Antimatter Workshops

Antimatter Workshops

No, this post is not about workshops on the topic of the Antimatter Principle – although I’m happy to discuss with you the possibility of conducting one with your team, group, or company.

And it’s definitely not about workshops on the topic of Antimatter.

This post is about using the Antimatter Principle to create better workshops – on any topic.

I’ve been to more than my fair share of workshops and the like over the years, and I’ve never been to one that was worth even the time it required to attend, let alone the cost in terms of hard cash. No, wait. Let me restate. I’ve never been to a workshop that was worth the time for the learnings it provided. I have been to many workshops where the social dimension – getting to meet people, doing things in concert, sharing a common interest, etc. – has been wonderful.

I don’t think it’s just me, either.

Aside: This post is about workshops, that is, events where groups of people come together, bounded by time, space and subject matter, ostensibly to learn together by doing. I contrast this with “training”, where the doing element is mostly conspicuous by its absence. I have no enthusiasm at all for the idea of training per se.

Workshops, at least, I feel may be redeemable as learning events, albeit with some major overhaul of the basic framework.

Here’s some of the problems I have with workshops as they currently exist:

  • The expert
    Most workshops get led by a subject matter or domain expert, eager to share their knowledge and experience.
  • The agenda
    Most workshops follow an agenda laid down by the “facilitating” expert. This (detailed) agenda is derived from the broader agenda of the sponsor. For in-house workshops this generally means a senior manager. For public workshops this generally means the expert, or the organisation for which he or she is working.
  • Passive engagement (i.e. little to no engagement)
    Many folks attend workshops with little interest in the subject and little enthusiasm for being there. The reasons for this are various but can include being told to attend, having spare training or professional development budget, and wanting to accrue CPD credits.

All the above lead to workshops having a low correlation between the needs of the participants and the content of the workshop. And to outcomes which fall short of expectations, and way short of what might be possible, given a different approach.

What is a Better Workshop?

For me, as a facilitator, a better kind of workshop would be one where folks had a real opportunity to meet their own individual and collective needs, be that for learning, for social interaction, or for other things.

And for me as an attendee, much the same criteria seem relevant too.

Applying the Antimatter Principle

So, to the application of the principle:

“Attend to folks’ needs.”


Firstly, do the prospective attendees have needs which correlate with the headline subject matter / topic? If not, maybe it’s better those folks don’t attend.

Then, there the agenda itself: Does it include a list of expected “learning outcomes”? Maybe it’s better not to do that. At least, unless the prospective attendees have created the list themselves prior to the event. And in those cases where this prior work is problematic, maybe it’s better to defer creation of the list until the event itself.

Yes, I suspect many people would prefer to have someone else set the agenda, structure the workshop, list the outcomes. And yes, it’s harder to sell workshops absent an outline, agenda or list of expected outcomes.

I do wonder if better workshops that no one gets to attend are any kind of improvement over what we have already. Maybe you’d be willing to share to view on this dilemma?

– Bob

Further Reading

Conferences That Work ~ Adrian Segar
Training From the Back of the Room! ~ Sharon L. Bowman


  1. As someone who is delivering a workshop on Lean Estimation & Planning at Lean Agile Scotland next month this post really made me sit up and pay attention. Thanks for this.

    How do I understand folks needs ahead of the conference especially when I don’t know who (if any) will attend my session?

    • Hi Ian,

      Looking forward to hanging out with you at LAS2014. 🙂

      Happy to hear this post is timely and relevant. Do you have any ideas, thoughts on your question re: understanding folks’ needs in advance. I mean, where’ s your thinking at on this, presently?

      – Bob

      • My reason for choosing the workshop topic is based on my observations when working with many teams or rather the gaps I see. My intention is to provide attendees with additional tools in their toolbox to help them to manage expectations better within their orgs. The workshop will use practical exercises, lots of discussion, but most importantly it will be fun!

        I hope this helps in explaining my intentions / thoughts for the workshop?

        As for the Antimatter principle, is it ok to make an educated guess as to what folks needs are if you are unable to ask them directly? I can see how dangerous this could be (kinda like the Product Owner who ‘knows’ what’s good for their users without ever talking to them!)

      • Personally, I plan ahead with a flexible talk / session agenda that I can morph and adapt to folks’ needs, as they emerge, on the day. This does sometimes make me feel like I’m rambling, though.

        And flexibility does imply some guessing of probable needs, in advance. It’s better, though (for me, at least) than locking-in assumptions beforehand. Abandoning the regimen of slides and slide decks also helps muchly, I find. As does asking people about their needs (re: talks, etc.) whenever and wherever possible.

        – Bob

  2. Hi Bob, nice thought provoking post as always, that completely and utterly reflects my experiences.

    I find myself riffing on the formats used by Openspace Technology and Lean Coffee these days. It is a little less bounded, but truly creates engagement, lets the audience build the agenda and often means that we draw in expertise from the attendees (its not just about me disseminating the knowledge I have).

  3. Great post. We’re having some problems with engagement from a team and I created what I’ve called a Clinic where they bring along their Problems(Needs?) and we (the SOA team) help them out and do impromptu presentations and mutually worked solutions / illustrations. Seems like this is in a similar space..?

  4. Ian Jones said:

    I have an experience that fits with your comments. Technically I suppose it was a course rather than a workshop, however much of the time was spent on shared exercises.

    It was excellent because the facilitator spun the course around on a dime 🙂
    The majority of the people attending should not have been there – too senior; already doing the work; in a different area. The facilitator recognised this, addressed the people that were actually in the room and drew from a wide set of prepared material for other courses.

    I’m still not sure it was “worth even the time it required to attend”, but much closer than normal.

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