Running a productive meeting can be challenging even for a seasoned facilitator. Now, with the added challenge of a fully remote environment, conducting effective virtual meetings requires a whole new level of vigilance. So let’s take a fresh look at the methods and frameworks that we know lead to better alignment and clear action.
Three Steps to Ensure Alignment in a Virtual Meeting
Before a team can identify action items to address a problem, it’s important to first ensure they have alignment. How can a facilitator be certain that all voices are heard and ultimately achieve buy-in from participants, particularly in a remote setting? This is best approached via inclusive solutions as discussed in Sam Kaner’s book, Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making.
Step 1: Create a Safe Space for Your Virtual Meeting
Kaner emphasizes the need for the facilitator to create a safe space that supports a “both/and” mindset not an “either/or” mindset. An “either/or” mindset implies that there must be a winner and a loser, whereas a “both/and” mindset seeks a win/win outcome. Here are two techniques I often use to help create a safe space.
- Start the meeting with a check-in protocol. The check-in protocol is a short activity whereby every participant is invited to share what is on their mind. This short but powerful activity gives everyone a voice and a chance to engage in the meeting early on. Hopefully by talking in the first few minutes of the meeting, participants will be more likely to speak up later. This is particularly helpful for virtual calls when participants may not be on video. I have even observed participants opting to turn on their video cameras during check-in and keep them on afterwards.
- Create or review working agreements. Working agreements are a useful technique to ensure everyone is aligned on how the meeting will be managed. Working agreements give participants permission to point out behaviors or discussions that are distracting to the goal of the meeting. In a remote setting, allowing participants to create working agreements together via a virtual whiteboard is most impactful.
Step 2: Know the Phases of a Virtual Meeting
According to Kaner, an inclusive solution also requires the facilitator to guide the group through the phases of divergent thinking, integration, convergent thinking, and closure.
- During divergent thinking, it is the facilitator’s job to elicit as many diverse ideas and perspectives from every participant as possible.
- The integration phase is the point at which participants reach a shared framework of understanding. They may not agree with all viewpoints but they can understand the issue from differing points of view.
- During convergent thinking, the group focuses on refinement of solutions.
- Closure is where the decision point is reached. It is the junction between ideas and action.
Step 3: Cultivate an Inclusive Mindset
Here are several tips and techniques to develop inclusiveness in a virtual meeting.
- Use online visualization tools. These tools combine individual contributions with group collaboration, allowing everyone’s voice to be heard. People can engage and brainstorm more effectively when they can visually represent their own ideas and see others’ ideas in writing. Virtual sticky notes can be moved around and grouped with similar items which helps the group move from divergent to convergent thinking and ultimately closure.
- Leverage breakout room capabilities. If the group is larger than eight participants, consider breaking it into smaller virtual groups. Smaller groups collaborate better and doing so creates safety for those who may be less comfortable speaking up in a larger group. In my experience, breakout groups generate more ideas than would have been generated as a larger group. When breakout groups reconvene, it is also insightful to observe which ideas the groups had in common and where the groups’ thinking diverged.
- Incorporate voting. Many conferencing and collaboration tools provide voting capabilities. This is an effective way to narrow down ideas, achieve group consensus on decisions and identify outliers that warrant further discussion. By way of example, one technique is Roman Voting.
- Embrace silence. Silence is a necessary component of virtual meetings. It takes longer for folks to unmute themselves, activate video or simply engage. Virtual meetings make it easier for some people to dominate the conversation and make it harder for others to engage. Virtual meetings also make it easier for people to simply “hide” or refrain from participating at all. As a facilitator, be aware of a lack of silence and create more of it so people have opportunities to speak up. If people are not participating as actively as you would like, ask a question, then wait. Eventually someone WILL speak up. You need to be more comfortable with silence than the participants!
Three Frameworks for Developing Concrete Action Items
Once the team has reached the Closure phase and achieved alignment on WHAT they need to do, the next step is to determine HOW to take action. This is where many teams stumble because their action items are plagued by ambiguous outcomes and ownership. For example, consider these action items identified by a team during their Sprint Retrospective:
- “Take time to analyze problems as a whole.”
- “Focus on team-building.”
- “Test much earlier in the process.”
- “Respect differences of opinion.”
- “Focus on the customer.”
These action items are well-intentioned but are not specific, measurable or repeatable for the intended outcomes. What are the tangible steps the team will take to ensure that differences of opinion are respected? How will they know they have achieved their outcome and that it’s longstanding, not a one-time effort? Additionally, action items suffer from a lack of ownership either because the team has not identified a specific owner, or because they have opted for collective ownership which is simply a passive form of non-ownership. To avoid the pitfalls of ambiguous actions, here are three techniques you can try to help your teams create stronger action items that promote ownership and achieve desired results.
This technique is from the book Gamestorming and ensures that the team has removed ambiguity regarding owner, outcomes, and timeline.
- Who?: Understanding who is going to be the owner of implementing an idea is the most important element of an Action Item. Passion equals ownership, so if you do not have sufficient passion around the idea, you are not the ideal owner. Keep in mind, the owner may not always be the “doer” of the action item. They may simply take responsibility to find the right people who can address the item.
- What?: Ambiguous statements are replaced with more specific, tangible activities that need to be done. What are we going to DO that makes things less stressful? What does better communication LOOK like? What is the smallest thing we can do as a team that will bring us one step closer to “Less Stress?”
- When?: The last step is to discuss when the Action Item must be completed. It’s best to add accountability checkpoints along the way.
Revisiting the weaker action item, “Test much earlier in the process,” we can apply Who-What-When to strengthen it.
WHO: Every development team member
WHAT: Effectively immediately, we will focus on incorporating testing earlier in our process by adopting the following new, three-step change to the Definition of Done.
WHEN: At the end of each Sprint, during the Retrospective, the team will evaluate how the updated Definition of Done has improved quality and contributed to the ability to complete all planned work in the Sprint.
This technique is sourced from Retromat and like Who-What-When, it emphasizes ownership, execution, and accountability. This technique is particularly useful when a group needs additional guidance to think through its execution plan.
Revisiting the weaker action item, “Focus on team building,” we can apply Motivation-Ease-Reminder to strengthen it.
MOTIVATION: How can we motivate ourselves to do this?
Each team member will come up with one team building idea. We will post each idea on a large board outside our team area so we can see all of the ideas in the backlog, along with an “In Progress” column and a “Done” column.
EASE: How can we make it easy to do?
All ideas must be something we can achieve during work hours.
All ideas must be something that can be achieved during the next Sprint.
REMINDER: How will we remember to do this?
As each team member works on their idea, they will move it to In Progress or Done. At the end of each Daily Scrum, we will spend 5 minutes reviewing the team building board.
3. SMART Goals
This technique is a classic and has been adopted by many Scrum and Agile practitioners. SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timebound. This technique is less focused on ownership, rather it delves deep into the execution and timing of action items.
Revisiting the weaker action item, “Focus on the customer,” we can apply SMART Goals to strengthen it.
Specific: We will implement an outreach program consisting of emails and phone calls to gain insights from past students.
Measurable: We will send a series of three emails to students; one per week in the three weeks following their attendance in the class. Every student in the class will be contacted by phone within two months of completing the class. Voicemail is acceptable contact.
Attainable: Based on the average number of students and the number of employees, this equates to about five phone calls per employee per month. Emails are automated so little effort is required to send them.
Realistic: Email and phone calls are standard methods of communicating with students.
Timebound: One email per week; each student contacted within two months via phone call.
While techniques such as those described above are effective for in-person alignment and action, they are invaluable in virtual settings. These action-oriented frameworks guide participants’ discussions to ensure everyone understands next steps, who is responsible, and how to ensure accountability. Online visualization tools can capture the data and decision points in an inclusive way. Breakout rooms can be leveraged so participants can work together to complete their action plans. Voting capabilities can be used to narrow down actions and ensure buy-in.
Our work environments have changed considerably in the past few months and for many of us, they may never return to the exact state as before. There is no time like the present to leverage these tools and techniques, and for you and your team members to practice new skills. Trying now will set you up for greater success in the future, whether in-person or remote.
Additional resources regarding the creation of effective action items can be found in the Importance of Concrete Action Items, and Five Ways to Write Better Action Items.