Aligning Together Apart: Designing Better Cross-Functional Collaboration

2020 is remembered as the historical dividing line for many companies defining the shift from “how we used to do things” to “how we’ve adapted.” Sometimes forced change drives innovation, and embracing the experience can lead to meaningful conversations and transformation for years after. Over two years later, now we can reflect on how that change has impacted how we work together.

One of the biggest changes, and challenges, has been in how we facilitate and support projects that require a lot of collaboration and cross-functional alignment. These types of projects often require energy, creativity, iteration, co-creation, dialogue, and debate, which were best accomplished in-person. As that option was taken away from us, forced adaptation revealed some wins, and some losses. While all of us praise the gains from a shared culture of more productive Zoom meetings, better uses of our time, and healthier balance with less travel and commuting, some things have remained harder to replicate digitally than others.

The Many Invisible Threads Behind A Good Facilitation Plan

Once upon a time, “facilitation” was just another part of the job on a daily basis. When you have in-person meetings, extensive workshops or key milestones— these events all need to be facilitated and led. The stakes are always high when you ask leaders from different parts of a company to be in a room together. An extended work session came with the expectation that attendees would set their work, and laptops, aside in order to be fully present and contribute to learning, discussing, debating or brainstorming dialogues. When a stakeholder meeting like this is called, naturally the pressure is on to make the best use of each stakeholder’s time.

When these sessions are done in-person, one may be quite surprised by the level of background orchestration and planning that goes into them. Everything from travel logistics, hosting needs, venue and space setup, daily agendas, and timekeeping. Not to mention plans to manage group dynamics, preparing for inevitable pivots, having a back-pocket list of prompts, provocations or energy boosters when people begin to feel tired, stuck, or sluggish. If a facilitator has done their job, they have already thought of almost everything (True story: Some things are impossible to plan for, like blizzards, a very aggressive bumblebee causing chaos in the room, or a surprise fire drill!)

All of this takes a tremendous amount of mental effort and coordination. As a result, teams have to develop a near telepathic connection to read the room and one another to keep things moving. These invisible logistics were traditionally executed through body language and other nuanced non-verbal communication. 

The Zoom Era of Collaboration 

In remote modalities, teams driving the meetings are now free from managing some of the tangible coordination details. We don’t have to interpret telepathic signals - we can just read Slack messages that come in from a back room. We no longer have to monitor everyone’s energy levels and design for snack-time: people are mostly responsible for managing their own energy levels. 

This freedom comes as both a blessing and a curse! The ease and accessibility of Zoom (... or Teams, or Hangouts… or WebEx) is indeed a lifesaver, but it does have its limits. Where we were once able to corral the chaos and manage attention spans, we now have much less control over what is happening in the environments of our workshop participants. This requires us to take on facilitation with new considerations about providing clarity of roles, setting a pace and tone, setting expectations about participation, creating a plan to get everyone’s perspective (and encouraging people to unmute themselves and contribute) and making space and time for any heads down reading/contribution or determining when breakouts may be needed for smaller social discussions — all without being in the same room. 

While we were once operating in half-day and full-day work sessions, in our current world, we also have to be hyper aware of our use of time, and the invisible “90-minute self-destruct” button that initiates Zoom fatigue for a single meeting. The meeting is basically over as soon as someone needs a snack or a bathroom break. With this compression of time, facilitators have to rethink the pacing of our work and collaboration engagements while still yielding comparable outcomes and alignment.

Planning a Great Alignment Workshop:

Great hosts consider their guests’ experience from beginning to end. When the stakes are high for a cross-functional meeting, approach online workshop facilitation like planning a party.

The Invitation

The Invitation: Be clear about more than the where and when of the event. The invitation should drum up excitement and deliver clear expectations to get ahead of questions like: 

  • “Why is this meeting evening happening?” Setting context & the why/higher purpose behind the engagement 
  • “What should I have on hand?” Snacks? Candy? A caffeine boost? Paper? 
  • “How will I contribute?” Talking/Discussing? Drawing? Writing? Presenting? 
  • “What do I need to bring or prepare?” Pre-reading or homework thought activity
  • “Where should I be looking?” Links to key documents that will be used for collaboration or team review  

Vibe

The Vibe: A lot of behind-the-scenes work goes on to plan a good party. Quoting one of our favorite client partners: “You don’t want to invite people to a party that sucks!” The vibe sets the tone for all of the interactions to come. We asked ourselves: 

  • “How do we make this a meeting people want to attend?”
  • “How do we make the environment fun and playful?”
  • “How do we set the tone for creativity and openness?”
  • “How do we encourage participation and dialogue?”
  • “What will people need to keep them fueled physically and mentally?”
  • “What types of questions and provocations should we ask to help teams think differently?”

Size

The Size: When facilitating in-person it’s always easy to work with larger groups: you can physically separate people into smaller pods or address everyone at once while still reading the whole room. With a great agenda, you can have a nice mix of individual and group activities and it can be easy to scale from 5 to 50 people. 

Online, it's a lot more challenging to coordinate a larger group and expect full engagement in 90 minutes. Not only do you lose the many social cues that make discussion effortless, active debate is a lot harder on Zoom, where it can be impossible for more than one voice to be heard at a time.  

If you do have a larger group, smaller break-out groups become essential. Unlike a large conference room where a facilitator can track discussions happening in multiple groups simultaneously and know where to move, break-out rooms require many facilitators instead of just one.

Frequency

The Frequency: The full scope of moving a company forward cannot be done in just one or two 90-minute sessions — it requires intentional planning of the frequency of sessions to engage both internal teams and research respondents. 

In places where we would need a full or half day to cover a topic, we may need to break those up over the course of a week or month, doing three sessions with the same small group at different intervals to manage the cognitive load and pace the knowledge and learning, as to ensure nothing important is lost or left behind just because of meeting fatigue.

20201205-con-digital-facilitation-techniques-for-ethnographic-research-icon-visual-anchors

Visual Anchors: “War rooms” — we all know them. Crucial in political dramas, true-crime TV shows, and… the walls of the Conifer office pre-pandemic. Our clients often marveled at the tactile and visual nature of how we worked with data. And more importantly, it was a tool to bring them into our thinking, data, and work processes. We could quickly look upon an oversized whiteboard to see the visual progress of a calendar, consider a change or discuss a framework. Project spaces started as a blank canvas, and as the team got deeper into the project, you could easily measure the trajectory of a project just by walking by. Walls were living, breathing artifacts that helped us all quickly look up from our computers and get unstuck at a moment's notice. 

The war room and these physical visual anchors are not as easily replicated at home, where our space is more personal and sacred. For those without extra rooms in the home to turn into a project bay, decisions had to be made about whether or not you wanted to have dinner in the middle of a “Beautiful Mind” backdrop. 

As war rooms may be being replaced by digital tools, people still need something to look at in meetings. Visual anchors are critical, especially in a world where all of us are swimming in links, tabs, documents and apps. Be mindful that these tools require their own facilitation, choreography and curation. As meeting attendees talk and share, we become facilitators and scribes all in one. Delegating these roles to key owners can help things go smoothly.  

  • Assign a driver: Someone who is dedicated to owning the screen sharing. Pro tip - don’t move too fast and make people dizzy! Have all your views and tabs set up and ready. 
  • Assign a scribe: someone who is dedicated to taking notes and organization notes as they go to be able to share back what has been heard. 

ALIGNING TOGETHER APART

When it comes to digital facilitation - take the absolute best of what works in person, and find ways to translate that digital without making tradeoffs or concessions. Take the barriers and challenges that digital engagements present, and try to plan around them. Set clear objectives that are accomplishable in the allotted time, and never forget that a universal rule will always apply: as a facilitator, regardless of modality, it’s your job to set the tone for the energy for your session.

Next time you attend a meeting as a participant, give a subtle nod to those facilitators at the helm — ​​adaptation and running meetings in this new world is still hard work to enable carefully designed collaboration moments that allow others to meaningfully contribute and engage, rather than just listen.


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