Techniques to Build a Collaborative Meeting Environment
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Lead and Contribute to Collaborative Meetings and Workshops
How to Facilitate or Participate in Live and Virtual Conversations to Define Requirements, User Stories, and Features
Facilitation Is a Critical Social Skill for Achieving Collaboration
It is the art of leading a group of contributors over whom you have no authority to deliver a predefined outcome. There are many facilitation styles, each of which can succeed in the right environment and flounder in a hostile environment. To be sure, facilitation is not just for the nominal leader of the conversation. Any contributor can help facilitate the outcome.
The word “facilitate” means literally, “to make easy or easier”. Anything you can do to aid participants in the creation of the desired outcome is invaluable. Here are several techniques that might come in handy you when you are leading or participating in a workshop or conversation.
Use an Open Issues List or Parking Lot
This simple gimmick has saved my bacon many times. The idea is simple, but it requires finesse to work. Many call this a “Parking Lot”, but I have always called it an Open Issues List to emphasize that it only contains topics the group could not resolve during the session.
The name helps maintain the group’s focus on the objective of the get-together. Throughout the meeting, I keep the Open Issues List visible for all to see. I encourage participants to avoid these topics and call out others who start to discuss them. This discourages people from constantly trying to steer the discussion toward their pet peeves.
At the end of the session, I review the Open Issues List to:
- make sure that the issue is still relevant, and
- assign the issue to an attendee to own for resolution (the default owner is the Product Manager/Owner or whoever approved the meeting) and report back to the group by a specified date.
I love this technique for situations in which the group is trying to solve a particularly knotty problem and is challenged to find solutions. If the organization has tried different solutions to address it but it keeps rearing its ugly head, try this.
- Give the group a limited amount of time (typically 3 – 5 minutes) to imagine how to make the current situation worse than it already is (exaggerate the impact the problem has). Turn the problem into a catastrophe.
- Discuss each scenario to determine:
- Is it realistic enough to spend time on?
- What could be done to prevent it, recover if it happens, or pivot if you can’t recover?
You can generate a ton of User Stories, Features, or Requirements that eliminate or at least alleviate the problem.
Affinity Mapping starts with a decent-sized collection of diverse ideas, whether they are User Stories, Requirements, Features, Problems, Solutions, Test Scenarios, or whatever. The simplest implementation is to have each item on a post-it note or index card. You also need space to stick or pin stuff.
Simply pick an item and place in somewhere within the boundaries of your display area. If you feel that the selected item is central to the topic you are discussing, place it toward the middle of the space. If it is more of a peripheral topic, place it more towards the edge of the space.
Pick the next item from the collection. Place it as close to the pinned item as you feel is indicative of the relationship. If it is very similar to the pinned item, overlap them. If it is not related, place it farther away to initiate a new group. The placement is a visual representation of the affinity between the two items. Repeat this until you have placed all items somewhere in the display space.
Work with the group to assign a name to each group of items and discuss relationships between the different groups. This visualization of the grouped items can generate insights that the individual items hid. If appropriate to meet your objective, use voting or any prioritization technique to ensure the most pressing groups are identified.
Brainstorming is a phenomenal technique for generating an abundance of ideas related to any topic whatsoever. Effective brainstorming is time-boxed (more than a few minutes is draining), focused on a clearly defined objective (minimize disruptions), and invigorating (for those who are not shy). Every contribution generates additional contributions. When a group is in the zone, the number of ideas they can generate is mind-boggling.
Given that, brainstorming is not for everyone. First off, most people fear public speaking, which I define as opening your mouth when other people (especially strangers) can hear you. These folks only mention an idea when they feel safe and that limits their contributions. Secondly, in a fast-paced brainstorming session, many people are overwhelmed by the vast number of ideas being tossed out. They are not able to form original thoughts.
Silent brainstorming (aka “brainwriting” or “silent ideation”) to the rescue. Contributors jot their ideas down, either on post-it notes, index cards, or slips of paper. They place that idea on a pile in the middle of the group and try to think of another idea. If they come up blank (after a serious try), they can pick someone else’s idea from the pile and see if it triggers any additional ideas.
Regardless of whether the ideas came from silent or noisy brainstorming, the ideas need to be evaluated. Once the group starts to get bogged down (meaning there are few new contributions), stop the exercise and use Affinity Mapping to organize the results into groups and subgroups.
Those are four techniques that I have used many times to lead collaborative conversations. If you want more options, google “facilitating workshops” or something similar for a plethora of techniques from other facilitators and authors. You can never have too many techniques in your toolkit. As Einstein stated, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”
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