How to Get Your Virtual Team to Agree on Requirements

Not all “requirements” are really requirements.  Ideally discovery teams first diverge, taking differing positions, identifying all possibilities.  Then after carefully examining numerous alternatives, they use a decision-making process to converge on a solution.  In a face-to-face workshop you might group, rank, or prioritize ideas, but how can that be accomplished in a distributed forum?

Choosing the right course requires careful analysis, organization, and informed decisions.

In my last article, I wrote about using “Virtual Brainstorming” to collect broad input from distributed stakeholders.  Now your virtual team will want to winnow the material and transform what’s learned into what’s vital to the task – critical requirements, essential project dependencies, mandatory data, etc.   Here are some suggestions on how to analyze brainstormed ideas and distill them into well-defined requirements.

Decide how you will navigate decisions

Most decision-making techniques can be accomplished virtually with the right set of tools and ground rules. It can save a lot of headaches if your team can agree on a decision-making process in advance – BEFORE they brainstorm ideas. What will produce an acceptable outcome?

  • Should brainstorming results be handed off to an “expert”, delegating decisions to someone else?
  • How about majority rule; would a simple democratic system work for your team?
  • Would multi-voting (a/k/a “Chicago Style” – 1 person:3 votes) help to determine importance or weight?
  • Would your team prefer to evaluate the pros & cons of each idea then make a group recommendation?
  • Is consensus the goal?

Experts say consensus techniques are ideal in terms of decisions that are well thought out, of high quality, and generate commitment to support and implement the decisions. As someone who is now more Facilitator than BA, I would have to agree. For more on consensus decision-making see the archive of Gary Rush’s enlightening 2-part article entitled “A Process for Deciding.”

Use buckets to organize brainstorming ideas

To consolidate the various ideas generated during a brainstorming session first find the duplicates and closely related ideas, grouping them into “buckets” of similar context. Develop a process for organizing the data, then capturing the “theme” of each bucket. This helps the team recognize their common ground – similar lines of thinking.   As they explore how the themes relate and deal with exceptions and variations, the team comes to an even smaller set of workable ideas.

In a virtual environment this concept is supported by Collaborative Systems (also known as electronic meeting systems, groupware, and group decision support systems) –  software specifically designed to address the group processes in problem solving and decision making. Key features enable data input, categorizing, grouping, and voting. More elementary (and less costly) options include Mindmeister’s award-winning free “Mind-Mapping” software, or a shared on-line whiteboard space can be used to collect virtual brainstorming ideas as electronic sticky notes and allow participants to take turns organizing them, as you would an Affinity exercise. I find the key is to avoid information overload for the participants by structuring the data into understandable and readable portions, enabling them to see the patterns of thought.

Scoring, elimination heats, and determining winners

Once your choices are narrowed to a manageable field, a survey or polling tool can be used to vote, rank, or prioritize pre-defined selections, on-line or using a telephone keypad. Polls can support a variety of decision-making activities:

  • Allocation across alternatives.
  • Categorize alternatives.
  • Prioritize or rank order from most preferred to least preferred.
  • Rank relevance of subjects/statements from most true to least from your perspective.
  • Rate alternatives on a chosen scale.
  • Score alternatives versus weighted criteria.
  • Select the most preferred alternatives.
  • Vote on alternatives with options to indicate yes, no, or abstain.

Collaborate with your team to determine criteria that should influence decision-making and the weight placed on decision factors. If there are polarities among your team consider a prioritization process first to highlight the degree of importance they place on the issue. If you have uneven representation in your team, avoid skewing by grouping members of the same department or position; create a level playing field by limiting affiliated positions to just 1 vote per group.  When the voting is done, share the results in a bar graph or summary form. Be sure to discuss and document minority opinions as well as favored solutions.

SurveyMonkey is an example of a survey generator that works well to collect measurable responses in the form of preferences, comparative opinions, yes/no decision, etc., and is available for free. Participants are invited by web-link to the polling site to cast their votes and view results. Web conferencing tools also typically offer live polling features that are used to quickly analyze the group’s direction of thought during a meeting.  All the survey tools that I’ve worked with also include features to instantly report the results.  Think about how impressive it will be to ask for a virtual show of hands, then instantly display a graph demonstrating the outcome and distribution percentages.

Applying these techniques

So how do we put all this into practical use?  Try these virtual techniques the next time you face the challenge of converging brainstorming results into “developed” requirements.  Here are some applications I’ve had success with:

  • NARROWING DOWN TO ESSENTIAL USE CASES. An initial list of Use Cases was derived from virtual brainstorming using a web conferencing chat feature to collect ideas. The entries were evaluated and categorized in real time by a designated “theme team” of observers, while the main group moved on to other topics.  In the next phase the theme team presented their findings as an electronic poll for a prioritization vote.
  • PLANNING PROJECT ACTIVITIES. A team engaged in a web conference dialogue about project assumptions and required tasks was able to observe on-line and guide the creation of an electronic “Mind Map” by a designated scribe.
  • ALIGNING STAKEHOLDER INTERESTS.  Expectations were brainstormed on-line with electronic sticky notes, and then the participants were divided into 2 breakout groups via teleconference to complete a virtual Affinity exercise. The designated leaders took turns organizing the sticky notes into affiliated topics at their group’s direction.  The full team explored the categories that were developing and differences in the groups’ organization until they could come to consensus, delivering a refined list of project objectives and constraints.
  • EVALUATING CANDIDATE SOLUTIONS.  After a software evaluation team came to agreement regarding the weight placed on various evaluation criteria, an electronic survey was launched to collect the ranking of 3 packages being considered.  Evaluation team members completed their individual surveys as they finalized their research and testing over a 1 week period. The conclusions were delivered in a report detailing the summary results and the ranking from each individual Evaluator.

What happened to make each of these virtual collaborations a success?  A simple formula of inclusive decision-making combined with effective use of virtual tools.  By following these practices your virtual team will have input during the brainstorm, voting, and discussion phases, making them highly engaged during the working session, and truly committed to the decisions that are made.  In other words …  smooth sailing into the sunset.

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Comments

  1. Hi Joan! Great post. Thanks for sharing us. Keep writing and stay blessed.

  2. Good to hear from you Gary. Thanks for adding your counsel and a new tool to try out – much appreciated! Your [hard copy] article has been in my library since before the turn of the century. ;> Attending your class was part of my foundation work in learning to facilitate.
    Here’s a reference I like on the stages of Active Listening: http://www.people-communicating.com/active-listening.html . An important aspect is the ability to detect the underlying emotion, quite difficult without being able to observe body language and facial expression. Text is easy to misinterpret, and voices can only reveal so much, but here’s a tip: some webinar tools offer help in the form of Feedback buttons. Participants insert phrases or images that represent their state of mind, “happy” – “disturbed” -“bored” – “confused” and so on, or indicate pace is “too fast”- “too slow”, etc. If you’re using a tool that includes this feature, next time try a round right after introductions and periodically throughout the meeting, to invite your virtual participants to tell you how they feel.

  3. Hi Joan,

    Great post. Thank you for reading my article – it’s great when something clicks.

    One thing to mention in teleconferences – active listening is the most critical skill you bring as a facilitator – it’s the only real “tool” we have as facilitators when we are on the telephone.

    By the way, Tony Buzan’s iMindmap is also an excellent mind-mapping software and it’s inexpensive.

    Ciao,
    Gary

  4. Thanks Alison. I added WebSurveyMaster to my favorites. The limited-feature version is free, and the site offers some good templates for feedback-type surveys (e.g. customer satisfaction, post-implementation, etc.). I was wondering – how are you using surveys in your work?

    Karie, you give us some great advice on relationship building. When I’m in the facilitator’s position I push virtual participants together for just that purpose. A 5 minute paired breakout session with a listening exercise gives each person a chance to talk on a topic uninterrupted, with their partner listening intently, charged with reporting what they learn from each other to the larger group when they all reconvene. This personal responsibility typically creates a bond between the pair; I experienced this myself during a teleconference training session a while back, and to this day remain fast friends with my paired partner.

  5. Joan – yes, I was very lucky to have some on-site trust building before working remote. With a newer project, where I didn’t have that luxury, I agree with your basics and would like to suggest things as small and making time for one-on-one calls with each of your stakeholders just to get to know them better, their individual pains and concerns, and just to get to know each other’s personalities. (Taking occasional trips to get some face time always helps too. – Sorry I know this is a little off topic.)

    Alison, thanks for the tip on the other survey tool! I’ll have to check that out!

  6. Joan,
    Great article, for our surveys we use another great survey tool called WebSurveyMaster http://www.websurveymaster.com/ it is very easy to use and view the results.
    Hope this helps!
    Alison

  7. Hi Karie. How lucky you are to work locally with your team before becoming remote. You bring up an important point about relationship building; gaining trust is the most difficult part of working virtually. How do you do that without beer & pizza after work? Answering that one calls for another article, however sticking to the basics helps a lot: meet your commitments, follow through, make time to socialize, and share no gossip.
    I like your willingness to experiment – keep up the good work.

  8. As a remote BA, I work hard to ensure that nothing is lost in our virtual communications. I was fortunate to have worked on-site for 2 years with this team prior to relocating…so I had the chance to build strong relationships. I personally invest in technology to help make it easier to collaborate. Although I use Survey Monkey and GoToMeeting, I hadn’t thought of using Survey Monkey WHILE ON a GoToMeeting! Love this idea! Real time collaborative feedback using tools I already utilize.

    I will need to look into the online sticky notes-type functionality though. I usually take the notes for the group – but having people actually apply their own notes to the discussion I think will engage them even further.

    Can’t wait to try these out!

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