In this era of social media influencers, anyone who’s read a book or watched a TED talk can self-promote as an expert in that topic. Now that we’re isolating in a pandemic and everyone is rushing online, I could be a legit distancing diva. After all, I’ve been working, coaching and training online since the ’90s. And I know how to use breakout rooms, polls and whiteboards on Zoom and have the power to mute anyone at will.
Unfortunately, I seem to want no part of it anymore. I’m not sure why, except that it worries me.
LEVERAGING TECHNOLOGICAL INTERMEDIATION
Buzzwords make you look smart, right? I see folks in my professional world believing, imagining or pretending that their online tools connect them. They judge that they – both people and tools – are being effective. They wonder what made us think work teams needed to be co-located. Unfortunately, no matter how good the tools are, they provide, at best, a shallow, fabricated, artificial connection. When work requires true collaboration, is real communication happening when we spend our days on Zoom?
I recognize that tools are what we have, as we isolate, temporarily, in this pandemic. And I’m rather fond of what Zoom has done and can do for me and my tribe. What worries me is my certainty that some business people, watching work groups make this ‘remote work thing’ actually work, are thinking, “Hey, this ‘remote work thing’ actually works; let’s keep it going. We’ll save on premises costs, travel and the hassles of dealing with people all day.” The cost issue, alone, will be attractive once the pandemic ends and the accountants tally the financial impact while the PR folk position this to maximize share price.
Worry Number One: What will be missing when technology is, forever, intermediating? Even deluxe, wonderful intermediary platforms (Adobe Connect, iObeya, D2L, etc.) require careful thought about what, why, with whom and in what context we are communicating. Are we considering these things when we set up – or sit through – the seventh online meeting of the day? Or when we reformat our highly interactive in-person workshops as webinars? Or when we move our annual conference to virtual? Or when we forget that there are still neighbourhoods without reliable highspeed?
Worry Number Two: Are we chasing solutions before we understand the problem? And what is the problem, anyway?
Yeah, yeah. I know about the George Box quote, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” I developed this model, years ago, when I was trying to get bosses, colleagues, clients in the business world to recognize that communication only happens when we make a connection. And connection only happens when our message, or content,
is aligned with the situation people are in, or context,
and the channel or means of contact
Context: So let’s start with breaking down the work. What parts of it can people do alone? What parts need collaboration? Do they need to see and manipulate screens together? Or can they talk about it and send each other screenshots? Who needs to collaborate with whom? Who has the info needed? These are context questions. You can probably think of more.
Content: Is the communication about transmitting facts (“Here are the sales figures for March.” “We deployed n times in April.”)? Or does it need a discussion (“What factors affect our sales figures for March?” “What led to the drop?)? Do we need images? Or will data suffice? Are we informing people? Or do we need people to make a decision? Again, who has the info needed? These are content questions. You can conjure up others.
Contact: Next come the means of contact questions. Here are a few big picture considerations. Do the people with the information have a good Internet connection? Can people get through the firewall? How long does it take? Do people know how to use the tools? Do they have company tools, or are children and a spouse also using the family computer? (That’s also a context question, as is the next one.) Do they have a quiet place where they can be on a call? (Yesterday, I heard about someone who, on a confidential call, had to Zoom from the privacy of the bathroom.)
The next step for generating contact questions would be to match tasks and tools. What can be an email? What needs to be a call? Do we need to see each other? How can we do that? Do we need to share screens? How can we do that? What’s the value of having [whoever] here? What’s the downside risk? What about this tool your brother-in-law recommended? Can we use that? Do we really need it? Will it run on everyone’s machine? When you work thorough that task-tool matching exercise, you may discover that you don’t need to spend seven hours a day with your whole team assembled on Zoom.
We can make working from home work if we’re thoughtful about the content, context and means of contact, matching tools to tasks. We can make it work if we remember that we are dealing with people, unpredictable, creative, quirky and oh so human. As I and others have said before, this is a weird time. Working at home is our response to ‘sheltering in place during a pandemic’ or ‘staying safe in a crisis.’ Let’s hope it’s temporary and not ‘a new way of working.’
My email and Twitter feeds are generously sprinkled with messages from tool vendors and consultants pitching their solutions to this new challenge of Working From Home (WFH). I want to scream, “This is not teleworking. This is staying at home in a pandemic and trying to work.”
Tools aren’t the WFH solution, no matter what tool vendors, your boss, the IT department or some dude on Facebook tell you. I’m married to Gadget Guy. As a result of that happy union, and having worked from home since the ’80s, I’ve accumulated heaps of teleworking tools and toys. Speakers, microphones, lights, cables, software, furniture, coffee makers. What do I use? Not many.
As I wrote in Part 1, when you’re WFH, tools are less important than behaviour. I can’t overstate the importance of the human aspect of working at home. It was always important; now, more so, since we’re working in a cloud of uncertainty.
Still here are a few things I’ve learned about WFH tools.
This may be the most important WFH tool. Best created as a collaborative effort, it sets out how you’re going to work together. It’s formal, but not immutable. It will evolve as you learn what works for your team.
A team agreement sets out such things as:
- How will we communicate? What tools for what type of communication?
- What are our core hours?
- How will work get done?
- Where is information stored?
- How will we define success? How will we measure that?
- Whose Internet connectivity is iffy – or nonexistent?
- Who is also responsible for looking after children or others?
- Realistically, how productive can we be?
Under normal circumstances, it’s best to have a dedicated place you can call your home office. But these circumstances aren’t normal. You may be sheltering in place with roommates, spouse or children who are also working from home. And pets.
- Privacy may be impossible. As best you can, carve out some turf for everyone to assemble the stuff they need to do their jobs.
- Find a box where they can put that stuff at the end of the work day. (See Habits, below.) Especially important if you have toddlers or pets who might mistake your stuff for playthings.
- Get as comfortable as you can. Your chair will be important. So is lighting, both for doing your work and any video calls you may be on.
- Find a way to communicate with others in your household when you’ll be on a call. That way they won’t be blasting Lizzo or walk into your Zoom call in their underwear. (Yes, we have seen this.)
Speaking of Zoom, there are a gazillion of remote communication tools available. Don’t use too many. When you need to find information someone sent you, you don’t want to have to check email, Slack, Trello, Sharepoint, the google drive and voicemail. (See team agreement, above.)
- Pick tools that are easiest to use and learn how to use them. But don’t make things complicated. Just because Zoom has polls and breakout rooms doesn’t mean you need to use them.
- Video will be important. The information richness chart (see Part One) tells us communication is more effective when we are face-to-face. Unfortunately, the signal may degrade the group is large and all are on camera, so you may, sometimes, need to make a tradeoff.
- Still with Zoom or any video tool, get some light on your face so people can see you.
- Keep calls as brief as possible. Or take breaks. Nobody wants to sit on a video call for more than 40 minutes. Even that’s tough.
- And don’t have people there who don’t need to be.
- Phone people, now and then, just to see how they’re doing. If you’re their boss (or whatever the term is this week), make it clear that you’re checking in, not checking up.
- Get dressed. Sure, you could work in your jammies, but don’t. If you operate as if you are “going to work,” you will feel more professional.
- Eat lunch. Hide the snacks.
- Know when to knock off. You may not be able to leave your home “office,” but you can leave the work. So do. (After decades of WFH, I still haven’t quite got the hang of that habit.)
- Take breaks. Step away from the computer. Walk the dog. Schnoogle the cat. Sing a song. Bang on the drum (but not all day. Sorry Todd Rundgren.)
So the big idea is: Don’t stress about the tools. Do the best you can with what you have. Do what’s really important. Don’t expect yourself – or anyone else – to be as productive as you are in your workplace. And remember we’re all human.
SUPER REFERENCE – LISETTE SUTHERLAND – COLLABORATION SUPERPOWERS
If you want excellent tips and resources for teleworking, head to Collaboration Superpowers, where our friend Lisette Sutherland has assembled tips, tools, resources, podcasts and workshops, all dedicated to working from home. When the coronavirus hit and people started working from home, she set up a How To page. https://www.collaborationsuperpowers.com/covid19/ It’s loaded with ideas and links to more resources.
“Running good meetings is THE most important thing we do. I can’t understand why more people don’t understand that.”
So says a Scrum Master (and wise colleague) I spoke with recently. I was explaining (OK, complaining) that I can fill a coaching course in a few days, but there seems to be less appetite for facilitation workshops. And why would that be so?
“Maybe nobody knows what facilitation is,” said my friend. “Could you rebrand it?”
HARNESS THE POWER OF THE GROUP
If team or group members have to set direction, make decisions, plan collaborative action, solve a problem or sort out an issue, someone trained in facilitation is a huge help. Good facilitators know how to create conditions where people can share ideas, express opinions and discuss them in a productive way. Facilitators develop and follow a process that encourages participation, discovery, discussion, deliberation and good decisions. In short, good facilitation helps people think better together.
As the role of leaders and managers evolves from giving directions to setting direction, and from taking control to giving control, these skills become increasingly important. A facilitative leader can harness the power of the group.
A facilitator helps a group free itself from internal obstacles so a meeting’s desired outcome can be pursued efficiently and effectively. Chinese philosopher Lao-Tse described this, over 2,400 years ago. “A good leader is best when people barely know that he leads. A good leader talks little, but when the work is done, the aim fulfilled, all others will say, ‘We did this ourselves.’ “
In a more recent century, Tom Kayser wrote in his book, Mining Group Gold, “In the purest sense, when wearing the ‘facilitator’s hat,’ an individual acts as a neutral servant of the people. By that I mean that the person focuses on guiding without directing, bringing about action without disruption, helping people self-discover new approaches and solutions to problems, knocking down walls that have been built between people while preserving structures that are of value and, above all, appreciating people as people. All of this must be done without leaving any fingerprints.”
Facilitation skills create and maintain an environment or “container” for the group, where productive discussions can lead to good decisions. In other words, meetings don’t waste people’s time.
Our next workshop takes place APRIL 30-MAY 1, 2020 in Toronto.
YOU CAN LEARN TO MAKE MEETINGS MATTER
With collaboration and teamwork as hallmarks of Agile work, facilitation becomes a key skill for Scrum Masters, Product Owners, Agile Coaches and anyone who leads teams and/or meetings.
That’s why, in early 2016, I developed a two-day workshop to teach it – Facilitation for an Agile Workplace. Successful completion earns participants International Consortium for Agile (ICAgile) team facilitation certification, the ICP-ATF. Ellen Grove joins me in leading this workshop, adding her long perspective and experience as a coach and trainer to mine.
Workshop participants explore the facilitator’s stance and mindset along with the pattern of a successful meeting. Then we get practical. We share tools you can use, right away, for planning, gathering data, generating insights and deciding what to do. We explore maintaining neutrality, team dynamics, dealing with difficult situations (or people).
Of course, we look at facilitating Agile practices. And we’ve built a visual facilitation component throughout the two days, to bring the power of visibility, so important in agile practice, to our facilitation.
I COULD SAY MORE BUT . . .
it might make more sense to hear from folks who’ve been part of our workshop:
- “This training has made me realize how facilitation techniques and mindset can help Agile teams to communicate better and achieve next level of self realization.”
- “This program was great at teaching the arc of facilitation and the planning that a skilled facilitator should do when preparing for a session. I learned a great deal from the course and have been putting these skills into practice with excellent results!”
- “By taking facilitation skills workshop, it changed my perspective about what a good facilitator is, and it brought to me techniques and tools to pull out the most of a team meeting.”
- “Sue and Ellen put a lot of thought and effort into putting the workshop together that may not be evident during the training, since they conducted it with ease and flow. However each of the activities served a purpose in driving home the important points of the material. Excellent workshop and highly recommended!”
- “Agile Facilitiation Skills workshp definitely changed my perspective about facilitation. It provided me the tools, framework and strategies to better engage the audience in an agile way.”
- “Ellen and Sue provide a wonderful course that has tools and tricks that are practical and can be applied to your job immediately. As facilitators, they provide tremendous energy and bring a safe and joyful atmosphere over the course of two days.”
- “I had an opportunity to attend “Facilitation Skills for the Agile Workplace 2.0″ taught by Sue and Ellen. They are both are amazing, talented and passionate facilitators. Course contents were very well taught and explained. Sessions had enough hands-on activities which helped us understand practical implementation of what we learnt.”
- “Amazing class! I applied what I learned the next day and every day since. Sue and Ellen did a fantastic job facilitating and gave us tons of great techniques with enough time to practice. If you interact with people, take this class. You won’t be disappointed.”
Facilitation is much more interesting and valuable than people recognize. Maybe that’s because, when done well, it’s almost invisible. So, I think my Scrum Master friend is right. (He often is.) Let’s rebrand facilitation. Let’s call it “Decision Making, Effective Communication and Awesome Teamwork for Any Workplace.”
Our next workshop takes place APRIL 30-MAY 1, 2020 in Toronto.
Facilitation for an Agile Workplace meets the requirements for ICAgile’s Agile Team Facilitator certification.
“Half (of the meetings I attend) are completely bizarre and accomplish nothing except bewildering me as to why people don’t run out screaming.” That’s a real quote from a real person about real meetings. Yes, it’s sad. It showed up in an informal survey I did some time ago. Folks told me they spend approximately 40 per cent of their time in meetings, a number consistent with data Perlow, Hadley and Eun found in their 2017 Harvard Business Review Article, “Stop the Meeting Madness.” The authors also found that:
– 71% felt that meetings waste their time
– 65% said meetings keep them from doing their real work
– 66% claim meetings inhibit spending time on deep thinking
Calculate the hard cost of bringing minds together to explore issues, make decisions and plan action. It’s often thousands of salary dollars for a one-hour meeting. (And that doesn’t count travel, doughnuts or the opportunity cost when we delay getting to our other work.)
Then ponder another response, from my survey. “We can’t make decisions or agree on priorities. So, we have the same meeting over and over. Literally, the same meeting.”
Imagine if every meeting you went to felt like a good investment of your time. It can happen. Good facilitation enables conversations that lead to good decisions. It requires planning – a whole lot more than finding a conference room and sending out a meeting notification.
The first step is identifying the purpose of the meeting, the desired outcome. That leads you to determine who needs to be there – really – and what they need to provide or do. How will you engage people? How will you gather information, analyze it, decide what to do and follow up? All this should be planned before the meeting.
That’s Plan A. You’ll need a Plan B, too, since humans are involved. And you’ll need to be ready to change your plans. Still, to go into meeting a without a plan is almost guaranteed to be a time waster. The more thought and time you invest in planning the meeting, the more relevant and useful the discussion will be – for you and for the participants.
Given that today’s working environment requires collaboration, teamwork and communication, learning to facilitate well may be the most important skill for the 21st century. A facilitator doesn’t do magic. It just looks that way.
+++++++ At It’s Understood Communication, we care about facilitation. Facilitation Skills for the Agile Workplace is a two-day workshop that offers a solid foundation in facilitation, including using visual thinking to build clarity and understanding. Ellen Grove and Sue Johnston are offering it in downtown Toronto, May 6-7, 2019. There are still a few spots left. To learn more and register, visit nobadmeetings.ca At that site, you can also download a PDF copy of our Facilitation Planning Canvas.