At Skarbek, we are huge fans of integrative thinking and integrative processes. In the complex client organisations we all work in, how do people connect across functional silos and geographies to collaborate to deliver key strategic initiatives, like transformational change and innovation?
We routinely get breakthrough results by putting a diverse set of people in a room and getting them to co-create that plan or future state process, Post-it-note by Post-it note, physically, all along the walls, until there is no room left because everyone has expended their collective efforts on a truly integrated process to get there.
Now that almost everyone is working remotely due to COVID-19, how can business critical group processes like this take place virtually, whilst retaining that all important human interaction? At Skarbek, we have been building custom virtual rooms over the last year, mastering the process and perfecting the best approaches to replicate the vital physical interaction in these digital spaces. We are keen to share insights now for the benefit of those who need to collaborate and simultaneously create, view and edit plans just as though they were working using Post-its on a wall.
The ‘Flow State’
Firstly, we have to concede that the key output of these group processes is not the plan, or future state designed, as you might think (although these are clearly very useful and provide a high quality picture of what needs to happen in time and space). The key effect that unlocks turning intentions into action is in fact the shared awareness of how everyone’s work fits together and the bonds and mutual trust that build from recognising whom depends on whom to deliver. This formation of the orientation and commitment to deliver is part of what we call the ‘humanology’ that must accompany any methodology, whether that is in a physical room, or a virtual one.
This is a very human process and it is greatly enabled by a group starting to work as a team, stood on their feet, at large charts on a wall, away from their screens and devices, manipulating physical representations of their work over the coming months around on a wall, to construct an interdependent model of how they will work together. It is everyone’s plan and therefore the commitment to deliver their part, and not let down their colleagues, outlives the time spent in that room.
Frequently, well-facilitated teams achieve ‘group flow states’, where they become immersed in the exercise to a degree that the work feels absorbing and effortless. Team values trump individual parochial concerns and creative solutions emerge that serve the goals of the initiative. How then have we been replicating this in virtual working, initially where clients have geographically dispersed teams, often in hubs around the world, and more recently also enforced home working due to the coronavirus?
Last week, for example, we organised and facilitated a deployment planning process for a complex enterprise system roll-out in a custom virtual room that we created for a global life sciences client. From running these types of processes, we have learnt:
1. Don’t neglect these processes just because you can’t meet in a room
This integrative style of working is vital and cannot just be relegated due to the current crisis. On a recent assignment, within an hour of working on the virtual planning charts, the team realised the original plan, as previously formulated offline, would not deliver in time and needed to be reworked with the full team perspective. Key milestones were adjusted and the team set to work in the virtual environment to create a deliverable, integrated plan.
2. People still need to understand how their work fits with others’
There can be many sub-processes and technical jargon usages that make much of an original plan unintelligible to the team as a whole. Workstream leads often only understand their own swimlanes and therefore cannot easily anticipate how their work interacts with other workstream leads. Sessions, such as the above in a virtual room, drive the necessary cross-briefings and clarifications to unpack the jargon and proprietary processes until teams can visualise how the programme could be delivered as a whole.
3. Custom virtual rooms work pretty well as an environment for teamwork
As a session proceeds, the interactions with the pre-prepared virtually created analogues (time charts, Post-it notes, flips charts etc.) become part of the background and a flow state can be established, with the group developing shared consciousness, a problem-solving focus and a goal-oriented mindset. The virtual tools do not get in the way, but rather become an aid to allow the team to focus on collaboration.
4. Important group dynamics still take place
Despite interacting entirely in the virtual environment, we have observed group clarity on the work ahead and confidence in the ability to deliver the programme growing significantly throughout a session.
5. Attention can be maintained
Different techniques are required to keep the team focused over the duration of a virtual workshop. We have successfully used a mix of physical approaches (e.g. coffee breaks, energisers) and virtual tools (e.g. setting timers for break-out tasks and guided room navigation for walk-throughs and present-backs from the wall) to keep the group motivated and engaged.
In summary, we have found that key processes can successfully be facilitated in quite large groups, whilst replicating the same physical tools (time charts, strategy maps, change management journey plans, Post-it notes, flips charts etc.) in our custom virtual rooms. More than just replicating the methodology, we have been impressed to see that when well-facilitated, a lot of the beneficial group dynamics can be preserved. Additionally, the sessions were a welcome contrast to the normal drudgery of video conferencing and screen sharing for participants… Humanology is alive and well in these digital environments and the Post-Its don’t fall off the wall!