A Facilitators Guide to Virtual Collaboration

Designing and facilitating efficient and effective face-to-face collaboration sessions require diligent planning and skilled facilitation. Move the same session to a virtual setting and the requirements go on steroids. I’ve designed and facilitated hundreds of non-virual sessions and am now doing more and more virtually. Here are six suggestions on how to make your next virtual collaboration a rousing success.

  • Design Design Design
  • Build Virtual Collaboration Skills
  • Check and Recheck
  • The Gum Chewing and Walking Phenomena
  • Manage the First 10 Minutes
  • Make It Social

Design Design Design. I ape the old real estate adage of “location, location, location” when I describe the three secrets to any effective group collaboration. The success of virtual collaboration is the same if not more so. It all relies on thoroughly working through the design of the process. This is a lot more than the other old saw that “every meeting should have an agenda” (which it should). A virtual collaboration meeting design should be prepared and distributed to all participants in advance and should include the following.

  • A meeting owner or lead (whose meeting is it; who is asking for the session output )
  • A facilitator (not a participant or the owner but someone who can stay out of the content and shepherd the process)
  • A clear and specific context (what is the background for the meeting; the current situation and the relevant facts as we know them)
  • A defined purpose (what we expect to accomplish; what are we trying to achieve by collaborating)
  • A non-purpose (on what we will not be spending time)
  • The specific question(s) to be answered and the different ways we will approach the answers to the questions (in storyboard lingo, the headers and the kicker questions)
  • Time requirements (the approximate amount of time we will take to answer the questions plus to plan communications and follow-up)
  • The required participants (the people with the knowledge and skill who will collaborate and do work – not people who just need to know about the results)

Depending on the complexity of the issue being addressed, it may also be valuable include these two additional items in the design.

  • Keys to success (what we all need to keep in mind for the collaboration to be successful) and
  • Measures of success (how will we know when we’ve accomplished the purpose)

(Note: If you want more details on how to do top-notch facilitation design, check out the Compression Planning Institute.)

Build Virtual Collaboration Skills. If the participants are new to doing virtual collaboration then you need to realize that they may need to build new virtual skills and habits. Luckily, an effective facilitation design and facilitator will put the team members through the right experiences to learn new skills. However, the facilitator needs to make sure that the team members are acquiring the new skills. The best tool to help reinforce and lock-in new skills is to make time for regular reflection. This involves stopping throughout the team’s work and reviewing how the process is going – what’s working and why, what’s not working, why and what could we change to improve. The reflection process may identify new keys to success or highlight an existing one that was established in the session design.

Check and Recheck. When a collaboration team is in a single room, it’s easy to see facial expressions, to gauge reactions and to check levels of alertness. In a virtual meeting . . . not so much. Summarizing and confirming what’s been decided or what’s been covered is something I do at certain points in a face-to-face session. I increase the frequency of summarizing and doing check-ins during virtual sessions. If need be, I will also poll each participant – “Do you agree?”, “Do you have any other thoughts?”, “You with us on this?”, etc. I also highly recommend that you use virtual tools that allow for the output of the process to be displayed to everyone. Without some interactive tool, the session is just a glorified conference call. And it is very difficult to be collaborative by phone. The tool should include video and everyone should be on camera even if a few are in a room together.

The Gum Chewing and Walking Phenomena. Even superhuman facilitators cannot oversee a collaboration event, ask relevant kicker questions and succinctly record the output at the same time. The facilitator should only, well, facilitate. Each session should have someone assigned to post ideas, decisions or plans the team has generated. However, this does not mean that every statement that gets uttered gets recorded. The facilitator must manage idea generation or analysis to assure that everything that is posted is a fully formed idea and that it’s clearly written. The corollary to this recommendation is, “The multiple of ‘I think . . .’ is not ‘we know’” meaning that plain old brainstorming doesn’t work.

Manage the First 10 Minutes. In non-virtual meetings, I like to “manage the first 5 minutes” by reviewing the session design and any previous work that the team accomplished. In virtual settings, I upgrade this to at least the first 10 minutes or more. I take more time to review the design (and have it displayed for everyone to see).

And finally . . .

Make It Social. Non-virtual meetings usually have ragged starts where people kibitz before diving into the task at hand. Virtual meetings should not forget this important social component of work. I usually prepare a question that I ask and then call on everyone to respond. During the COVID crisis it has been, “What are you doing to stay safe and sane?”

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