Tag Archives: collaboration

33 people, 22 venues, 4 hours, 3 platforms: 1 brilliant remote meeting

Last week, my colleague Malgosia Kostecka and I co-facilitated a challenging four-hour remote meeting of 33 attendees in 22 locations involving complex work: developing a mission statement and the initial five-year vision for a new organization. This meeting kicked off a five-month process to explore different models for how the organization might be structured. Over the summer, sub-groups will design possible models and prepare to present them to the whole group. The process will conclude in October with the group’s first face-to-face meeting, where the final mission, vision, and five-year strategy will be set. These will then be used in securing approval to launch the organization.

For this kickoff, we used Zoom, Boardthing, and Slack as our workspaces. I’m happy to report that it went well. Astonishingly well, actually, given that I always assume something will go horribly wrong! We barely needed Plans B and C and didn’t reach Plans D or E at all. Here’s how it worked.

Pre-Meeting Preparation
Facilitators:

  • We worked closely with the meeting sponsors to identify outcomes and understand who would be in the meeting.
  • We set up Slack for the whole team, since they will be doing ongoing work throughout the summer. The ongoing setup includes channels for smaller working groups, plus one for questions, general information, and workgroup chairs. Special temporary channels were also set up for the meeting (see Plan C, below).
  • We set up a Zoom room for the main meeting space.
  • We created a Boardthing board for collecting and sorting vision ideas. Advance setup included creating a list of instructions, uploading a template image for sorting the ideas, and preparing an agreement scale in case we needed it.
  • We prepared 14 digital templates covering each part of the meeting from the Do-Now to Closing Thoughts. Not all were used, but they were ready!
  • We created a spreadsheet to track who had signed in to Slack, who had done the tech check, who was to be at the one co-located venue, and who would be in each breakout discussion group during the meeting. We took into account the 11 people who would be connecting from a single location when planning breakout groups.
  • We prepared a visual roadmap of the entire process, from this kickoff meeting throughout the summer and fall to the final group meeting scheduled in October.
  • We prepared the agenda (a detailed facilitators’ version and a more general participants’ version).
  • We prepared a text document with participant names and email addresses, key web links that would need to be copied and pasted, and a few technical support statements that we would likely need to paste multiple times.

Participants:

  • Prior to our involvement, participants went through a selection process based on interest, expertise, and availability. There were also initial discussions about the process and its outcomes.
  • We asked participants to sign in to the Slack team space prior to the meeting and to have Slack open during the meeting itself.
  • They were also encouraged to attend a brief tech check to make sure they could access Zoom.

Meeting Tools/Technologies

As mentioned above, we used Zoom, Boardthing, and Slack; additionally, I used Autodesk Sketchbook, a spreadsheet, and a text editor. We used a countdown timer to time breaks.

Agenda & Activities

The planned timing is on the agenda image here. The actual timing is noted in parentheses next to each activity below.

Picture of the meeting's agenda.

Our agenda. Organization and other names have been removed.

 

  1. Do-Now & Orientation (15 minutes)
  • The do-now was designed to help folks start thinking about the meeting content and give them something to do while everyone else got connected. Everyone was to type into a special Slack channel, answering the question: Why is this organization important to you personally? [Wondering whats a do-now is? Here’s a PDF that explains.]
  • Once everyone was settled and had had a chance to work on the do-now, the sponsors opened the meeting by setting the context for the work this team will be doing, why do it now, and why the team was comprised of these particular people.
  • I introduced myself briefly when I took over, and ran through the outcomes, agenda, roles and rules as shown above. I left space for additional rules but the group didn’t add any.
  • I mentioned the backchannels (Slack and the chat feature of Zoom) and encouraged participants to speak up in those channels if they were having trouble. Malgosia was monitoring both channels throughout the meeting.
  • We asked people to turn off their video cameras while they were in the full-group session and said they were welcome to use them in the breakouts later.
  1. Introductions (30 minutes)
  • Since this group is not an intact team but a group of colleagues from different organizations, we invested some time in team introductions. Using a prepared template that showed six ‘tables’ — one for each of the working groups that will meet over the summer — we went around the virtual room.
  • Malgosia and I modeled what we were looking for with our own introductions first.
  • Each person’s name was already written in, along with his or her organization. When it came time to speak, each person said who they were and where they worked and also shared one hope or expectation for the process. I added each person’s hope/expectation to the template as they spoke, using Sketchbook and my Wacom Cintiq pen display tablet (it’s like the 27HD but mine is a 24HD).
  1. Project Roadmap (10 minutes)
  • We placed the project roadmap on the screen and walked through it to be sure the five-month process was clear.
  • Facilitators and meeting sponsors/workgroup chairs answered questions as they arose.

After that, we took a five-minute stretch break. I placed a countdown timer on the shared screen to time five minutes.

  1. New Org.’s Mission (55 minutes)
  • After the break, we shifted to developing a draft mission statement. We started by reviewing mission statements from four or five well-known organizations (selected in advance and written on a template).
  • Next, we explained the process we were about to use, as well as the backup plan should our initial plan fail (see Backup Plans, below). We answered questions (all this took a little less than 10 minutes) and then got started.
  • First, each person wrote down an answer to the question: What is this organization’s reason for being? This was done individually on whatever piece of paper was handy. (5 minutes)
  • Next, we grouped everyone into trios using the Zoom breakout rooms. In each group, the three people shared what each had written and generated one statement for the trio — either choosing one of the three, or writing a new one. (10 minutes)
  • Whenever they worked in breakouts, we checked in with each group periodically to make sure that everything was going well.
  • Next, we grouped up three trios together to make a group of nine, and they repeated the process: listen to each trio’s statement, and come up with one statement for your group of nine. (15 minutes)
  • This resulted in three statements. We came back to a whole-group discussion, and each group read their statement. We captured it on a template using Sketchbook and screen sharing, and then briefly discussed the three statements. We noted issues and key questions that would need to be resolved in the work over the summer. (10 minutes)

We ended that segment with three possible mission statements, agreeing to finalize the new organization’s mission in October.

At this point we were halfway through the four-hour time, and we took a 20-minute break to stretch, wolf down food, adjust any technical glitches, and so on. Once again I shared the countdown timer.

  1. Vision Images (10 minutes)
  • After the break, we briefly reviewed the agenda to check in with the process and our progress.
  • Then we shifted to working on the vision. We opened with a guided imagery activity, set five years in the future. We set the context by saying that five years had passed and the organization was very successful. Then, everyone listened and imagined, but did not answer or speak, as we asked the following questions: What activities are happening throughout the year? Who is involved? What are the media saying? What publications and resources exist that didn’t before? How is your work different now?
  • Everyone was then given five minutes to jot down some ideas that had come to them during the visioning.
  1. New Org.’s Vision (65 minutes)
  • Using a template prepared in advance (a Mandala with the imagery questions written in the segment circles), we asked the group to share thoughts that they had had. We worked through each of the questions and captured ideas as they were voiced. (25 minutes)
  • When that was complete, we saved it and uploaded it to Slack right away so that everyone could use it during the next activity.
  • Once again, before launching into the activity, we showed a template with the steps written out, reviewed them, and answered questions. We explained and gave examples of what we were looking for: specific vision themes, or what the organization will be, do, or have in five years’ time. (about 5 minutes)
  • Once everyone was ready, we pasted the Boardthing link into the Zoom chat and into Slack and asked everyone to open it.
  • While they were doing that, we placed them into breakout groups of about six people (the 11 co-located people formed two groups where they were).
  • Each group was responsible for generating 3-5 cards in Boardthing. Each card included one key theme for the vision, either pulled from the previous conversations or generated now. (25 minutes)
  • While they worked, we checked in on each breakout to make sure that everything was going well.

After that time, we gave everyone else a 5-minute stretch break (using the timer). Meanwhile, Malgosia and I took an initial pass on the cards, grouping them into rough clusters and proposing cluster names. When the group returned, we had six or seven theme categories and three or four cards that we weren’t able to place in groups.

  1. Refining the Vision (15 minutes)
  • After the break, we reviewed the clusters and asked for corrections or changes. We refined the cluster names and added the loose cards to clusters with the group’s guidance.
  • We copied the seven cluster heading cards and placed them into the vision template in Boardthing.
  • The group discussed and refined the vision elements further, adding nuances and making distinctions, until they were happy with the draft vision.
  • We did a brief and informal check for alignment, and declared victory!
  1. Next Steps & Closing (7 minutes)
  • We briefly brought back the process roadmap and reviewed it again, answering new questions.
  • The sponsors outlined next steps, thanked everyone for their involvement, and closed the meeting — on time. Well, almost. We were two minutes over.

After the meeting, we created a PDF file containing all the meeting charts, including screenshots from and a link to the Boardthing board, sent it to the sponsors, and uploaded it to the team’s Slack space. Now we are in the process of planning and scheduling the series of smaller remote meetings for each of the six working groups that will take place over the summer.

Backup Plans

When I create a backup plan, I pick the thing that is most likely to go wrong, imagine what will happen if it does, and come up with a workaround. I keep doing this until the only remaining workaround is for everyone to talk normally on the phone while I take notes on paper. The backup plans for this meeting centered on people not having access to Zoom, or the Zoom breakout groups not working, since those were the trickiest parts of the meeting.

  • Plan A: The meeting as designed and described above, and basically what we did.
  • Plan B: Assuming people couldn’t see the screen but could connect to Zoom via the phone, they would be paired up with a ‘screen buddy’ who could help them create Boardthing cards. I also read everything that was on the templates and described each new one briefly as I brought it up.
  • Plan C: Plan C covered us if the breakout groups in Zoom failed. In every meeting, there are always a few people who can’t get into the breakout rooms, and I have yet to figure out why. If it’s just a few, then I leave them in the main room and they become their own breakout group. If it’s a lot, then we are into Plan C. To prepare for Plan C, we created temporary channels in Slack for each breakout group and invited those people to each channel. The instructions to the group were that if the Zoom breakout wasn’t working, they were to have their discussions via text in the Slack channels instead. We only needed to do this with one group once.
  • Plan D: Plan D assumed failure of Boardthing, or failure of people to get into Boardthing. In this case, I would have brought it up and shared my screen and we would have talked through the process, perhaps collecting ideas in Slack and having Malgosia read them to me to type in. Luckily, we didn’t need to do this.
  • Plan E was the last-ditch backup, where we do the whole thing in full-group discussion while I share my screen and do graphic recording.

What I Would Do Differently

I learned a LOT about Zoom breakout rooms in this meeting. One thing I should have taken advantage of more is the ability to set breakout groups up in advance and then re-use them. If I had done that, it would have greatly simplified (and speeded up) the process of getting people into breakout rooms. Instead, I created different groupings on the fly based on lists in our spreadsheets, which got a little complicated and took some time to set up. Astute readers will notice that in steps 4 and 6 in particular, we lost a few minutes of work time getting people into the breakout rooms.

On the whole, though, I’m happy with how it went, and I’ve heard very positive feedback from the participants and sponsors as well.

Need a Good Remote Meeting?

Do you need to get work done with a remote group? I’d love to help. Contact services@grove.com to set up a time to talk about what you need.

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Rules of Order for Videoconferences, Part 3

The first and second posts in this series covered rules for orienting to purpose, connecting people, drawing out information, and getting closure on commitments — the first four stages of The Grove Facilitation Model. This post, the last in the series, deals with Videoconferencing Rules of Order for the final three stages: supporting action, monitoring progress, and leveraging learning. A future post will go into more detail about the Model itself. For now, if it’s unfamiliar, just think of it as a set of lenses that a facilitator can use to plan and handle group processes.

Screen shot of web-based countdown timer

Tickcounter’s Web-based Timer

Supporting Action
When the videoconference is humming along and people are embedded in the work of the meeting itself, it seems like the safest thing to do is to sit back and not mess with it. But there are still some small things you can do to make it easier for everyone to work together via video.

  1. Build in stretch breaks. It’s more fatiguing to sit in a video call than to sit in a face-to-face meeting of the same length. For every hour of meeting, build in a five-minute stretch break, with longer breaks after two hours. Set a countdown timer on a shared screen to help people return on time, and discourage people from skipping their break. (Here’s a timer for PowerPoint — I haven’t tried it, though — and here’s a web-based one that I do use.)
  2. Give participants something to focus on besides each other. Share a screen showing a visual map of the work process or other materials that are not text-heavy. Bring in a digital graphic recorder to capture the meeting in real time on a shared screen. Create a simple template in PowerPoint and complete it while the group talks. Having a visual representation to discuss and refer to helps to keep the conversation on track. People find a bit of variety stimulating and engaging, so don’t use the same technique every time.
  3. Give participants something to do. Use other tools in combination with video. Set up a shared spreadsheet where participants can take a few moments to reflect and type answers to relevant questions, or give their opinions of different options. Once everyone has had a chance to reflect and respond, use the document as a springboard for discussion. Or get everyone into a shared sticky-note board and have them create and interact directly with digital sticky notes.

After I posted the first in this series, Nora Rubinoff added some excellent rules of order in a blog post of her own that I would also classify under supporting action.

Monitoring Progress
When the group is working, the facilitator can keep the meeting flowing with light touches as they would do in a face-to-face meeting.

  1. Keep an eye on body language, but not the way you’re used to doing it. On most video conferences, you can only see people from the shoulders up. It’s easy to miss signals that would be obvious in a face-to-face meeting. Watch for signs of fatigue or distraction: looking down often, repeatedly or persistently looking away from the computer, frequent nodding without contributing, leaning the head back onto the top of the chair and looking at the ceiling, fidgeting. These can all signal that patience has run out and it’s time for a quick stretch break. Also watch for quiet people trying to break in to the conversation, and help make room for them. They may suddenly look alert, sit up straighter, or start to open their mouth and then close it again if there isn’t space to talk. Call on them by name and ask if they wanted to say something.
  2. Narrate your actions when you do something that appears to be a distraction. If you need to pull up a document, for instance, or look for a relevant email pertinent to the task at hand, say so. “I’m going to pull up the email that has our agreements from last time. It will only take a moment and I’m not reading any new messages right now.” Otherwise, your obvious shift in focus will be taken as an invitation for everyone to check their messages and the meeting will lose momentum.
  3. Bring the agenda back on screen each time an item is completed. In face-to-face meetings, we tend to keep the agenda posted all the time and refer to it throughout the process to keep people oriented and on track. With videoconferences, it’s easy to lose sight of progress because the agenda is displayed once at the start of the meeting and then never again. Instead, share it on the screen, annotating and updating it if possible, each time you shift from one topic to another. Even if you’ve sent agendas to everyone beforehand, it’s helpful to do a quick group check in now and then.

Leveraging Learning
The activities that fall under the category of Leveraging Learning are often dismissed as ‘extras,’ things that are nice to have but not necessary in our time-pressured workdays. However, they do not need to take a lot of time and the payoff in participant satisfaction, productivity, and engagement is huge. Spare a few minutes for practices like these that get everyone involved in the group’s choices and success.

  1. Take a moment at the end of the meeting for “likes and wishes.” Invite each participant in turn to share one thing they liked about the way the meeting worked, and one thing they wish for next time. You can leave it open in terms of scope or frame it so that people are reflecting on the technical aspects of the engagement. In settings where people are not inclined to speak openly about what they would like to change, set up an anonymous way to contribute, such as a shared sticky-note board or shared document. Use the feedback to adjust future video meetings.
  2. Take screen shots at various points in the meeting. Combine them with images of charts created by digital graphic recording and links to documents jointly edited during the meeting. Share this output with participants via email soon after the meeting as a visual record of their virtual time together.
  3. Host occasional pop-up sessions dedicated to reviewing the technology you use for video, shared editing, and other meeting functions. Invite interested participants to prepare short presentations of new tools that show promise, or ask volunteers to try out specific tools and report the results. Keep your group’s tech fresh by sharing the responsibility for finding, testing, and proposing new tools.

Although synchronous meetings are only a small part of remote work, they provide opportunities to build relationships and cement commitments among distributed colleagues. Using these guidelines will help you make the most of your team’s remote gatherings, bring team members closer together, and increase their effectiveness as a distributed team.

 

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Transforming Virtual Meetings: What Do You Think?

Last week I had the marvelous opportunity to chat with Rachel Hatch, one of the research directors for Institute for the Future (IFTF)’s Ten-Year Forecast program. Rachel is into a wide range of fascinating things including affective technologies, which are devices and systems that can detect, interpret, and/or represent human emotions and behaviors related to emotions. She also has a radical view about virtual meetings: what if we don’t try to make them as good as face-to-face meetings? What if we look at them as something totally different and make them the best that they can be, in ways that don’t map to face-to-face meetings at all? Mmm. Love it.

I’m really curious what YOU think about some of the ideas we talked about. Each of the sections below ends with a question. If you have thoughts about one or more of them, post your answer in the comments.

Attentional Proximity

Our conversation started with the idea of attentional proximity, which is people paying attention to the same thing at the same time. Rachel observes that in collaborative work, attentional proximity is more important than physical proximity (i.e., being physically near someone). She also notes that physical proximity doesn’t guarantee attentional proximity; just think of the last time you tried talking to someone next to you who was busy playing with their mobile, and you’ve got the picture of physical proximity without attentional proximity.

We talked about how challenging it is to convey attentional proximity in remote settings. The cues that we are used to depending on, like body language, gaze direction, and posture, are often unavailable in those settings. Rachel also pointed out that among colleagues she feels in tune with, she finds it easy to share attentional proximity even at a distance, and she raised the question of what might be at the core of those interactions that makes them flow so well and be so productive.

I’ve experienced this too—there are some people it just seems easy to be in sync with, or some situations where it has just clicked—and I also wonder what makes that happen or not happen. Obviously if one of us is distracted or thinking of something else, we won’t get that ‘click,’ but sometimes it just doesn’t seem to happen no matter what.

Question 1: Have you experienced attentional proximity with someone at a distance? How did you recognize it, and what do you think allowed that to happen?

Copresence

Last fall, Rachel wrote an article, From Telepresence to Copresence, about shifting the conversation around remote work from aiming for telepresence (“as if you were there”) to embodying copresence (“different from and maybe better than being there”). This is an idea that I really love as a way to reframe virtual work. She points out that using the term ‘remote’ or the prefix ‘tele’ puts distance at the center of the relationship. ‘Copresence,’ on the other hand, puts togetherness at the center.

As near as we can tell, the term copresence comes from sociology, where it describes the experience of being with other humans, either physically or otherwise (see this article by Shanyang Zhao at Temple University for a taxonomy of types of copresence). I asked Rachel to describe what copresence looks like with a geographically dispersed group or team; how can you tell when you’re experiencing it? She responded that what it brings to mind for her is having an ambient sense of who is available for shared attentional proximity, and when. She’s thinking of signals like we might see with Skype icons (available, busy, offline, grumpy, what have you), but “embedded in the surfaces of the environment in subtle ways that impact your actual experience of the space as a remote worker.”

She also sees a trend toward micro-collaboration, where people work together for very short periods of time and need to be able to shift in and out of collaborative relationships quickly and easily. This implies a need for indicators of trust (as in, how much of the company’s IP is this person trusted with) that could be supplied by some of the same technologies that deal with attentional proximity and ambient prompting.

Question 2: What do you think about the term copresence? Do you find that it opens possibilities for how we think about working together at a distance, or do you have a different view?

Reframing Virtual Meetings

I was struck by Rachel’s idea about reframing virtual meetings partly because of a response that came in to The Grove’s Five Minutes on Working Virtually survey last May. One of the respondents expressed the view that virtual meetings can’t be improved, and it got me thinking. Attempting to recreate face-to-face meetings in virtual settings isn’t a long-term strategy, I have to agree. While high-end video conferencing is a great option, I don’t think it’s the right solution for most people because I really feel that it should be possible to fully participate in virtual meetings right from your own desk. Virtual reality and holograms may eventually provide options for avatars that are even better than ‘being there,’ but right now, they just don’t.

I think we are still working on this, and I see two big groups of technologies that will help virtual meetings come into their own: hardware-based tools and software-based tools. The hardware-based tools take advantage of affective technologies by giving us physical objects that convey some of the cues we would normally get in other ways, like the ambient collaborative prompts Rachel mentions in her article, or wearable devices that signal the user with vibrations or other sensory information.

The software-based tools don’t require any additional objects and include programs or apps that support activities that can be done online as well as or better than they can be done in person. These include tools for using sticky notes card boards, collaborative drawing, polling and voting, and the like. Right now, most of them are aiming for the ‘as well as’ category by reproducing activities that would be done in a face-to-face meeting, maybe adding a few extra features, but not really breaking totally new ground. I think there’s a lot of room for really new ideas about what we can do online to support collaborative work that is simply different from what can be done in person.

Question 3: What do you think? What would you love to do in a virtual meeting that would support your work, but can’t be done face to face?

Rachel’s Seven Shifts

Rachel’s article, From Telepresence to Copresence, concludes with a list of seven shifts we should make if we want copresence to be the norm in 2025. I asked her which of the shifts she thought would be easiest to make, and which the hardest; and I asked her to say which one she felt would have the greatest impact. Here are her thoughts:

RS: Which shift will be the hardest?

RH: The first [“as if” you were there to better than if you were there] or last [pre-structured days to emergent, just-in-time calendaring] would be hardest. The calendaring thing is so deeply embedded, how we relate to time is so deeply embedded, it’s the substrate of everything. This one will be the most challenging in traditional business contexts.

RS: Which will be easiest, in your view?

RH: Ambient signals of availability might come on line pretty quickly because of the pace of change around the internet of things and networked smart objects. We’ve seen a lot of Kickstarter campaigns for things like the TapTap bracelet and so on, and I think social norms will come along quickly. It’s an intermediate step; once you see these things everywhere, you start to ignore them after a while. Where it gets interesting is if the design of the experience can convey an energy; a spectrum, a different set of colors, something so we know how you’re feeling and not just whether you’re there.

RS: If we could universally, magically, make just one of those shifts right now, which one would be the most impactful?

RH: Shifting from physical to attentional proximity. It would unleash so much productivity! Imagine ‘just-in-time dream teams,’ where you can capture someone’s attention just at the right moment of a project based on their location… You could grab their attention for half an hour, take advantage of those efficiencies and just in time interactions.

Question 4: Looking at the seven shifts in Rachel’s article, which one grabs you? Why?

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A Sneak Peek at Results of The Grove’s Recent Survey: Five Minutes on Working Virtually

If you haven’t had a chance to take the five-minute survey yet and would like to, you can find it here.

The Grove recently launched a short survey on virtual work and remote meetings. Among other things, we asked hundreds of people who do virtual work about their biggest pain point: the one thing they wish would go away and just stop being a problem about working remotely.

The responses fall broadly into three categories. Respondents identified pain points related to technology, to people, and to the setting where the work is done. It may surprise you to learn that technology is not the category with the most pain points. The largest set of different pain points is related to people. In fact, the number of pain points having to do with people is almost twice as large as that in either of the other two categories. Note that this doesn’t say anything about how often a given point was cited; I’m not dealing with that here, just looking at unique responses. The image below is a compilation of the responses, sorted unscientifically by yours truly. (Click to see it bigger.)

List of pain points in remote work
Compilation of responses to the question: What is the most painful part of working remotely?

The pain points related to people have to do with how people feel in remote meetings, things people do or fail to do that make the work harder, the difficulty of making or maintaining interpersonal connections at a distance, and basic knowledge and skills around working remotely. I know I have struggled with most, if not all, of these issues in the past ten years of working virtually. Many of these pain points can be addressed through training (of facilitators and participants), making explicit agreements about how to work together and behave as a remote team, and extra time and effort involved in preparation. Sometimes, though, it seems as soon as a team gets one issue taken care of, another, hydralike, rears its annoying head.

Regarding technology, the agony is divided between tool-related issues and those dealing with connection (or lack thereof) when trying to communicate. One that we did not see, but that I expected, is overwhelm about the number of tools available. Does anyone else find it hard to keep up? I sometimes feel that if I just keep looking and keep testing, I will find the perfect tool for every task related to remote collaboration. I’m not saying I’ll find one tool that does everything. Rather, I’d love to find a set of tools that collectively do everything. Easily. Okay, maybe now I’m dreaming.

The setting we’re in when we do remote work accounts for the remainder of the pain. Real life issues, the consequences of not being physically in the same room, and the effects of having to be sitting at a computer are the main groups here. As with the other categories, some of the complaints can be addressed through group norms, different tools, or extra effort, but again I can empathize and have experienced all of these myself. What about you? Do you have a favorite, and how did you stop the pain?

If you’d like to get your voice in the mix, please hop on over and take the five-minute survey. It will remain open through June 30, 2015.

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Role Mapping: Do you really know your teammates’ roles?

Do you know, I mean really know, what your teammates do? Do you understand their roles to the point where you could fill in for them for a day? Even if you don’t know their roles to that degree, do you know how they produce information they give to you, and what they do with information you give to them?

From left to right: Healer, DPS (with pet), Tank.

From left to right: Healer, DPS (with pet), Tank.

My family plays World of Warcraft, a popular MMO (massively multiplayer online game) created by Blizzard Entertainment. In this game, players sometimes form parties to tackle challenges that one player can’t handle alone. A five-person party usually includes three distinct roles: tank, healer, and damage-dealer (DPS, or damage-per-second). Any one player will have one of these roles at a given time, and his or her talents, abilities, equipment, and armor are tailored to support that one role. (For those unfamiliar with the lingo, the job of the tank is to stand there and get beat on by the big monster, keeping its attention; the healer’s job is to make sure the tank stays alive while this happens, and to heal the DPS players if they should need it; and the three DPS players are there to inflict as much damage on the monster as possible without taking a lot of damage themselves.)

Obviously, each player needs to understand his or her own role in order to be effective. But the really effective players — the ones you always want in your party — are the ones who also have a deep understanding of the roles they are not playing. Here’s why: A tank who deeply understands the healer’s role can time his or her own actions so that big-burst damage is mitigated by a tank ability, allowing the healer to more effectively keep the tank’s health stable by not spending precious resources on sudden massive heals. Healers who understand how the tank works know that if a monster does latch onto them, the best thing to do is run toward the tank, who has the ability to attract the monster’s attention so it forgets all about the healer — rather than running away, which is instinctive but not at all helpful. DPS who understand the other two roles can modify their own behavior to maximize their ability to do their primary role — dealing damage — while not draining the healer’s reserves, which are really needed for the tank, or pulling the monster away from the tank and causing it to run amok among the party. Even a basic level of understanding of other roles is helpful. When you run into tanks who also have a healer class character, or DPS who also have a tank character, the difference really shows. They do their jobs in a way that makes the other roles even more effective at theirs.

The same is true for a working team: the better you understand your teammates’ roles, the more effective your team can be overall. The points where your work overlaps theirs, or provides inputs to theirs, are where your team will feel the effects the most. Mapping out the intersections of your roles will give your team clearer insight into how to work together more effectively. Here’s one way to do that.

Sample role map
A sample map for three roles in a consultancy

Role Mapping

Choose a time when everyone can get together. If your team is distributed, consider supporting the meeting with graphic recording or graphic facilitation to create the maps of team interactions. Set aside at least an hour for the initial conversation.

  1. Identify the places where there are overlaps or shared inputs or outputs. What do you create that is then used by another team member? What do you use that other team members create? Make a list, and ask everyone on the team to make a list too. (This can be done as pre-work.)
  2. Get the team together. Compare your lists and rank the items to decide where to start. Look for items that appear on several lists, and start there for the biggest impact. Alternatively, select the most high-profile activities on the lists as a starting point.
  3. Take a few minutes to map out what happens around each item on the combined list. Give everyone who touches that item a chance to explain what they do and how they do it. What tools do they use? What information do they need to have handy when they start? What format do they prefer to work with? Allow everyone to describe their workflow and preferences without trying to problem-solve at this point. Just listen. It might help to draw a picture of the process as it is described, using a whiteboard or large sheet of paper. Make notes of questions or issues as they come up, but don’t try to solve them yet.
  4. Once everyone has spoken, have a conversation about the questions, issues, and other flags that came up. You might find that something as simple as changing the way information is conveyed or presented might make a big difference to the recipient. And once you understand why someone wants it this way or that way, it’s often easier to modify your own workflow slightly to accommodate them. Use a flip chart to clearly record new agreements or procedures your team wants to try.
  5. Repeat the process for each item on your combined list (this might take more than one meeting). At the end of the meeting, review the flipchart of agreements and make sure everyone understands what he or she has personally agreed to do. Agree on an evaluation period — two to four weeks, perhaps — after which you will all reconvene to talk about whether the changes are helping, identify new issues that have come up, or discuss new ideas.

This activity is particularly valuable for distributed teams where members do not have a way to physically see what their co-workers do. On teams like that, the way that inputs and outputs are created and delivered can make a huge difference in team effectiveness. For example, it’s common for someone to create a document and send it as a PDF, but if the recipient needs to extract information from the PDF to use elsewhere, it can be time consuming. Something as simple as switching to a shared document editor or keeping the shared information in another system might result in a much smoother workflow.

Once you understand more about the work your teammates do and how they do it, you can play your role in way that helps others be even more effective. Even if your goal isn’t to slay a giant monster, you’ll still make better use of everyone’s abilities!

For more on role clarification, you might like these resources:

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