Here is a wonderful summary by Geoffrey Morton-Haworth of a January 2011 discussion in NCDD’s LinkedIn group on ground rules and best practices in virtual facilitation. The discussion was started by group member Martin Pearson with the subject “Groundrules necessary to make the best of virtual meetings."
Martin wrote that he was starting to use Skype more for meetings, and asked group members if they have created specific ground rules for their own virtual meetings (like asking people to not to browse the internet while participating in the meeting). The conversation morphed into a rich discussion on best practices for virtual meetings, with over 30 comments shared.
Virtual Meetings: Design with the ‘Distracted Participant’ in Mind
Geoffrey Morton-Haworth posted on February 03, 2011 03:39
There has been a useful discussion in a LinkedIn group over the last few weeks. The group was the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) and the topic was “ground rules for making the best of virtual meetings”. It is an important topic since more and more of us meet and work together over the internet these days. The drawback with LinkedIn discussions, however good, is that they tend to fade away into hyper-space (I don’t think they are picked up by search engines, maybe this is accidental or maybe it is by design to ensure that such discussions remain relatively private). Therefore what follows is an attempt to distill and record this conversation.
What’s a Virtual Meeting?
Colin Gallagher (a public participation expert from Salinas, California) noted that there are two basic types of virtual meetings – synchronous and asynchronous – plus a third that combines both.
The Challenge of Virtual Meetings
Martin Pearson (a facilitator from Glasgow, UK with a background in peace studies) framed the question this way:
I am starting to use Skype more for meetings. However, I am starting to see that there are different ‘rules’ necessary for effective virtual meetings. For example, a commitment from those in the meeting not to browse the internet while participating in the meeting will ensure a greater quality of participation. Or asking people to go to a room where they cannot be distracted would also support people to give of their best.
Do you have any other suggestions of useful ‘ground rules’ which support participants in virtual meetings to make the most effective use of their time together?
With so many online meeting systems now available (Cisco’s Webex, GoToMeeting, Microsoft’s NetMeeting, and so on), you would think that this was an old question and must have been asked and answered many times. But Carolyn Caywood (a librarian from Norfolk, Virginia) contributed a webliography (http://www.diigo.com/user/nmcgee/virtualmeetings) which suggests there is still more to say.
It is not easy to run a good physical meeting where all the people are in the room. How much harder might it be to run a similar meeting where most are phoning in or connecting via the internet? John Carroll (a facilitator from Atlanta, US who specializes in leading virtual teams) counted twenty examples of the poor behaviors in virtual meetings that stem from participants who do not value virtual meetings and consequently multitask:
Cynthia Wold (a consultant with Heartland Inc in the Greater Minneapolis-St. Paul Area, USA) agreed that the real culprit in virtual versus in-person meetings is distraction and a sense of disconnect. Nearly all these “poor behaviors” can occur in physical meetings, but three factors make virtual meetings additionally challenging:
Cynthia gave us the phrase that best sums up all the subsequent advice on how to conduct virtual meetings: “design them with the ‘distracted participant’ in mind” (drawn from Julia Young’s “Five Tips on Running Engaging Webinars” http://www.ncdd.org/?p=1479 ).
Good Practice in Any Meeting
Cynthia also noted that all the usual practices or terms of engagement that apply to in-person meetings regarding timing, respect, confidentiality and order apply to virtual meetings as well.
Thomas Herrmann (an experienced facilitator of Open Space Technology meetings from Göteborg, Sweden) invites participants to create a powerful meeting by presenting the four major principles of Dr Angeles Arrien’s Four-Fold Way:
This prompted Michael Goldman (a certified professional facilitator and collaboration specialist from Toronto, Canada) to remind us of the importance of addressing the group norms. For him, ‘norms’ are ‘behavioral guidelines that concretely define how group members want to be treated by each other’. There are two types of norms:
As the group generates norms it’s important to point out ‘abstract’ or ‘value-based’ norms that tend to mean different things to each group member such as ‘integrity’, ‘teamwork’, ‘professionalism’ etc. As the facilitator, it is our responsibility to help the group more concretely define what these words mean. For example, we might ask “imagine I walk in to the room and see our group acting with integrity, what behaviors are they demonstrating that would lead me to this conclusion?”
All defined norms need to get group consensus before approval. In addition, the facilitator needs to confirm with the group “how much authority does she/he have in ensuring the norms are followed?” Asking for agreement to intervene when appropriate affords the facilitator (especially in high stakes, high profile, high status situations) the right to intercede when norms are broken without anybody losing face.
Ground Rules Specific to the Online Environment
Carolyn offered these ground rules for participants and conveners/facilitators.
For facilitating or moderating:
Ben Warner (Deputy Director at Jacksonville Community Council, Florida) suggested two additional ground rules:
Enriching these excellent suggestions, Harry Webne-Behrman (a Senior Partner at Collaborative Initiative, Inc. in Madison, Wisconsin) stressed the importance of varying activities and modalities in a way that encourages continuous engagement. Small group work (which Maestro Conferencing, for example, allows, see http://maestroconference.com) brings new incentives to remain engaged and ‘civil’ in participation.
Thomas agreed and described some of the simple but powerful tools he uses in virtual and in-person meetings:
Addressing her own questions, Cynthia suggested:
Michael said that he used the circle in all his teleconference meetings. Always start with a ’round-robin’ structure to ensure everyone speaks then open it to a random structure – anyone can now add their opinion. He checks off every time a person contributes and calls on those who have been quiet for a while.
When NOT to Use a Virtual Meeting
Finally, Martin posted the question:
When are virtual meetings, using Skype or other software, useful and save a lot of travel time? And when are virtual meetings not so effective?
From my experience I think virtual meetings can be quite effective when people know each other well and have met in person before. But if you are only meeting virtually, such meeting can be less effective.
Based on my experience designing and implementing a civic engagement program in a very diverse community, I think that they would be less and less effective as you approach portions of populations in your community that rely primarily upon door hangers or radio for community meetings, respond primarily to announcements that are in a language other than English, and do not have a significant online presence. Still, for meetings that are ongoing on the same topic (maybe it is several budget meetings and people are being encouraged to come to the series, and each meeting is designed to build on the next), an online resource can still be built to supplement the in-person meeting environment, and the in-person attendees can be invited to participate in the online environment, assuming cultural, language, technological, and any other barriers have been surpassed.
I do think there are circumstances where a virtual meeting (only) can and should be launched, for example, to take ongoing input from the public on commonly available data in a format easily understood by all. This might be something periodically announced in newspapers of various languages and available on a City’s website, for example. However, the structure and presentation should direct people to an alternate (physical location) where they can go to perform a similar or equivalent participatory / public input function in case they are unable to complete the online task.
The Key: Mindful Awareness of the Group in Progress
Perhaps the last word should go to Harry:
The basic ground rules are the foundation… lots of variations can work or become dust in the pile of ignored intentions. The key is how we actually facilitate these virtual discussions and our mindful awareness of the group in the process.
One more dimension to consider is our own bias here… in Integral Facilitation, which I co-teach with Darin Harris and Steve Davis, we emphasize the interior journey and the importance of personal clarity. Tools, ground rules, task organization, etc. are all important to be sure, but the inner awareness and clarity of the facilitator is essential. I would also refer you to Larry Dressler’s “Standing in the Fire” and the LinkedIn discussion around it about a year ago… not only applicable to face-to-face meetings, as he framed it, but to virtual discussions.
Good stuff… thanks for catalyzing it!