When Tools Get In The Way

One of the fundamental barriers to effective online meetings is the fact that they are online. They use technology. And the traditional online meeting technology isn’t really that great. It’s a wonderful substitute for in person conversation in that we can see the people we are meeting with, but it has fundamental limitations. Getting past those limitations requires thinking, work and effort.

So far in this series—and it’s been a far more in depth one than I expected at the outset—we’ve explored how to think about facilitating strategic conversations remotely. We’ve examined whether it is possible to replicate the level of interaction and the level of engagement that occurs in a face-to-face workshop. The short answer: yes you can. In fact, you can arguably not just replicate but actually enhance participation, engagement and quality of decision.

The astute reader of the last few articles will note that what has been emphasized in getting to that assertion has been a focus on process. We have deconstructed, assessed and reassembled how to think about what it means to conduct meetings and workshops. In fact, we’ve arrived at a point where there is an open question about whether you call it a “meeting” at all. The results is a series of interactions guided and oriented towards getting to a decision.

The hurdle that still needs to be cleared is actually doing this online. In other words, we have to engage with technology. While the structure of the meeting that we want to have might be clear, we also need to sort out the tools that we use to make it work. And your well-guided strategic conversation is not going to be just another Zoom meeting. At least, not exclusively.

The good news is: technology options for facilitating interactions exist. This is both a blessing and a curse. Because yes, there are options—lots of them. Developing virtual collaboration tools is a bit of a fertile space in our mid-pandemic environment, and there are an astonishing number software developers who have clearly pivoted to do just that.

At its essence, deciding on the tools that you are going to use is no different than making the same choices about how to facilitate in-person workshops. You have an item in your meeting plan that you need to explore. That item requires a specific sort of interaction. You need to design an exercise that allows for that interaction to occur.

Effectively designing the component pieces of a meeting is its own creative pursuit. There are many ways any given interaction might occur. Choosing which approach you might use depends on the specific outcome you need, how adventurous and creative your meeting participants are and how familiar they are with your other tools and approaches. You might have them draw pictures, tell stories, brainstorm ideas, find examples or build narrative timelines.

Doing this online is a similar challenge. Let’s say, for example, that you are planning a component of your interaction where participants share the results of their individual brainstorm of possible options to move forward. That’s an activity where we want generative, divergent thinking. It’s the first step of opening up and expanding our options of how we might proceed. We want creativity, we want to suspend judgement and we want participants to have the freedom to offer ideas that stretch boundaries. In short, we want them to feel free to be as crazy as they want to be.

There are a vast number of ways that this might be done in person. The simplest option is to just have people share their ideas in discussion. Or go around the room, one idea per person. Given the intimidation that might go with owning an idea in the larger group, we might do a similar exercise in smaller groups (although what comes back runs the risk of being edited, and not everyone hears all the ideas). We might have everyone capture their ideas on post-it notes, shared on a large paper or whiteboard. They could simply share them with the facilitator in advance, to be anonymized and shared broadly.

Doing this online shifts the challenge only slightly. The issues of individually sharing ideas verbally are the same: lack of anonymity, fear of ridicule, self-editing and censorship of anything that seems to extreme or off-the-wall. If we limit ourselves to the normal, bog-standard meeting platform, however, that’s what we’ve got. So that represents the challenge that we need to work around.

This is where the opportunities for creativity arise. There are many ways around this challenge, some low tech and some pretty advanced. Perhaps most simply, we can create an expectation that the results of individual brainstorms get shared with the facilitator, whose role is to compile and share those back. The results are anonymous, and so problems of inhibition and self-censorship are theoretically addressed. There is still the opportunity to build on these ideas, but that can be addressed in a number of ways in later parts of the meeting.

Only slightly more high tech might be a shared document, where everyone can contribute their ideas (that can be as simple as a Google doc or a shared Word file). That’s a little more self-serve, but it gets the job done. Want to get fancy, and you might build an online form that populates a back-end spreadsheet (easy enough to do with a Google form, but that’s certainly not the only way).

Apart from a jury-rigged one-off technology solution, though, we can actually start to look at virtual collaboration tools that are specifically designed to deal with these types of interactions. Options exist from virtual brainstorming software (that allows capturing, reviewing, sorting, sifting and prioritizing raw ideas) all the way to virtual whiteboards (allowing you to literally replicate a brainstorm exercise of capturing post-it notes on the wall, along with colour coding, segmentation, affinity analysis and the like).

The interesting consequences of this is that with some thought and creativity there is very little that can’t be facilitated and mediated online. We can cobble together low tech solutions using normal office productivity software and a Zoom account. We can create home-grown solutions that create the appearance of seamless and professional interaction on the front end (even if we are scrambling in the background to sift, sort and make sense of contributions). With a few license fees, we can tap into astonishingly well designed collaboration tools.

This is an incredibly interesting place to find ourselves as facilitators. The idea of deploying and using collaboration tools in a meeting context is not new. What were known as “group decision support systems” go back as a concept to the 1970s and 1980s, and were specifically intended to support anonymous, real-time capturing of ideas, and allowing them to be sorted, sifted, prioritized and expanded upon.

The original advent of these tools was as support for in-person meetings. They were a way to capture feedback that didn’t involve filling out page after page of flip-charts (or, after their invention, stacks and stacks of post-it notes). While popular in some organizations and contexts, group decision technology never really took off in a significant way. Part of the reason for that was technological; early solutions were clumsy and awkward to use, and it was easy for the technology to get in the way of the conversation. A different part of the problem, though, was psychological; it felt downright weird to be using technology to support a meeting when everyone was already in the same room.

Things have shifted significantly over the last few years, however. It is now entirely normal to have technology in the meeting room. Like it or loathe it, it is common for laptops, tablets and smartphones to be front and centre—and in active use—during in-person meetings. We have also seen a radical shift in what technology can do. What was awkward and kludgy twenty years ago is now slick and capable. It is now possible to collaboratively engage in a white-boarding session, to compile design feedback on interactive content (and across multiple versions of content, no less) and to brainstorm, vote, sort and segment information, all without leaving your desk.

That means that it is genuinely feasible to facilitate online and interactively now, and to do so in a way that is efficient, collaborative and relatively seamless. It also means that those same options are available in the meeting room, once that becomes a possibility again. It is an open question as to whether the collaboration tools that allow us to work remotely won’t ultimately become more efficient and effective than the more analog, old-school environment of markers, flip-charts, post-it notes and whiteboards.

We have seen a significant number of previously manual and analog processes become automated with a surprising degree of efficiency. Many of the interactions around our meetings and strategic conversations can now be supported with tools that can be brought together and deployed relatively easy, and requiring only a minimal amount of behind-the-scenes technology.

A recent presentation that I delivered offers a relevant case study of what is possible. A chapter of a professional association had invited me to be their speaker. Four months ago, that would have involved an in-person dinner meeting, with me plugging my laptop into a projector and speaking to a real, live audience of people with whom I could interact. As with meetings in general, face-to-face presentations provide the opportunity to understand how you are being received, to read the room, to ask questions and to provide the opportunity to ask and answer audience questions in return.

This time around, unsurprisingly, I was presenting over Zoom. Same presentation, same voice, same audience—but very different level of engagement. What I wanted to allow for was still having some level of interaction. If you were to work with what the platform offers, your choices are limited. There’s a chat function, but that’s incredibly difficult to keep track of while you are speaking; trying to scan the chat dialogue while also keeping a presentation going most often results in you stumbling over both. There is the applause function, of course—but many don’t use it. And you could do a rudimentary poll using the thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons. Other platforms have a bit more functionality, like Q&A abilities, but in delivering a remote presentation, that’s about the limit of what you have to work with.

Nonetheless, I wanted audience interaction. I wanted to engage with them, get their input, and test how the content was resonating with them. I wanted this to happen not just once, as a token “look, we’re being interactive.” Instead, I was looking for periodic participation that demonstrated engagement, tested awareness and assessed the degree to which the content shifted their perceptions and views in the hour that we had together.

What I wound up using was a brilliant piece of technology that allows for real-time polling functions. There are several such products out there, and I’m not going to get in the details of the merits of one or the other, but what this solution allowed each participant to do was to contribute in real time to the discussion, through either a web site or a browser. I built the questions in advance, administered the polls as we want, and compiled the results in real time.

The rather brilliant part was the degree to which this interacted with my presentation. I didn’t have to switch between applications or screens in what I was sharing; the poll questions were embedded and administered from within my presentation. I was able to open the poll, display the questions, close participation and display the results all through my PowerPoint slides. That’s not without some risk—I had no idea how many would contribute, or what they might say—but that is part and parcel of allowing and encouraging interaction. The audience gets to express its views, and you have minimal influence over what that might be.

Our ability to facilitate, to present and to guide strategic discussions is genuinely evolving. As has been demonstrated through this series, part of that is about technology. A great deal of it is about process, and our willingness to rethink how we engage and how we facilitate. But the most significant influence is not being constrained by how we have done it in the past. Each interaction is its own unique problem to solve. Success means approaching that interaction on its own terms, and finding the strategy that works in the moment. And it has ever been thus.

2 Comments to “When Tools Get In The Way”

  1. Michael Hilbert says:

    I receive the notice of your new post on 8/23 and after reading the first line, remembered that I had not read this post as it was a busy, but albeit successful week for my projects. I wanted to read this missed post so I could stay with the continuity of the series.
    Excellent information and historical insight. I find the distractions of presenting on-line very difficult. People turning the video on/off, clearly multitasking and the occasional cat walking across their desk. I enjoyed the technology options you discussed for better participation and holding the attention of the group.
    Off to rad the 8/23 post now that I am caught up!

    • Mark Mullaly says:

      Thanks, Mike!

      Finding rules and norms that work in maintaining participation and engagement is certainly a challenge. Can’t say that I’m opposed to random cat appearances, though (as I write this with a cat snoring beside me on my desk).


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