The Complexity of Virtual Collaboration for Large Groups

Over the last month we have facilitated conferences for 40- 70 people that were planned as face to face event pre Covid19. In March 2020 we agreed with our clients that we would all take the risk and attempt to convert these planned events into virtual events. We were excited and a little nervous about taking this step but the option to postpone would mean that our clients would not be able to consult with their communities and this would hold up the planned strategy for 2020. We all agreed that it felt worth taking the risk and giving virtual events a go as “something would be better than nothing”.

Feedback Matters

It was a huge relief that the feedback from the events has been overwhelming postive. People have been surprised about how much was achieved and how engaging the virtual environment could be.

“You’ve set a new standard in terms of virtual workshops”

“It was an awesome interaction.  For me I benefited hugely and I look forward to future engagements”

“A really impressive event, I’m still thinking through many of the observations and learning points I took from it.”

Learning Insights

In March 2020 we were experienced at facilitating virtual meetings for small groups of people, usually for planning purposes, we had experimented with digital tools within face to face events and we had completed some training in virtual facilitation. Scaling up the process and finding ways of bringing to the virtual world the warmth, friendship and engagement that we generate in face to face collaborations would be a challenge, and we were excited (and a bit scared) about how to make this happen. Here are some learning insights we have picked up on the way that are helping us to raise the game for virtual collaboration, to make it both possible but also enjoyable.

  1. Keep it Simple

In our first event we were keen to capture data from people at every stage and we were guilty of overcomplicating things. We have learnt that initially having breakout groups with no more than about 5 people and providing a simple conversation structure is enough. Keeping it dialogue only allows people the chance to meet, to engage with each other, to get used to being together virtually, without the barrier of another technological tool to get used to.

2. Provide Support and Structure

The virtual space still feel awkward for many people and the usual cues that start and end conversations are not as evident. We have found that having a table host helps to smooth this process. The table host can help the group to focus on the question, can bring people into the conversation and keep an overall awareness of time.

The table hosts have been from our team of trained virtual facilitators or subject experts provided by the client. All table hosts need to be competent and confident in using the technology and so training and support for them in their role is critical. Time and resources for this has to be factored in.

3. Make Digital Tools feel Familiar

Our events have been collaborative consultations and our clients needed to capture information and share that information between people. We have been using Mural as our preferred interactive tool. The advantages of Mural is that the interface is relatively intuitive to use and people can view and edit without having to set up an account.

We have set up the Murals to look like a typical group flipchart space with piles of post it notes and arrows and some easy to follow instructions.

4. Sharing Feedback

In large scale events it is always a challenge to share information across groups. In our virtual space we have swapped groups around so that people can view and add to the flipchart Murals created by previous groups. We have provided space for groups to report back briefly verbally so that they can share their main highlights and we have used a shared polling tool like Mentimeter as a way of groups sharing insights across the groups.

5. Screen Breaks

The common complaint about virtual events is the concentration which feel more intense than in a face to face event. We have learnt to build in regular screen breaks and to give people permission to turn off their video whilst we take a reflective pause. The moderator will turn off their video to cement this permission giving and then will turn their video back on with 1 minute to go and gently ask people to turn their videos on again when they are ready.

We Need to Talk about Money

This is awkward for everyone at the moment, to be very honest most facilitators are glad of any work right now so it was great to be able to invoice something. The reality is that we are a business and going forward we need to make a living from facilitating events or our businesses simply will not exist. The cost issue also applies to internal facilitators and organizers

These large scale events were planned and contracted for before they went virtual. We agreed to deliver them for the same price as the face to face events. I think we all recognize that this is not sustainable as a business. The costs for these types of complex virtual events are DIFFERENT but not cheaper than a face to face event. These are not events where you simply have someone speaking at the group with a bit of text chat. These events involve complex participatory dialogue and are designed to develop collaborative communities.

There are huge savings from the hire of a venue, the food for the event, the travel expenses, the overnight accommodation and all the glossy event materials. Our team saved time by not needed to pack and travel to the venues. But any savings on physical costs will be spent on the preparation time for the organizing team. The planning has to be much more precise than in the face to face world, everything needs to be created and uploaded in advance. You cannot just whip out a flipchart and a few post-it notes. To make a process be really engaging you have to meticulously plan the process, test the process and ensure that everyone involves knows exactly what they are doing and when. You have to communicate more and engage participants before the event and post event.

As a rough estimate I reckon our team spent 4-5 times longer working on the design and planning of the virtual events as we would have spent in a face to face event. With experience, practice and the value of being able to use existing templates this time will reduce but it is probably higher than we and our clients initially expected and as a business this is something that we have to seriously consider and discuss with our clients when we are providing cost estimates for events.

Would we do it again?

We have loved the challenge of working virtually. It was great to find ways of making the virtual tools work for larger groups and to find ways of creating events that combine on line and “offline” contact and connection.

There are huge benefits to the virtual format. We are facing a global climate emergency, and we have to reduce the amount of travel and the waste that is generated at events – there was no wasted food or surplus plastic at these events!

We recognize that virtual events enable people to participate who cannot travel easily to events, particularly those people with disabilities, caring responsibilities or who live in remote places with inadequate transport links. This can create much more diverse, inclusive consultation processes.

Virtual events offer a way to collaborate in a more intimate close up manner than is possible in physical settings at the moment. Given the choice of a virtual event or a “living with COVID-19” face to face event… we believe that virtual events will make it easier to collaborate than sitting 2 metres apart, wearing face coverings and not sharing any materials.

The more we facilitate virtually the better we can make the process and this period of experimentation gives us the opportunity to really develop the work and to find a way of making virtual events a viable option beyond the current restrictions on social interaction.

Next Steps and More Learning

We are moving into the next phase of virtual experimentation with our next events being planned from the start as virtual events and supporting people to use theory of change in collaborations, to develop new networks and form collaborative teams.

If you would like to be part of this experiment in virtual collaboration then do get in touch to talk about ways in which you can continue to collaborate, consult and engage with others whilst living in the Covid reality.

Contact Us

Strategic Retreat: Using Theory of Change

FORWARD is an African-led women’s rights organisation. The work of FORWARD focuses on responding to female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage, and other forms of violence against African women and girls.

FORWARD have developed a new strategy and plan for the next five years and now want to focus on how to make this plan operational. A strategic retreat was arranged for 4 hours so that each of the operational teams could identify an area of activity in the new strategy and develop their theory of change route map to reach their agreed target.

An external facilitator was needed because of the ambitious plan for the strategy session. The five teams (22 people) would develop five distinctive road maps and they wanted collaborative sharing to be at the heart of the retreat.

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What was the impact of the strategic retreat?

Many of the team were familiar with theory of change but mainly through taught workshops. At this workshop they experienced creating their own theory of change for their area of work. This was a revelation as one team member commented:

“After many years I now understand the theory of change. So simply and well presented”

In the workshop each group identified their vision for their area of the strategy and then identified the current challenge that they were facing with achieving this vision. Step by step then they started to develop ideas about how to achieve the vision. The activity combined individual reflection, small group discussion and sharing of ideas in the larger forum. The final draft roadmaps were taken away by the team and typed up to form the basis of further team planning.

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What were the benefits of having a facilitated session?

The facilitator worked hard to provide a space where everyone could participate. There was time for individuals to reflect and time to share and talk. Everyone’s point of view had the opportunity to be heard.

The process encouraged everyone to read and understand the new strategy document. The ideas that emerged will support the teams to make progress towards the FORWARD vision.

“you got us to really think about our strategy and we were all engaged in the discussions. It’s a great start to our projects and a pleasure, as always, to work with you”  Naana Otoo-Oyortey, Executive Director

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Summary: Keys to Success

  1.   Setting time limits for activities so that decisions were made and ideas recorded and the task completed in the time allocated
  2.   Using a large charts to capture the theory of change so everyone could get involved and see the work evolve
  3.  Providing examples of what a completed theory of change could look like to provide clarity and structure

If you would like to find out more about our work and discuss a team strategy event for your team…. check out our  Website or send us an email info@centreforfacilitation.co.uk

 

Collaboration – industry/academics

What was the collaborative challenge?

Mapp is a funded Manufacturing Hub for the UK Research focusing on advanced powder processes. The team has a vision to use powder-based manufacturing to provide low energy, low cost and low waste high value manufacturing options. The team combines cutting edge research innovation with practical application within manufacturing. It has therefore been critical throughout the project to engage and consult with industrial partners.

The team wanted to run an update for their industrial partners that went beyond the standard presentation and lunch/networking. They wanted the event to be immersive and to provide opportunities throughout for academics and industrial partners to really connect together so that future collaboration would be possible.

They sought out professional facilitators to work with them on the design and facilitation of the event so that it would be engaging, active and distinctive

What was the impact of event?

The workshop has been instrumental in terms of developing our relationships with industry partners – we have a deeper understanding of how they want to work with us and some new ideas for collaborative projects – Dr Richard France

During the event the frequent changes of groups provided many opportunities for discussion and connection. The final activity was an open forum which provided the opportunity for individuals to propose ideas for future investigation and gain insight from others on this idea. We knew the connecting had worked well because many of the group stayed after the event had closed to continue their conversations and exchange contact details.

The event generated new ideas for collaborative projects. All partners were able to articulate their expectations of each other and this has helped provide clearer guidance for effective collaborative relationships

What were the benefits of working with facilitators?

The format of the day meant that participants were kept engaged throughout; there was none of the usual “drift” after lunch.

By working closely with us the team created a format which met their needs and had clearly defined outputs which we helped to capture so they had a record to take forward to develop the project

Christine and the team did a great job of tailoring a workshop format which met our needs and kept delegates engaged throughout the day. Dr Richard France

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If you would like to speak to us about arranging a similar event please Christine or Lucy  on 08456 210008 or send an email to: info@centreforfacilitation.co.uk

 

 

 

Powerful Annual Team Plans

Many organisations have an annual planning cycle in which teams work out together their individual and collective priorities for the year.  Team objectives and personal performance contracts negotiated with the boss, or worse, copied from the schedule the planners gave you, implicitly have low ownership by the team.

The best teams we have worked with break this cycle by taking a time-out to get the whole team together and answer questions like:

  • What should we be doing, given our purpose/role in this organisation?
  • How can we add more value for the organisation and our external and internal customers?
  • How can we work more effectively as a team to deliver great results?

One team at the oil company BP chose to do this through a facilitated process as part of their quarterly team meeting.  The objectives were to (i) generate collective ownership for an integrated team plan (ii) get team members to understand and connect with each other’s priorities (iii) identify owners for key tasks such as continuous improvement activity that did not align neatly with job roles.

A collaborative plan builds clear links for team members with the big priorities including measures of success.  Working collaboratively also provides the opportunity to get everything on the table, reducing delivery risks.

Making this Happen

Collaboration on a joint plan needs time away from day to day work. A facilitated workshop really helps this process and gives teams time to work on their behaviours and to explore their objectives in more detail.

The key to this is focusing on the team objectives first and being honest about the priorities and focus that will be needed for the team to be successful.

Once this is done then individuals can draft their own objectives so that these directly support the team objectives.

These are discussed in the team and individuals are accountable to the wider team for the achievement of their personal objectives.

For projects, alignment of objectives is even more critical especially if you’d like to involve the client, prime contractor and supply chain partners.  We recommend a workshop process that emerged from the work of Andersen, Grude and Haug and that they called Goal Directed Project Management.

It was later adopted by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) and uses elements of systems thinking to address the co-dependencies, interdependencies and operability of complex projects.

http://www.centreforfacilitation.co.uk

 

 

 

 

Customer Consultation Panels

Great Western Railways wanted to re-establish their Customer Panel organisation, to provide a forum for a broader base of customers to engage with the organisation. The intention was for the panels to be a combination of information about corporate strategy, current activity and performance with the opportunity for customers to question mid-senior level managers on specific topics.

Our company was approached because of our specialism in facilitation and our track record in facilitating a range of consultation events for a broad range of clients. Our chosen facilitator has a strong background and qualification in mediation which was felt to be of benefit in this situation

Our Approach to the Design

In the design phase we explored with the client the specific requirements for this project. This exploration gave us insights into the expectation of the role of the facilitation and the importance of being able to provide a neutral presence at the event.

We used a collaborative design approach and over a series of phone calls and emails we agreed with the client the event logistics and timing and the facilities. We explored the role of the managers/speakers who would be attending the event and their style and aptitude for this important customer facing event.

Facilitating the Event

It was agreed that the event should work in an informal way, rather than having a “panel” of managers at the front of the room, presenting to and answering questions from the audience. This would enable the GWR staff to sit at tables with the customers, leading to a less confrontational environment. However this requires a more complex facilitation style. The facilitator used nonverbal signals to the presenters, ensuring they endeavored to keep their presentations to time without having to interrupt the presentation.

Once presentations were over the facilitator managed a question and answer session, identifying those who wanted to question and making sure each individual was heard. Additionally use of body language to “close down” those who were trying to ask second questions. This method helped to reduce the need for “verbally shutting people down” that can often result in upset and emotive responses. Additionally the facilitator worked hard to make sure that the room understood when there was a ‘“final” question on a subject, so closing each section of the meeting ready to move to the next and therefore keep the whole meeting to time.

Post Event

The facilitator had a follow up meeting to discuss the event and to draw out learning from the event, to take forward for any further customer panel meetings. Feedback from the event was positive, with key GWR staff noting the lack of confrontation that had been experienced at other customer panel events. GWR customers also noted that everyone who had wanted to question or contribute had been given the opportunity and the event ran to time.