Last year, a diverse group of 13 volunteer leaders of the Construction Specification Institute were finalizing plans to travel to Chicago in early March for a 1.5-day retreat, re-imagining the structure and purpose of their components and the value of the organization. A few weeks and one COVID-19 virus later, six leaders had arrived just as travel advisories were ramping up and seven remained at home. Knowing that, despite what was happening in the world, we had been working toward this retreat for months, we chose to pivot and use technology and varied facilitation methodologies to include all leaders, giving equal space and voice, ensuring no participant felt less than (even if some were not in the room).
As we enter a period where in-person gatherings are on hold, knowing that virtual is the new reality for all of us in the coming weeks/months, the change in medium does not reduce the need at this very moment for our leaders to connect on vital conversations and the work of vision and strategy. Virtual should not cause the pursuit of any organization’s vision or mission to falter. Here are some approaches and lessons learned for enabling an engaging virtual strategy discussion.
- Choose a technology platform that is easy to access, incorporates video, and is intended for many users. While there are a number of platforms available for virtual-facilitation (the subject of a subsequent article) in our case, I chose Zoom since there was audience-familiarity and we had accounts already. The platform served us well.
- Ask all participants to have technology ready. Before the session starts, everyone should be prepared with a device to run the technology meeting platform, ideally having signed-in once before the session so any tech glitches have been resolved.
- Plan for all perspectives. At the start of the session, we wanted to ensure everyone could see each other – not just from afar like you see in many conference-rooms, but individually. Whether more than one person is in the same room or each is dialing in separately, have each person set up their own computer with the camera on. That way, even if they were sitting across from one another at a conference table, they are still face to face with those joining virtually. As we eventually ease back into hybrid live/virtual sessions, we can add in dual cameras in the front of the room so those attending virtually can see the live participants as a whole in addition to the presenter at the front of the room.
- Icebreakers still help. Our opening activity was an introduction in which each leader identified a core strength they brought to the table – a superpower, if you will. Especially in a remote facilitation, it is important to build group bonds, so the assembled leaders become a team.
- Invite speakers. As a full virtual session where you want all participants engaged, a key role of the facilitator is to track who has spoken and call on those who haven’t yet contributed. Knowing they could be called on at any moment, leaders are less inclined to check email or attend to a secondary task – everyone is there to engage and participate. In a hybrid format, it is important to intentionally alternate who is speaking between those in person and those participating virtually.
- Frequent Breaks. Recognize that staring at a screen for long periods of time is draining, so take a pause approximately every 75 to 90 minutes – with variance depending on where you are in the schedule. During this time EVERYONE should be encouraged to get up, stretch, and refresh. The group should also agree to keep to the break times as set.
- Share presence. Of course, life is still happening outside of the virtual session. If during the session someone needs to attend to a professional/personal item, they simply put in the chat box “away from the table” and then “at the table” when they returned. Life is busy – especially right now – so there should be no stigma when someone has to attend to an emerging issue, as long as there is transparency around being engaged and present. Added bonus? Pet/child/spouse sightings increase connection to each other’s lives.
- Vary interaction methodology. Incorporate varied means of conversation and collaboration. A few we used:
- Paired Processing. We started with two level-setting questions that were more global in nature. Rather than start with the entire group, everyone was paired up to have initial ideation conversations for each question. The pairs called each other on the phone – and could still see each other over video. After a few minutes of paired processing, we brought everyone together and rotated through the pairs for input. In hybrid models, make sure the pairs are one live/one virtual person and that you alternate at the end between virtual/live contributions.
- Additive Listening. In pursuit of a group narrative of success, we facilitated an individual visioning exercise. As each leader shared their thoughts, everyone was asked to be in active, rather than passive, listening mode. This meant continuing to add to their own visions as they heard insights from their colleagues as well as recognizing where there was overlap of vision. We ended this section by agreeing on a shared group vision that incorporated the places of concordance.
- Small Group Breakouts. Dividing out a large group for small-cohort interaction is incredibly valuable and a method that shouldn’t be abandoned just because of a virtual facilitation. We structured small group breakouts utilizing multiple Zoom breakout rooms. We pulled everyone together at the end of each small group breakout and instead of report outs allowed free-flow discussion of findings. In a hybrid format, it is key that these are mixed groups to ensure balanced participation.
- Full Group Dialogue. After there has been a small group discussion where all voices had space, a large group synthesis works. Starting with the large group should be used sparingly to avoid attendees disconnecting and contributors orating. One voice at a time over a sustained period leaves many in ‘passive’ mode reducing their overall contributions and engagement.
- Chatbox for Sharing and Questions. The chatbox provided another space where any attendee could post a question mid-conversation or during break outs. Additionally, those times we used in-room easel post-its for thoughts/notes, staff would copy the in-room notes into the chat box so everyone could see what we were discussing.
- Zoom Captain. Essential to the success of the facilitation was the facilitator’s ability to focus on group discussion and dynamic while having a staff support person on Zoom tracking incoming questions, identifying ‘raised hands’ so all voices were heard, quickly resolving any technology bumps, and capturing key thoughts or ideas during our full group synthesis moments.
- Process Check-Ins. On a regular basis, ask participants to check in: Is the facilitation approach working? Any suggestions for refinement? Are they feeling heard? They can share with the group or message the facilitator directly with feedback. The attendees will appreciate having voice in the process and, for the facilitator, it allows adaptation of the approach in real time instead of only hearing reflections post-meeting.
- Meals and Times of Connection. We know that some of the best teamwork happens over ‘breaking bread.’ Virtual facilitation means the cost of travel and food is largely mitigated – which provides a novel opportunity. The organization can send all attendees a $20 UberEats or GrubHub e-certificate – so the organization is still buying them lunch, scheduling time for them to eat together and talk. Additionally, there is value in hosting a happy hour time – allotting 30 minutes for everyone to get a beverage of their choice and connect solely through the video platform, socially saying hi and networking without an agenda.
- Start with the Ends, End with What’s Next. Take time at the beginning of the session to ensure everyone understands what we were trying to achieve. At the end verify the group has accomplished what they set out to accomplish and take time to make sure they are in unity on next steps. Without coming to a solid conclusion and agreement on what’s next, attendees may have different perceptions.
While there is more nuance than can be captured in an article –the success of virtual strategy lies in the agreement by all parties to be flexible in process, to adapt as things unfold or need to be tweaked, and to believe everyone is there to achieve a single purpose and will jointly determine together how to best achieve the needed outcome. Designing the right approaches to facilitation and engagement can allow your attendees to feel present even if they are in different time zones.
Lowell Aplebaum, FASAE, CAE, CPF is the CEO and Strategy Catalyst of Vista Cova – a company that partners with organizations on strategic visioning and planning, creating stronger governance models, and reimagining value and engagement. Lowell frequently provides dynamic sessions to organizations – conducting deep-dive interviews and getting members and volunteers involved through experiential learning approaches. He is the creator of a master-level learning series called Through the CEO Lens and Association Charrette – a co-creation retreat experience. His work on global efforts for associations has included experience across five continents, hundreds of volunteer groups, and all 50 states in the U.S.