Misused Workshops Are a Waste of Time

Have you ever attended a workshop that was a complete waste of time? Maybe the goal wasn’t clear, the activities seemed meaningless, or it just didn’t feel like anything was getting accomplished. Or, have you ever been asked to facilitate a workshop you felt was unnecessary? Perhaps you felt like you were arbitrarily filling in the hours as you structured the agenda.

These situations happen at organizations where the definitions and appropriate uses of meetings and workshops are unclear. In the past, I’ve seen well-meaning colleagues set up workshops as a way to get face to face with stakeholders, assuming that magic will happen if we simply gather everyone together in the same room for a long period of time. That’s simply not true! If there’s no predefined problem to solve, no real need for collaboration, or no adequate advance planning, workshops are just a waste of time. (And higher-level stakeholders will spurn your next invitation.)

Understanding the differences between workshops and meetings can save everybody’s time, make the most of group collaboration, and avoid creating a bad reputation for workshops.

This article compares distinguishing characteristics for workshops and meetings, including purpose, scope, structure, and the amount of preparation required for each.

An infographic comparing the differences in meeting and workshop purposes, scope, length, structure and preparation
UX Workshops vs. Meetings: Meetings are for people to share information. Workshops are for solving a problem. Purpose, scope, length, structure, and preparation differ for each.

Purpose and Scope

Meetings are a way for people to exchange information. (Think: status updates or general knowledge sharing.) In comparison, workshops are for solving problems, with a concentrated time dedicated to idea generation and hands-on activities that allow groups to achieve an actionable, predefined goal. Simply put, meetings are where things get discussed. Workshops are where things get done.

Because of this difference, meetings are best for shallow coverage of many topics, while workshops are best for deep, focused coverage of an issue.

When Should I Have a Meeting?

Meeting-appropriate scenarios are those where the intention of the attendees is to create a dedicated time to disburse and receive information. These discussions could cover several topics, and decisions or action items don’t necessarily have to be defined or acted upon during the same gathering. Common situations where meetings are appropriate include:

  • Project kickoff: An initial gathering of team members who are converging to work on a project together, where key information such as project briefs and roles are discussed
  • Standup: A quick (typically 15-minutes) daily, literal standup of a crossfunctional team to share updates on progress and obstacles across workstreams
  • Retrospective: A regularly occurring discussion where teams reflect on how they work together and consider ways to improve their processes
  • One-on-one: Dedicated time for leads or managers to meet with a direct report to discuss projects, personal growth, and development opportunities
  • Leadership sync: Crossfunctional leads over several subteams gathering to discuss progress, learnings, and outstanding action items
  • UX/design-team meeting: UX or design team members coming together to share work, knowledge and sources of inspiration
  • Design review: Design team members presenting progress and receiving feedback on a design

When Should I Have a Workshop?

Situations that require input and consensus from diverse groups or that would benefit from a sense of shared ownership are appropriate for a collaborative, hands-on workshop format. We’ve previously written about 5 common scenarios for UX workshops, including:

  • Discovery workshops: Team members and key knowledge holders converge to understand the current state and build consensus for milestones and plans for an upcoming project.
  • Empathy workshops: Designers, researchers and other stakeholders create a shared understanding of user needs before designing a solution.
  • Design workshops: Crossdisciplinary team members gather to rapidly generate and discuss a wide set of ideas from various perspectives.
  • Prioritization workshops: Team members and other key decision makers come together to decide which items are most important and prioritize them.
  • Critique workshops: Roles integral to the design process collaborate to analyze and improve a design so that it meets its objectives.

Each of the above scenarios benefits from a workshop setting, because people don’t simply need to exchange information about a variety of topics; they need to focus deeply on information regarding a specific topic, and act upon or make a plan or decision with that information, as well.

Structure and Format

Because the foundational purposes for workshops and meetings differ, it makes sense that the structure of each should also differ. Often, meetings are more passive than workshops — attendees spend most of the time speaking or listening — while workshops encourage active participation in activities such as sketching, brainstorming, or artifact creation to organize and capture group progress. However, hands-on activities certainly do not need to be reserved only for workshops; in meetings they can help participants stay engaged, break out of routine ways of thinking, or encourage reserved personalities to contribute to the conversation.

Workshops Have a Typical Structure

Workshops often go through a series of diverge-and-converge sequences. During diverge activities, team members produce many ideas or generate a large number of contributions relevant to the topic at hand. Workshop facilitators can make use of many types of activities to accomplish this goal, including timed cycles of sketching, brainstorming on sticky notes, or silent idea generation through brainwriting.

Divergent activities are followed by convergent activities, where groups identify and make sense of the patterns and themes within the generated ideas and inputs, and then work to prioritize ideas that are most feasible or have the highest potential for them. Methods such as affinity diagramming and forced ranking are appropriate during this stage.

Meetings Have Structure, Too

Even though workshops tend to follow a more formalized structure than meetings, meetings are not structureless (even though some of us may feel differently from having attended poorly designed meetings in the past).

Even routinely occurring meetings such as standup and one-on-one meetings benefit from structure. One effective approach to introduce a structure flexible enough to accommodate changing discussion items over time is to provide a short list of open-ended questions to contributors before the meeting.

For example, traditional daily standups use a series of questions to ensure that dialogue stays on track. Participants might limit contributions by answering only:

  • What did you accomplish yesterday?
  • What are you working on today?
  • What obstacles are in your way?

In another example, a manager might ask a direct report to prepare an agenda for recurring one-on-one meetings, structured within the framework of a set of questions such as these:

  • How’s your happiness?
  • Where do you need support?
  • What’s exciting for you, or what aspirations do you have right now?
  • Do you have any feedback for me?

Even open-ended frameworks like these provide a structure that helps meeting attendees understand the purpose of the meeting, prepare to make the best use of the time allotted, and guide the discussion.

Planning and Preparation

Planning a meeting certainly requires preparation: there may be presentation slides to create, an agenda or meeting outline to draft, and, for nonroutine meetings, you may even have to do a little campaigning so that invitees will show up.

But the preparation required for most meetings pales in comparison to the preparation and planning required for workshops. Workshops are longer in duration and have increased complexities such as hands-on activities that need to be planned and run through, tangible materials and tools to gather, and additional buy-in to build with workshop supporters and attendees about the purpose of the workshop and the importance of their attendance.

One of the most time-consuming preparation activities for workshops, as compared with meetings, is designing the workshop and capturing the structure in a formalized, detailed agenda.

When creating a workshop agenda, begin with a clear goal and work backwards to develop your sequence of activities, rather than jumping straight into listing out all the methods you want to incorporate. Consider first filling out a workshop brief such as the one below to capture the workshop objective, key questions you need to answer, ideal attendees and environment, and your definition of success.

A screenshot of a workshop brief template, with areas for writing in workshop goals, attendees, and success metrics
An  example template for a workshop brief to help workshop facilitators capture key objectives and goals.

The following checklists for meeting and workshop preparation aren’t comprehensive, but they provide a sense of the differences in required preparation for each gathering. Use them as a starting place when considering how much preparation and planning time will be required for your next workshop and whether you can realistically plan and deliver a useful workshop within your timeline.

Checklist: Preparing for Meetings vs. Workshops

Meeting Preparation

Workshop Preparation


  • Identify and document the purpose of the meeting.
  • Identify and document the purpose of the workshop.
  • Complete a workshop brief to ensure scenario at hand is appropriate for a workshop.


  • Identify and invite relevant attendees via email.
  • Identify attendees who will be able to provide the information needed during the workshop. Ensure you have both knowledge holders and decision makers represented.
  • Discuss the workshop purpose and the relevance of each person’s attendance with each attendee in person, if possible, before inviting attendees.
  • Invite attendees and confirm attendance. Show gratitude!


  • Create a list of discussion topics or a meeting outline to provide to attendees. (Longer, broader meetings may require assigning time limits to each topic.)
  • Identify discussions or activities that align to your workshop goals and create a draft sequence of how activities will string together (e.g., will the outputs of one activity be used as inputs for the next?).
  • Plan how much time to allot to introduce, run, and debrief each exercise. (Consider doing a mock run-through for each.)
  • Create a formalized agenda to circulate with the team.
  • Plan for back-and-forth with key stakeholders or cofacilitators to align on the agenda and ensure support for the included activities.
  • Create a detailed execution document listing additional details for yourself (e.g., materials needed and ideal timing for each activity).


  • Book the physical or digital meeting space.
  • Ensure technical equipment (e.g., projector, phone, etc.) is properly functioning ahead of time.
  • Book the physical or digital meeting space.
  • Ensure technical equipment (e.g., projector, phone, etc.) is properly functioning ahead of time.
  • Consider how the physical space will support your workshop goals (e.g., a workshop in a regularly used conference room suggests formality; an offsite space or creative space sets a different expectation).
  • Ensure there is enough floor space for physical activities and wall space for posting up group artifacts.


  • Create presentation slides, if necessary.
  • Create handouts, if necessary.
  • Create workshop slides to help participants maintain a sense of place during the workshop and provide instructions and visual references for each activity.
  • Create handouts, if necessary.
  • Print the previously circulated, finalized agenda for each attendee.
  • Gather and organize tangible materials and tools needed for each activity.


  • Follow up via email to share minutes or meeting notes and key decisions made.
  • Note action items and responsible parties.
  • Create a synthesis of key insights, goals accomplished, and decisions made.
  • Note action items and responsible parties.
  • Capture and include photographs of in-the-moment collaboration and activity outputs.
  • Create and send an evaluation sheet for attendees to rate the success of the workshop.
  • Create and fill out a self-evaluation and reflection sheet to note areas of optimization or things to do differently next time.
  • Now relax. You did great!

Define UX Workshops vs. Meetings Specifically for Your Team

It’s a useful activity to sit down with relevant team members and explicitly define the differences between meetings and workshops for your own group or organization.

Consider gathering to discuss, agree upon and document the differences between meetings and workshops as defined by factors such as:

  • Purpose and scope
  • Typical session length
  • Internal cost to produce
  • Cost to clients (if working at an agency, consultancy, or as a freelancer)
  • Materials required
  • Roles required
  • Preparation required
  • Post-session activities required

You’ll help your team develop a shared language and a shared understanding that prevents people from flippantly suggesting or calling for workshops without fully understanding the level of commitment and thoughtful planning that effective workshops require.