Communicating with your Virtual Team, Part 2: Facilitating Conference Calls

Some of us feel like we spend half our lives in meetings – mostly by conference call. Here are a few tips to make the time snappy and productive.

Last week I facilitated a short planning session by phone for a virtual team. In the brief post-meeting evaluation, I was struck with how happy the group was about such commonplace meeting format. It got me reflecting on a couple of best practices I use as a facilitator to make the most of conference calls:

1. Do a POP: as with any meeting, clarify the Purpose, Outcome and THEN the Process before calling the meeting, and at the beginning of the call. For example:

  • Is the PURPOSE of the call to plan an upcoming strategy session with the whole board – or just to share information?
  • Is the desired OUTCOME to make a clear decision, or simply some shared context across a group that will be planning together in the future?  

Then clarify the PROCESS, especially:

  • What prep is needed? Is there any pre-reading that needs to be circulated in advance? 
  • How long do you have for the total call?
  • What are the priority agenda items?
  • How much time will each topic need?
  • Who is facilitating? Presenting?
  • Who’s taking notes, and how will these be distributed
  • Who’s on the call?

2. Practice “Conocimiento: Always start with a brief check-in.  As my Rockwood co-trainer Michael Bell continually reminds me, “go slow to go fast.”  It’s not just a lovely thing to do: at the end of the day, teams that have taken the time to build trusting human relationships tend to function more efficiently and creatively,  especially during times of crisis, stress or when rapid-response is called for.  So take just a few minutes, even on a conference call, to share appreciations and see how everyone’s doing. One great simple question to ask is, “where are you right now – what are you looking at?”  When we engage our mind’s eye in seeing our fellow callers, it brings us that much closer together, even as disembodied beings.

3. Use frequent “rounds”, and call people out. In a face-to-face meeting, facilitators are trained to do the opposite – we avoid calling on people by name, because it could force some to participate in a large group when they’re not ready or willing; it can be pushy or disrespectful. But on conference calls, I can’t read the body language of people wanting to speak. If I simply ask “what does everyone think”, we risk:

  • Vast, excruciatingly long silences
  • Only hearing from the same 2 brave and hasty souls who happen to jump in really fast each time a question is called
  • Repeatedly having two or more people tripping over one another as they jump in at the same time.

So I keep the list of participants in front of me and simply do ‘rounds’ – calling the name of each person on the call in order.  This is especially important when we’re capturing decisions.

4. Stay abreast of the tech: Technology to facilitate interaction for remote groups is quickly becoming effective and affordable. More groups and trainers I know are now experimenting with Maestro or similar systems aimed at maximizing group participation in a strictly auditory environment (i.e., you can do small group breakouts AND still wear your pajamas!).  They not only allow up to dozens of participants to call in to one central line from anywhere in the world, but people can ‘raise their hands’ to ask questions or offer comments, with the moderator tracking it all on a web-based dashboard. Participants can also be broken out into small groups for more intimate discussion, with auditory facilitators supporting the conversations or ‘lurking’ until needed.  Of course, people can be looking at shared documents at the same time, even using simple web-based collaborative platforms like Google Drive, that allow multiple viewers to edit the same document in real time, with colour-coding or other visual cues indicating who is making what changes.

5. Commit to continual learning:  Even if you don’t have time to do a brief evaluation at the end of every meeting, commit to doing it after every two to three calls.  Honest, direct, kind feedback is the only way individuals and teams can learn about what to keep doing or do more of, and what to avoid, in order to maximize their future performance.  At the end of the day, social change leaders are aiming for results – and a continual practice of giving and receiving skillful feedback can help us achieve more powerful results with less effort in the long run.

For other great tips on virtual teams, see:  http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/04/how_to_avoid_virtual_miscommun.html  and

http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/03/how_to_conduct_a_virtual_meeti.html

Agenda design: Troubleshooting “heading rows repeat” in long agenda tables

OK, this is an unusual post for me, as it concerns a dorky little technical formatting problem that’s been ticking me off – and I’ve finally solved it. As a facilitator, I’m constantly working with fairly lengthy tables in Word. And sometimes they get all pissy on me and refuse to do what I want. Ugh! This happened just now: I’m preparing a detailed facilitator’s agenda for an upcoming training, in table format. It’s both for my eyes, and those of my client. I need the heading row to repeat on each of the 14 pages of this table, as it sets out the minutes needed for each agenda item, the time, the detailed activities and any visual tools (flipcharts, handouts, videos etc.) needed, so it’s really helpful to have it show at the top of each page. I’m working with Microsoft Office for Mac 2011, and of course had already selected the first header row, then chose “Table”, “Heading Row Repeat”. But suddenly, “Heading Rows Repeat” stopped working.  I hadn’t added any manual page breaks.  So, fellow facilitators, if you’re having trouble getting “heading rows repeat” to work in Word, here’s the solution:

Go to “Tables” in the menu bar; select “Table Properties”; click the “Table” tab; then make sure that the “Text Wrap” option near the bottom of the dialogue box is selected to “None”.

That’s it! Simple solution to a minor annoyance that’s plagued me for a couple of years. If that doesn’t work, then either you’re looking at the wrong view (repeated heading rows only show in Page Layout view) or your table may be corrupted (can’t help you with that).  Happy agenda-crafting!

This is the kind of agenda where Heading Rows Repeat is really helpful

Leadership, conflict resolution & “Process Work”: Upcoming workshop

Interested in building your skills around conflict resolution, leadership and organizational effectiveness?  From January 14 – 16, 2011, veteran trainer and coach Dr. Stephen Schuitevoerder, President of Portland’s Process Work Institute, is coming up to Vancouver to  offer a unique seminar focused on leadership and a deeply compelling approach to group conflict called “Process Work”.  The workshop is called “Organizational Excellence: The Cultivation of Effective Leadership.” It promises to offer a highly experiential approach to skill development around leadership, organizational health and group conflict.

I’m particularly drawn to and curious about Process Work, or “World Work”,  because of it’s deep focus on the potential  for social transformation through conflict and group dysfunction, combined with its analysis of power and privilege.

My interest was particularly sparked this past Spring, when I received some startling confidential feedback on a confidential participant survey after I co-facilitated a 4-day leadership training. This one participant suggested that I am conflict averse. Me??!! Conflict averse?! I’m a skilled facilitator, dammit – I’m great with conflict!  I stood up, outraged, glaring at the computer. But after huffing indignantly for a few moments… well, I noticed that I’d been huffing indignantly for a few minutes.  That’s a sure sign that something hit home, right?

So, after calming down, and gently setting aside my Inner Xena for a few moments, I realized that indeed, there have been cases where I, as a facilitator, have squirmed uncomfortably when a group is in the throes of a heated conflict – especially when some of that heat is cast in my direction.  Those moments can be both terrifying AND present enormous opportunities for growth and learning (I’m not just saying that, I swear). And it got me thinking more deeply about how we may respond differently to different kinds and layers of  conflict – and how committed I am to continually building my ease and comfort with “sitting in the fire” of conflict, whether it’s about facilitating a challenging conversation about race and privilege, or getting our kids to pitch in more proactively around housework.  I do believe that conflict, held with skill and positive intent, is essential for social change. As James Surowiecki lays out so compellingly in his book, The Wisdom of Crowds,  mixed groups of people with different backgrounds, skills and points of view are vastly more intelligent, collectively , than homogenous groups of like-minded people.  The challenges we humans have created for ourselves are so complex and multi-layered that monolithic group-think is potentially disastrous. AND… diverse viewpoints in a group context often lead to conflict. Handled with skill, conflict can be immensely useful, healthy and productive. Handled poorly, it can lead to subtle and overt forms of violence and undermine key relationships in seconds.

Process or World Work may offer the kind of self-reflective training and analysis of social transformation, power and privilege I am presently hungry for in my own development as a facilitator and coach.  My first exploration began this past June, at a facilitator’s training workshop on Deep Democracy and Process Work offered by Julie Diamond and Gary Reiss, also of the Process Work Institute. This coming workshop in January promises to be similarly self-reflective and experiential.

If you want to read more about Process Work or World Work, here are a couple of books that were highly recommended to me:

To register for “Organizational Excellence: The Cultivation of Effective Leadership“, January 14-16, 2011 in Vancouver, contact pamschmidt1@gmail.com.

Authentic facilitation: Two upcoming trainings June 10-11 in Toronto

Anima Leadership is offering two 1-day facilitation trainings, June 10 and 11th, at Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation.

Anima Leadership, one of Canada’s most insightful, intelligent and experienced transformational leadership teams, is offering two back-to-back facilitation trainings at Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation. Authentic Facilitation 1: Learning to facilitate with presence of ease is on June 10th, followed by Authentic Facilitation 2: Learning to sit in the fire of conflict on June 11th. Check here for registration and details.

Briefing notes: Making Face-to-face meetings count with solid preparation

I just got off the phone with one of my coalition clients, as we committed to planning our next meeting together well in advance. There is nothing like well-organized face-to-face meetings for collaborating, bonding and pooling a group’s collective brain-trust and creativity. But as we all know, meetings can have a Dark Side. If done poorly, meetings can suck a group’s life force; I swear they can! And they can squander money. Consider a two-day meeting of 15 non-profit members, each receiving a salary equivalent of about  $25/hour. It costs a whopping $6,000 for their time, and that’s before even considering food, travel costs, facilitation fees and venue rental.

Solid preparation is one of the keys to ensuring that that $6,000 of face-time is invested well. That means doing as much pre-thinking about the meeting overall, and specific topics within it, as possible. Anything that could just as easily be addressed via email, should be.

Obviously a well-designed agenda is the first step to making the most of valuable face-time.  For larger group meetings, when there isn’t time or budget to contact each participant individually, I often use an on-line survey, like SurveyMonkey, to get a sense of agenda priorities across the whole group.

And I always have the client group do a quick P.O.P., clarifying the Purpose, desired Outcome and best Process, both for the overall meeting, and for each agenda topic.

Another key tool I’ve been working with for several coalition clients is the classic Briefing Note. If you do government relations, the concept will be familiar: it’s a tightly-written 1-2 page document aimed at bringing extremely busy decision-makers up to speed on an issue quickly. A briefing note typically includes key background facts, analysis, options – with well-considered risks and benefits for each – and recommendations. A decent template for writing government-focus briefing notes – for example, the format a Ministerial Assistant might use when informing a Cabinet Minister about essential elements and possible responses to an issue – can be found here; just check one of the “background” buttons to download a sample.

Briefing notes are also useful for extremely busy non-profit or coalition members. When well-crafted briefing notes are circulated (and of course, read) in advance, they allow groups to skip past the preliminaries or simple updates – which can easily be done via email – so they can dive right to the heart of a meaty agenda topic fairly quickly.

The concept is pretty straightforward, but here are a couple of structures that I’ve seen work well for teams and coalitions:

 

1. Briefing notes for decision

Topic: include the topic, date, authors’ name

Purpose:  “For Decision” (ie the group will need to consider the issues raised in the note, in addition to others that may arise, then make a decision about how to proceed)

Background: (include a summary of key facts, including main actors, major events/activities to date, analysis, public opinion data, highlights of media coverage and framing to date, etc)

Options: 2-5 possible courses of action, including a brief assessment of the pros and cons for each.

Recommendation: proposed course of action, and the rationale

2. Briefing notes for information/updates

Topic: include the topic, date, authors’ name

Purpose:  “For Information”

Background: include a summary of key facts, new/emerging trends, new analysis, etc

Activities: clarify key activities to date as they relate to the overall strategy

Results: clarify the outcomes and results to date based on the activities

Outstanding questions: here’s where the group can get important ‘heads-up’ about unclear issues

Next steps: note upcoming decision points, key actions/events others may need to be aware of

Briefing notes can be used for other purposes as well. I’ve worked with groups that use them to prepare their colleagues for a brainstorm or idea-generating session: sometimes a smaller team just really needs a larger pool of creative thinkers to ensure they have a robust pool of ideas and strategies.  Then those ideas can later be explored and tested outside of the meeting. These kinds of creative sessions can be really invigorating for a team, too – a stimulating shift from more business-like or process-focused topics.

I’ve also seen briefing notes used to shape the way a group provides face-to-face feedback on a key strategy or funding proposal. This can be helpful when real dialogue is needed, so that trade-offs can be explored in more depth. Circulating a proposal to a series of individuals via email or googledocs just won’t allow for that kind of synergistic, collective reflection and discussion.

Well-crafted briefing notes require a fair bit of work and discipline on the part of the presenter. They also require discipline on the part of participants – who need to commit to reading them in advance. But over and over I’ve seen individual and collective thinking sharpened considerably with this kind of pre-work, allowing groups to do what they do best – think creatively, dig deep, explore trade-offs and shared values, and find collective solutions to complex problems.

Facilitation, tricky language and racial justice

What does it mean to be a white facilitator wanting to actively support racial justice, and what Martin Luther King described as “Beloved Community”?  And specifically, how might that intention be reflected in the subtle use of language when facilitating or training? Looking back on two recent experiences as a facilitator working with diverse social justice participants in the U.S., this question has me flummoxed. Let me share two stories (actually, two stories-within-stories).

Tale of the Bus-Stop Crack Addict
Last February I was in the hills of California co-facilitating a leadership training with an incredibly inspiring multi-racial group of participants. We were teaching a skill called ‘meshing’ to help leaders stay centered and resourceful in the face of aggression or hostility from others.  To illustrate, I described an early evening last summer in Vancouver, when my two boys and I were waiting at a bus stop in the downtown east side – one of the lowest-income neighbourhoods in Canada.  A young, powerfully-built man walked up and started hassling my teenaged step-son. The man was high, red-eyed, agitated and extremely aggressive, jerkily swinging his fists as though he were about to strike. Like many of our street homeless, he was probably mentally ill. I stepped up between them, actively ‘meshing’, grounding my energy and  started calmly talking with him while the boys watched nervously. By the time our bus arrived, he’d calmed right down. As we stepped aboard, he clutched my shoulder and said in an almost pleading voice, “I’m not such a bad guy you know.”

Later on, a Vanessa*, a brilliant young African-American participant, shared that while the story was a good illustration of meshing, it also reinforced the stereotype of black men as violent and drug-addicted.

I was startled. Not for one second did it occur to me to mention his race. And, as I’d recounted the tale, I saw the man’s white face, curly reddish hair and blue eyes ringed with red as vividly in my mind’s eye as if he’d been standing right in front of me. To the extent I thought of it at all, I implicitly assumed that everyone saw the same thing.

Was I being naïve? Obtuse? ‘Colour-blind’?  Well, in a way, yes.  I was unaware of what author Drew Weston describes as the unconscious ‘networks of associations’ the story may have triggered for the participants. In Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, a neighbourhood I’d worked on the edge of for 12 years, the vast majority of street homeless and drug-addicted people are white or aboriginal. As a Western Canadian, I simply have not been inundated with the kind of relentless media portrayal of black men as violent criminals that Americans are subjected to every day. As a result, I don’t automatically picture black men when I hear stories about street crime. I picture white men.

My take-away from Vanessa’s feedback? Don’t risk leaving my participants to ‘fill in the blanks’ with their own racial stereotypes or unconscious networks of associations. Recognize that, as another African-American woman  noted in a training this past weekend, “it’s always in the room. Race is always the first thing people notice.”  So name it – use a quick adverb: “white”, “black” (especially in Canada), “African-American”, “woman of colour”,  and so on. In the last few months, mindful of this lesson, I’ve started doing exactly this, usually as a quick aside in the process of sharing longer stories. As part of this effort, I try to interrupt the often unconscious assumption that ‘whiteness’ is normal (and everything else is exotic).

Tale of Two Hunky Candidates
But wait – is this always the way to go? Consider Story Number Two. This past weekend I was facilitating a fantastic group of multi-racial, progressive political and policy leaders in Philadelphia. At one point we were talking about the classic “message box” used in most political campaigns to clarify the central message and differentiate between two candidates. I was recounting an electoral race I’d been involved in where the two candidates were seen by the media as being virtually identical in several ways. “They both rode their bikes everywhere and advocated for sustainable transportation,” I explained. “They were both successful business leaders, middle-upper class, and both were athletic, environmentally progressive, white and good-looking.”

Afterward, Joan*, one of the participants asked if we could speak privately in a break. “Suzanne,” she said, “I’m curious. Why did you mention their race at all? And why did you describe them as ‘good-looking whites’?” There was a lot to unpack in those two simple questions, as we discovered.  First, from her perspective – and she was a white woman married to an African-American – it was klunky and unnecessary of me to mention that they were white at all. Secondly, she felt I was playing into racial bias by implying that white men were generally better-looking. Whoah! How did I imply that?  Who even thinks that? Again, I found myself blind to the automatic assumptions or networks of associations of at least some of my participants might have.

Once gain, I found myself back squarely in the “flummoxed” box.

After I’d explained the crack-addict story that had led me to start noting race, Joan suggested that next time I might consider separating adjectives like “white” and “good-looking” in time and space – maybe slip another adjective in between them – to ensure the people don’t fill-in-the-associations. It’s another idea I’ll add to my growing ‘language toolbox’ when it feels appropriate.

But is the ‘answer’ clear to me? Not at all. It’s an ongoing dance between being skillful on all the levels any facilitator has to track (agenda, timing, participation, group energy levels) while also being mindful of the subtleties of language and other dynamics connected to racism and privilege. There is often no “right” answer in how to frame issues or use language. But that’s the work, isn’t it? As a facilitator, my goal is to help provide the most supportive, safe space possible for participants to learn and collaborate.  As a woman committed to social justice, I see my job as being awake to the dynamics of power and privilege – to be an effective ally in the collective journey toward beloved community. And I am so damned lucky to be surrounded by generous participants like Vanessa and Joan, and so many of my fellow facilitators and trainers, as I stumble along that path.

(* not their real names)

Facilitation training on the West Coast with Julian Griggs

Master facilitator Julian Griggs is once again offering his widely-acclaimed 5-day intensive training, “The Art and Craft of Facilitation” on spectacular Cortes Island this May 10-14, 2010. Check out Hollyhock for details. This intensive is aimed at “independent facilitators, Executive Directors, managers, project leaders or any participants in collaborative group processes that are looking to enable teams to be effective, and support groups in achieving their full potential.” Julian’s trainings usually sell out – he offers a powerful, transformative approach to facilitation skills-building – so book fast.

Structured Decision-Making: Roadmap to Wise Choices?

As a facilitator, I’m always searching for new approaches to help groups plan strategically and make smart decisions.  One approach I’m currently exploring is “structured decision-making”, or SDM (though somehow that sounds faintly obscene when I say it out loud).

Structured decision-making is a systematic process developed for making wise, transparent decisions in the face of complex issues with diverse stakeholders, high stakes and divergent perspectives.

Example: The Holiday Dilemma
Here’s a super-simple example of how SDM might work, from my friend and colleague Trent Berry. He’s the co-founder of Compass Resource Management,  based out of Vancouver. Compass boasts one of the world’s most masterful teams at designing and facilitating structured decision-making processes for resource and environmental issues.

He explains:  “Imagine you and your spouse want to plan a holiday.  You want to go to Mexico.  They want to go to Hawaii.  How do you resolve the difference?  Well, you start by trying to understand why each other prefers one location or the other.  What are you really trying to achieve.  So, you might point out cost, things to do, safety, etc.  Those are your objectives or interests.  Now rather than just arguing about a location, you can discuss the relative merits of each from the perspective of what you each want to achieve.  doing that you may discover that some of your facts are wrong – e.g., cost.  But you’ll also understand how much importance each of you is placing on different things – e.g., cost vs. safety.  And through the process you may understand each other better and you may actually come up with a third option that meets both of your objectives.  Not always –  but sometimes.  Really, structured decision making is similar to what used to be called ‘interest-based negotiation’.  The only way it may differ is there is the discussion goes beyond two private parties and the focus is on not only understanding interests but also doing a better job of really understanding how different options perform across interests. Its a marriage of science and values.”

The Steps to SDM
In practice, SDM processes can often be described in decision trees or other concept maps.  The basic steps follow, in many ways, a really great government policy briefing note. Here are the steps for a “PrOACT (Problem, Objectives and Measures, Alternatives, Consequences, and Trade-offs” SDM framework (originally outlined in the book “Smart Choices”):

  1. Define the problem
  2. Specify the objectives and measures – including getting agreement on “what matters”, and prioritizing information and assessing uncertainty or risk with different kinds of information
  3. Create imaginative alternatives
  4. Identify the consequences for each
  5. Clarify the trade-offs.

Growing interest in SDM
From Alberta to Australia, the wave of interest in this approach is growing. One major application is for complex resource management issues. Imagine a group of environmental activists, First Nations, oil industry proponents and government staff trying to come to some sort of sound, values-based decision-making around large-scale oil exploration over a relatively intact natural ecosystem. How do you design a dialogue process that isn’t about greenwashing or tokenism and doesn’t suck the life force – not to mention the coffers — of all involved for the next decade?  Past experience has shown that lengthy land-use planning approaches and environmental assessments don’t always yield wise results, and especially not in a timely or cost-effective way.

As Berry explains, “environmental assessments all too often look like a long, expensive shopping list of environmental impacts, with no way to prioritize or sort through them. Structured decision-making starts from a place of shared values – because science can tell us about all the options, but it can’t do a thing about setting priorities or assessing the relative risks among them. Only a clear set of values can do that.”

Beyond Resource issues
SDM is also being used with child welfare workers in California, adult protective services in Michigan  and a host of other agencies.  Check out several other case studies on-line, including several at http://www.structureddecisionmaking.org/applications.htm.

POP everything! Strategic planning in 30 seconds or less

P.O.P. – Purpose, Outcome and Process – is one of the snappiest, most useful planning tools I know. And it’s completely scalable – from planning a 10 minute phone call to organizing a campaign.

One of the simplest, snappiest and most useful planning tools I know is one we teach at Rockwood Leadership Institute.  It’s a sweet little acronym called “P.O.P.” – standing for Purpose, Outcome and Process. Given the state of my memory, I  lunge at anything this easy to remember.  And this fast. Sure, it may take a bit more 30 seconds sometimes, but it’s still pretty snappy and massively effective.

Here’s a snapshot of P.O.P. And really, it’s so straightforward, this is all you need:

  • “Purpose” answers the question “why
  • “Outcome speaks to “what” – the vision of what success will look and feel like when you ‘arrive’
  • “Process” speaks to “how” – the specific steps involved in getting there.

Straight from the Source
The “P.O.P.” model was devised by brilliant leadership consultant (and fellow Rockwood trainer) Leslie Sholl Jaffe and her partner Randall Alford.  As they describe it, “POP is a useful tool for a multitude of the daily activities leaders find themselves faced with: meeting agendas, campaigns, difficult conversations, unplanned calls and conversations… As you can gather from the list, POP is scalable, it can be used for large, long term projects, regular weekly staff meetings, a meeting you attend or a call that comes in that has no agenda, coaching/mentoring sessions…”

Case in point: Workshop Design
Last week I met with a small team of folks designing a workshop within a larger conference for immigrants and refugees.  We started by stepping back and asking: what is the overall purpose of this workshop? Why now? Why here? How can it advance our particular focus on supporting skilled immigrants and refugees in the job market? Then we asked: if this workshop were wildly successful, what would the outcome be? In other words, what does success look like, in concrete terms? Only then did we address the process – the specific format, agenda design, room set-up, breakout size etc.

Cart before the horse…
All too often, action-oriented social justice and not-for-profit leaders jump straight into planning the process of calls, meetings and entire projects – without first nailing down a clear sense of the purpose and outcomes. In practice, it’s vastly more effective to “go slow to go fast”.  Even doing a quick “POP” for simple tasks, I’ve found, can save hours of time, and help ensure that your  creative energies are aligned and vastly more effective from the start.