Workshopping: why bother?

Alastair Somerville
3 min readSep 18, 2016
Workshop in Leeds

I’m at EuroIA this week in Amsterdam to run another workshop and at the end of the month I’m in Aarhus for Agenda Festival to run a workshop on running workshops (perhaps I should say facilitating but it’s not a word I like).

I know I prefer to run workshops rather than write books, give speeches or compile reports but I do wonder why.

Crisis at Christmas

Last Christmas, I was writing a workshop for the first O’Reilly Design conference and I got stuck. Mostly, I was held up by wondering what the point was of a conference workshop. What was the point? Where was the value?

Conferences and training days cost a lot in money and time and there’s needs to be something special about them.

It cannot simply be about knowledge. There is knowledge everywhere now: from books delivered next day by Amazon to pages of Wiki articles. Knowledge is easy to find.

Perhaps it’s skills and experience? Even those can be immediately discovered on YouTube, blogs and websites on all kinds of business or hobby theme.

So what is it?

In basic terms, you have one or two people responsible for a workshop on some predefined theme and a crowd of people, most of whom are complete strangers to each other.

Problems and crowds

I’ve had some training from a local charity called the Barnwood Trust on facilitation skills. More specifically, skills on enabling people with cognitive and/or physical impairments to have a more equitable experience of meetings and workshops. So the skills taught were in de-privileging some people and enpowering others; actively judging and managing encounters and conversations.

I’ve found that experience useful. It’s about enabling others to have their voice and use their capacities when the structure is generally set against them.

This changed how I think about workshops and helped me in my Christmas crisis.

It also reminded me of a discussion of human evolution.

Encountering a problem

Sometimes people wonder why humans don’t seem to be evolving nowadays. Clearly, Galapagos birds do.

To some extent, it’s because people don’t recognise what is the most brilliant evolutionary adaption in humans.

When humans encounter a problem: imagine walking up to a bright and wide open sea for the first time. Humans don’t spend time evolving flippers. Humans work together and build a boat.

Sociability and tool sharing are the adaptions. The conversation and the making are the capabilities.

This is why workshops matter

It’s not me. It’s the crowd.

All those skills. All that capability.

The workshop is a way of bringing people together. To get them in the same space. To share conversations and build skills.

A conference can create a theme. It means people with abilities and people needing abilities know where to be; on a day, at a time.

The role of the workshop is to create the space for the great thing about humans: conversing, showing, making and understanding together.

It’s not about an individual (being human should never be about the individual) but the social.

Smaller brains, greater resilience

And that’s it. I worried that I didn’t know what to do. So I designed a workshop in which I did less.

I let the people in the room spend more time working together.

O’Reilly Design 2016

And that reminds me of a bit from Bruce Hood’s The Domesticated Brain.

Human brains have been shrinking for centuries. They use a lot of energy. It’s a problem. There is physical evolution in action.

That humans share and work together is the adaption. I don’t need to know everything because I know you, or someone we can contact, do.

Resilience is not in individual skill and memory. It’s in community and sociability.

I’m teaching how to workshop in Aarhus because it’s the creating of times and places that people can meet and share that matter. We need more people to be confident in making those spaces and I’d like to do a little bit in making that happen.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX