It wasn’t that long ago when team members everywhere ventured into a large conference room half-filled with whiteboards, markers that long ago dried up, and post-it notes to facilitate and engage in workshops.
The goal of these workshops was to offer an opportunity to bring groups together to brainstorm, build strength in each other’s ideas, set future-state visions, and align on desired outcomes.
Teams evolved to recreate these sessions through digital collaboration tools and they realized something. Those old whiteboarding sessions took a lot of effort and didn’t always drive desired results.
Many organizations are still unlocking the full potential of digital collaboration, so we’ve broken down our own journey at Inspire11 to help get you started. First, let’s look at the ghost of whiteboard’s past.
The squeeze is not worth the juice.
Setting up a room for a whiteboard session is time-consuming and resource-intensive. Finding the space and tools, configuring the board and sticky notes, and creating supplemental materials in PowerPoints or agendas takes a lot of effort that isn’t directly related to the workshop’s outcome. Shaping the desired outcomes and exercises to get there is a better use of your resources time.
After successfully setting up a session and hosting it, you have the dreaded tear-down process. First, you either need to take pictures that you’ll zoom in and squint at later or sit there for quite a while after, taking notes and documenting everything. Then, you have to pull down all the stickies, clean the board off for the next, clear any trash left, and straighten the room up for the next meeting.
Even in the entirely on-site workdays, there was often a mix of people in other offices or homes for one reason or another who needed to attend and struggled to keep up. Speaker phones echoed, people couldn’t keep up with in-room conversations, and inevitably the “video stream” pointed at the whiteboard ended up with a nice view of someone’s behind for half the session. These remote employees were not engaged or included at the same level and struggled to keep up, and their ideas and contributions were lost.
A lot of effort and work goes into planning, preparing, executing, and following up on collaboration sessions. How can we spend more time focused on high-value facilitation and ideation and less on administration and documentation? How can you breathe life into a legacy and foundational element to how organizations collaborate, brainstorm, and plan?
Bridging the collaboration divide
Digital collaboration provides many advantages to both physical and virtual settings. One of which is the ability to source templates for many uses that can be spun up in minutes and adjusted to your need. Leveraging these proven templates cuts down the setup or prep time dramatically while also letting you get more exact and drive more targeted results with your sessions. You can also quickly annotate, edit, move, or delete any of these templates to meet your needs. Everyone would agree that video conferencing and annotation tools are not up to snuff. In digital collaboration, remote participants have an equal chance to “write on the board” and express their ideas; they aren’t limited from asking questions or making comments that are difficult to hear.
Another added benefit is allowing users to be anonymous in these sessions. Digital collaboration has opened a whole new world where employees may have been too shy or quiet to speak up in a larger setting or walk up to a board and put their idea can express their thoughts. This open sharing and bringing more voices to the table results in a more inclusive and well-rounded outcome with the best ideas coming forward.
Lastly, the speed to capture knowledge, report out, and reference the session through digital collaboration tools is incomparable. The session lives on even when the meeting ends. There is no need to take pictures or rush to scribe. You can now split your sessions up into multiple meetings without a need to write “save” at the top of the board and hope and pray that no one erases it. Integrations with Jira or Excel enable you to export your results into other tools to quickly action the outcomes without manually re-typing them.
How Inspire11 jumped in to gain immediate efficiency, increased outcomes and inclusive environments for time spent together
Through an exploration of digital collaboration tools in the market, we find Mural, Miro, and LucidChart provide the most functionality, each having a bit of a niche advantage. Mural excels in setting up wireframes, storyboarding, and GIF sessions easily. Miro has a large community, the “Miroverse”, to quickly source templates from other creators. LucidChart is an engineering favorite for their easy to use architecture diagrams.
However, more important than any individual tool is the facilitation style. It is much different to host and facilitate strategic working sessions virtually than in person. Our best practices for meeting facilitation now reflect the reality of the new ways of working. More than just going over an agenda, outlining rules of engagement and creating a mission statement sets the session off on the right foot. Timeboxing is now more crucial and after we allocate a certain amount of time for each topic, we have an alarm that goes off when our time is up. We politely request participants to have their camera on the whole time and mute themselves if they aren’t talking to reduce background noise. These basic asks raise participation and allow sentiment analysis in real time.
Through discipline in our time and purpose, our meetings have grown to be much more strategic and focused. To retain the human element that often gets lost in a digital world, we use icebreakers much more frequently. While previously icebreakers were something we only used in all-day meetings to get started or reengaged after lunch, they are now a staple to kick off any of these digital meetings, big or small, and drive discussion and camaraderie. Some of our favorites are around “which GIF best describes your day today?” or “what is your theme song?” We learn a little more about each other in each meeting, turning what would seem to be a purely transactional meeting into a more human interaction.
Expanding our use cases to create more lift and engagement
Initially, digital collaboration tools were leveraged for strategic workshops and executive meetings that had to carry on as work shifted to be remote. As our clients saw the success we were bringing with the digital facilitation, our scope and process gradually expanded. We now host training sessions with our stakeholder’s staff to increase their skills using the tools, as well as building out reusable templates to meet different workshop goals and facilitation needs.
As digital collaboration became the norm for the large-scale PI Planning and visioning workshops, we expanded into the daily standups and retros of everyday life. The same approach is used for formal executive workshops as well as video-game themed developer meetings. Our standing meetings that had grown stale and repeatable have life and energy injected by the creativity put around the same three questions the team was asking and answering. The flexibility offers our teams a way to change our ceremonies to meet the team sentiment and needs in ways that a Jira or Whiteboard with stories and retro points never could.
As more and more people join the platform and create their own digital boards, the library of templates continues to grow. We’re at the point now where if you have a meeting about something, we have a template for it.
Success we’ve seen
The success of using digital collaboration tools takes many forms.
- It connects leaders from all over the world to work on high-level business objectives like a refined operating model and organization design. It allows team members to draw out designs in real time, create design thinking activities to challenge their mental models, and hold a source of truth for as much constant iteration as needed.
- From a staff engagement perspective, it breathes new life into stale agile processes and meetings. Icebreaker activities have opened up new conversations between teammates and have led to a deeper understanding of each other. The content and the response are a sneaky fun mix that usually provides a good amount of laughs and insights into working styles.
- Digital collaboration tools can bring in teams of 50 plus from diverse locations to large-scale activities like PI Planning, which drives organization effectiveness by aligning teams and mapping dependencies. The connection back to product management tools eliminates double work and saves time.
- Digital collaboration has been extremely helpful in product development with our international clients. Here’s how we approach this:
- We connect with teams globally and spend time getting to know each other through icebreakers and introductions.
- We pre-populate a storyboard on the platform and can visually explain the user journey and visualize the product interaction. This visual representation sparks ideas and feedback, and everyone can comment and leave notes on each board simultaneously.
- Once we establish the desired process for the user, we draw out the high-level technical architecture and connect databases and third-party systems. We drop notes and assign roles and responsibilities for each section along the way. We draw up placeholders to represent the databases, and the team starts listing which fields we need from which databases.
- We use sessions like these to tactically identify what epics need to be created and what the dependencies are between teams. This helps us organize effectively and structure our product development process. In a process that used to take a lot longer, with many meetings and siloed teams, having the teams aligned and collaborating towards the same goal has improved delivery, reducing time and money spent.
- Another major success that we saw was with facilitating a product team’s road mapping session.
- These were typically full-day meetings with people having to clear schedules and teams getting bored or losing momentum.
- With digital collaboration keeping everything in place and being easy enough to come back to, we split it out into multiple sessions over a week in 1-2 hour chunks where the team could stay engaged, not miss out on other commitments, and have focused sessions.
- How we broke the board and the sessions up were: current team sentiment, what skills and tools we want to grow in, feature ideation, team voting, and lastly, the roadmap as an output. Each step had a lot more participation than any previous full-day event. We ended with a roadmap that the product team was proud of evangelizing, and the development team was excited to get to work on.