Better Virtual Facilitation

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Virtual collaboration can be tough, but for most of us, it’s here to stay. Recently my all-virtual project team engaged in a series of workshops to define scope, document issues, and do our initial UX and technical design. Since our client didn’t have an established set of virtual facilitation tools, we experimented with a variety of formats and mechanisms for these meetings. Some stuff worked well. Some stuff was chaotic but interesting. Some stuff just fell flat. Here’s what I’ve learned and what I’m looking to do better next time.

Person working on their laptop

How It Started

We started our discovery sessions with a short slide deck for each session outlining the known customer and business goals and design issues. Our agenda for each session included time for brainstorming. However, we didn’t have a good mechanism in place to facilitate the brainstorming. Having participants dump ideas into the Zoom chat documented the input, but there was no visual feedback as you would have in an “in person” brainstorming session. The business stakeholders were not accustomed to or comfortable with a highly interactive format to begin with, so they quickly reverted in subsequent sessions to an “all talk” format.

Okay That Was a Hot Mess

After the discovery workshops, we had a few working meetings to plan out the next few weeks of work. We needed to prioritize the requirements we’d documented in discovery, so we used a shared white board and moved virtual sticky notes onto a prioritization matrix. Even though the sticky notes had been added to the board before the session, the mechanism was really awkward. There were dozens of sticky notes and to see and move them, we had to keep on zooming in and out and scrolling around the tableau. Also there were really too many participants for them all to interact with the content without chaos, so in the end only 2-3 people worked the board and everyone else chimed in periodically. After the session, I had to transcribe all of the results onto a spreadsheet. Even though I was using a dual-screen setup, I had to zoom in and out to see all of the board contents as I worked.

Better Virtual Facilitation: Design Sketch

Doodling Your Ideas

Next we began our design sessions, and we decided to go lo-fi for a change. Everyone sketched their design ideas on paper, took pictures of their sketches with cell phones, and emailed them to the facilitator. The facilitator pulled them all onto a board where we could discuss them and vote for our favorites using “dots.” The voting mechanism was simple and fast and the results were easily tabulated.

Doing it Better Next Time

While we’re still exploring how to do these activities most effectively in a virtual format, there are some clear take-aways:

A chat is not a workshop – Have you ever been in a workshop where 3-4 people were having a conversation and 20 more people were sipping their coffee and checking email? Or even worse, one person is monologuing? There’s nothing wrong with having formal or informal information sharing sessions, but they aren’t workshops. If you need to keep a list of shareholders informed, consider publishing a project newsletter or having regularly scheduled information session. Workshops are for getting work done (hence the name, y’all).

Slide decks are not interactive – I love and hate PowerPoint. It’s fun to make pretty slides, and sometimes putting useful information on a slide is a great communication aide. But overuse of slide decks is legendary, and they are really better at conveying information than at enabling collaboration. Use a few at the beginning of a workshop to put important facts and figures in front of the audience, but don’t imagine that will spur a lot of useful dialog. Slides should be only one tool in your workshop toolbox, and utilized sparingly.

Old school techniques are fine – as our “make a sketch and take a picture” exercise proved. Even when we’re not face-to-face, sometimes putting pencil to paper is the easiest and most intuitive way to quickly work through an idea. Not everything has to be virtualized; sometimes the technology gets in the way. I’ve gotten out of the habit of keeping a pad of paper on my desk, but as I’ve discovered with my personal journal, sometimes just writing it down on paper is better.

Screen real estate trumps everything – If you’re going to have your team collaborate on a single whiteboard or shared document, be aware of how limited screen real estate really is, especially for those working on a laptop or other small format display. Think about breaking up the content or activities into smaller chunks that can be manipulated on a single screen without a lot of scrolling and zooming.

Break it up – Any virtual session over about 2 hours is probably too long. People get thirsty. Their butts go numb. Their cat is meowing at the door. Their coffee is cold. The most productive format seems to be 2 hours every day or every other day until you work through your workshop goals. If you plan well and keep the sessions very focused, you’ll get as much done in 2 hours as a disorganized session would in 4 or more.

Facilitation is key – In person workshops offer flexibility that virtual ones lack. For a virtual session, you need a strong plan and confident facilitation. If you’re using a new online tool, practice using it first. If you are going to conduct a brainstorm, structure it in such a way that feeds the creative process. Open ended activities or “let’s try this and see how it goes” do not play out well in a virtual workshop. Also, if one facilitator struggles, it’s a lot harder for a participant or co-facilitator to fill in the gap when everyone is on Zoom. If the participants feel that the meeting is disorganized or the facilitation is weak, they will lose focus, find reasons to drop early, or be a lot more reluctant to come back for follow-up sessions. If necessary, run through the entire session with a couple of volunteers before-hand to identify glitches and ensure a successful workshop.

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