–170 words per minute whereas the average reading speed is 200–400 words per minute. In other words, reading is at least 80 % faster than listening to someone talk (the increase from 170 to 400 words per minute is a whooping 135 %).
I’m not shunning (well-planned) presentations, but you can save a lot of time by allowing participants to, for example, read background information. (If you’re mainly interested in improving regular meetings, I highly recommend the Silent Meeting Manifesto which is based on this insight.)
Secondly, writing things down silently is faster than sharing ideas out loud. To illustrate this point, I’ll compare two imaginary ten-minute ideation sessions with five participants.
In workshop A, people ideate together by sharing ideas out loud.
In workshop B, participants are first asked to silently write down their ideas on sticky notes (either physical or digital ones).
Let’s say one in five ideas is good. What happens?
In workshop A, the discussion follows the pattern described in the opening paragraph. When the ten minutes are up, the group has generated three unique ideas with none of the ideas being particularly good.
In workshop B, the participants vary in creativity (and energy levels perhaps), but each of them comes up with at least three ideas and the most idea-rich participant with seven ideas. The group produces 25 ideas out of which five are good.
This simple thought experiment shows that ideating individually is a lot more efficient than ideating together. But the benefits aren’t limited to efficiency.
2. Silent, individual work boosts creativity
It’s easy to obsess over quantity when it comes to ideation sessions. More is more, right?
Well, while organizations thrive on great ideas (and their successful implementation), they’re usually looking for just one good idea in any given situation. Even if they want to approach the problem from various angles, it’s rarely feasible to test several solutions at once.
Fortunately, incorporating silent individual work to workshops can improve idea quality as well. Based on research on idea generation and quality, hybrid models in which people first work individually and then in teams are more effective than only working in teams:
“We find strong support that the best ideas generated by the hybrid structure are better than the best ideas generated by a team structure.”
According to the authors, the results are driven by two factors. Firstly, hybrid models produce three times more ideas than pure teamwork (this we already figured out). And secondly, the produced ideas are of higher average quality. So if you want to boost innovation, make sure you don’t only rely on group discussion.
There’s one more benefit to silent, individual work and it has to do with psychological safety.
3. Silent, individual work can improve psychological safety
When you join a workshop, you’re often surrounded by people you’ve never met or at best chatted with once or twice. If you’re introverted, struggle with social anxiety, or simply need a little longer to feel comfortable around new people, you may hesitate to share your ideas in such a setting.
Thus, if a workshop is primarily based on talking out loud, it can be difficult to achieve high psychological safety — the feeling that you can speak up without fearing rejection, embarrassment or punishment from your peers or colleagues.
“If the workshop is primarily based on talking out loud, it can be difficult to achieve high psychological safety.”
As a result, you only hear the views of some of the participants (read: the ones high in extroversion and disagreeableness along the Big Five personality traits). Fortunately, working silently can help tackle this as well.
Working silently and individually opens up a wider set of tools and methods. Participants can write things down, but also sketch, cluster, or map things (apparently not everyone thinks best by writing).
When speaking up is not required, it suddenly becomes easier to share ideas and opinions even when the head of the department is sitting at the same table. Just like that, you hear the voice of each of the unique individuals working at your company.
Now you may be thinking, OK Riikka, tell me how I actually do this in practice. That would be my pleasure!
A good basic structure for any workshop
I use a fairly simple structure in most of the workshops I facilitate. It can be divided into five parts:
- Silent work (silent individual work + silent teamwork)
- Wrap-up & next steps
I begin the workshop by introducing the objectives and the agenda. Next, I ask the participants to work silently, for example, to write down or sketch ideas for 3–20 minutes (and I time it!). Then I often ask people to work together, but silently. This can mean reading other participants’ comments or clustering ideas without talking. The true teamwork part comes next. This could mean discussing opinions or ideas together. I end the session by summarizing the key insights and by explaining the next steps. If I’m facilitating a new type of workshop, I often ask for feedback as well.
What if you need to facilitate a longer workshop with multiple objectives? Simply repeat steps two and three as many times as necessary. This way each separate objective is covered through a block of both silent and teamwork.
A few words on putting it all together
As you can tell, the above structure doesn’t say anything about the type of tasks you should incorporate into your workshop. In many cases, you need to start by not only defining the objectives but also researching existing frameworks on, for example, product vision or prioritization. So first find the framework and then figure out how to incorporate silent work into the session. And prepare to learn from your mistakes.
Once you’ve designed and facilitated a few sessions the actual preparations become quite fast. When I work digitally, it takes me 30 to 60 minutes to set up a Miro board. Applying the simple silent work + teamwork structure certainly shortens prep time.
Knowing how to design a good workshop is a powerful skill. But it’s even more powerful when you know when to do it, and when not to.
Should you be hosting a workshop in the first place?
Although involving people in development processes is important, it’s not always the best approach. Sometimes you just need one bright individual to take an hour or two (or ten or thirty-five!) to research, think hard, and ideate.
“We too rarely ask ourselves whether we should be hosting a workshop in the first place. Don’t make that mistake. Let it be the first question you answer.”
As the authors of the idea generation paper point out, the “differences in performance across individuals are large and highly significant”. Some people are better at coming up with good ideas than others. We may all be equal, but we’re not equally creative.
If you’re a facilitation aficionado, the idea of not involving others can feel undemocratic and non-inclusive. It can also feel daunting, both to the one requesting the work and to the one asked to do the work.
But we too rarely ask ourselves whether we should be hosting a workshop in the first place. Don’t make that mistake. Let it be the first question you answer. And if the answer is yes, make sure you don’t just meet and talk.