Making workshops work

Professional development workshops and courses can be game changers, but the best way to lift a game is to improve the players. Here’s how CONTRACT – an organisational development consultancy – makes personal growth the cornerstone of professional change.

Helene Smuts, co-founder of CONTRACT, was leading a workshop for a prominent manufacturing company at their offices in Johannesburg. The group had spent the morning getting to grips with a theory around conditional and unconditional feedback. But Helene wanted to take it to the next level.

She invited a blindfolded member of the group to toss a ball into a dustbin, and started by giving the man unconditional negative feedback (“that’s awful … you’re really bad at this”) before moving on to unconditional positive feedback (“you’re doing great … well done”), which affected the blindfolded man’s motivation but not his performance. Then she started to give him conditional feedback, hinting at how he could do better (“you were closer in your last attempt”). Even if it the conditional feedback was negative, his performance shot up.

At the end of the simple exercise, Helene noticed that the MD of the company was leaning back in his chair and looking at her with astonishment. She asked him if anything was the matter.

“I’ve just realised that I’ve been doing something completely wrong,” said the MD. “From now on I’m changing the way we do performance reviews entirely round here.”

Light bulb moments

The anecdote illustrates that it’s not enough just to teach or even demonstrate organisational theories – the real value occurs when the employees realise how these ideas relate to them in specific and sometimes deeply personal ways.

There are hundreds of developmental theories, and even more courses and models out there. But most of these are based – and graded – on academic and theoretical outcomes. And understanding the theory is just not enough.

The real difference between theoretical understanding and meaningful learning is personal change. And personal change comes from moments of surprise and enlightenment – of epiphany – and it is up to the facilitators to figure out the best way to spark those in the time they have.

“If people go through an experience that touches them deeply, in a way that shows them who they are as a person in the world,” says CONTRACT’s Judith Haupt, “it improves them beyond just as a person in their work – it improves them as a person in this world. And that is truly precious.”

Practice makes perfect

A few months ago, CONTRACT began to design a leadership development course that was thorough and thought provoking. But before they began to use that particular course as a development tool, CONTRACT needed to find some ways to make the content most impactful for their clients.

One way to do that is to understand the specific business or industry that they will be applying it to. This may not be the most profound approach but it’s a low hanging fruit – most employees and managers will relate. So it’s a good place to start.

The second is to give people time to reflect on how the theory applies to their specific and unique circumstances. Rather than cram the itinerary with content, create regular intervals where attendees can think on a practical level. A quick walk after lunch or a few minutes of private reflection will usually do the trick.

Finally, use the people in the workshop. A group environment can be a powerful tool for practical learning.

“Often what happens is that leaders of different organisations doing a course together bond as they get to know each other really well,” says Judith. “One of the most powerful and immediate consequences of self-awareness is an awareness of others. This creates a virtuous cycle as you begin to better appreciate yourself through the eyes of others.”

Inspiring a more humane economy

At the beginning of this year, CONTRACT decided on its guiding vision: “Inspiring a humane economy”.

It seems like a daunting task. How do you affect compassion in a world dominated by profit? How do you change a person’s life in a few hours with a flipchart?

It’s good to know that, sometimes all it takes for a company culture dominated by competition and sales numbers to change into one where colleagues and leaders empathise and share tips on how to improve, is for the MD to watch an employee try to toss a crumpled piece of paper into a dustbin blindfolded.