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Facilitating Remote Brainstorming Sessions

While new reality forced teams to collaborate remotely, the need for socialization is growing; hence virtual team buildings come into the picture.

Thanks to modern technologies, it’s never been easier to run an interactive workshops online. Recently, a group of enthusiasts met to practice brainstorming activities to see how we can put new technologies to work. Having a good facilitation plan and the right tools was essential to making remote sessions work. Discussion topics were “How a remote team could establish effective working agreements” and “How to run a working agreement session remotely.”

CREATIVITY MATRIX

Brainstorming session requires a collaborative board where people can add their best ideas. An empty board is not very effective to start with, but a specific canvas, such as Creativity Matrix, should add more dynamism and energy. The Creativity Matrix is a two-dimensional canvas where ideas are emerging in the focus areas. For example, why not to explore Scrum Values[1] vs Red Zone Behavior[2] as a way to figure out effective working agreements?

RED ZONE BEHAVIOR AND REMOTE WORKING

Green zone behavior promotes teamwork and collaboration, however in the context or remote working it can be difficult to attain if there is no deliberate action from leaders to support people and facilitate a process. Green zone behavior is vital for self-managing teams practicing modern management frameworks such as Scrum or Kanban.

In contrast, red zone behavior can ruin teamwork and should be recognized among team members. Red zone behavior is not somebody’s fault, but often a consequence of growing loneliness and uncertainty causing anxiety and depression. In such circumstances people are more inclining to blame others, come late, show reluctance, bad talking and gossips, respond defensively or even trigger defensiveness in others.

Working agreements is the first step to establish a remote team in the green zone. Self-organizing team would hardly appreciate working agreements pushed down by somebody else. As an act of agreement in the team and the best best way to elaborate it is to arrange a collaborative brainstorming session.

FACILITATION PLAN AND TOOLS

A facilitation plan for remote collaboration may include different activities tailored to achieve a specific purpose. Scrum Master as meeting facilitator may choose whatever process he thinks appropriate for the participants to feel like in a fun team building session. And this would require good online tools such as Zoom and Mural.

A facilitation plan can be prepared as PowerPoint slides and includes typical phases. A facilitation plan of the recent brainstorming session (download here) included:

  • Ice-breaker (20 minutes) —Working in smaller groups helps to open up conversation. For ice-breaker I’ve chosen unusually serious question “How does a red zone behavior looks in the remote team?”. But to get it easy going people can try to google a funny picture that illustrates dysfunctions they are currently experiencing. Then we prioritized discussed dysfunctions to focus on top-4 which are impacting teams here and now.
  • Brainstorming (10 minutes) —People can use virtual cards to fill up the brainstorming canvas. During brainstorming part people usually work individually to diverge ideas and options
  • Round Robin (20 minutes) — Once everything on the board and brainstorming time is over, every idea should be clear to all participants. Best way to achieve that is to give each participant some time to explain their own cards. Ideas can be grouped into clusters
  • Voting (10 minutes) —There’s no good or bad ideas, however team can vote and choose 5–10 best ideas that would promote better teamwork. Voting shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes, but in the remote session people use this time to make a mini-break
  • Elaboration (30 minutes) — This is time for team to create working agreements based on the voted ideas. Team can work in smaller groups
  • Closing (30 minutes) — Summarize meeting outcomes and publish working agreements into a virtual team space. I’d recommend to have in in private work space as well.

PREPARATION

Remote collaboration is easily taking more time, hence 2 hours is the recommended time-box. While setting up a conference in zoom is not that sophisticated, preparing shared canvas in Mural gives you plenty of choices for creativity. Ensure Mural board prepared in advance and shared with all participants so that the team is spending less time to figure it out.

ROLE OF FACILITATOR

Facilitator should be proactively using his superpower to create a positive impact, unleash positive energy for brainstorming. I don’t hesitate to summarize outcomes, key points, put them on voting and or even transform voted items into format required for the next step.

For example during transition from ice-breaker to brainstorming, with permission of my group I re-made ice-breaker key points into problem statements for creativity canvas.

  • Passive participation in the meetings → when I’m loosing interest in the meeting

Why? Red zone behavior sounds too negative and doesn’t motivate all participants to discuss solution to that. Who wants to admit that he or she is passive in the meetings? Softer statement turns a negative point into a problem statement related to everyone on the team. Problem statement sits in between negative symptom (passiveness in the meeting) and real root cause (irrelevant discussion), hence should motivate to share ideas that can work become working agreements.

OUTCOMES

Creativity Matrix is a team artifact that you can save and share. Even the fact that a team is meeting to acknowledge dysfunctions, brainstorm ideas and share it with other team mates sounds like a group therapy. But couple of ideas that stand out from many others can be transformed into actionable working agreements.

After session I got lots of positive feedback and it has inspired my group to move.

I wish everybody to stay safe, work productively from home and socialize with others using technology for remote communication and collaboration.

Author: Slava Moskalenko, Co-owner of Agile.Live.

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