How to Get More Participation in a Virtual Requirements Meeting

The Who, When, & Where of being a Virtual Business Analyst

Where am I?

My home office, preparing to gather requirements from 12 project stakeholders located across the country.  We’ll meet via web conference, with each individual attendee linked in through their normal internet access and phone, whether that’s in the office, at home, or on the road.  Since hybrid meetings make it difficult to balance collaboration, shared participation in conference rooms was specifically prohibited, leveling the playing field.

My dual workstations will allow me to use one monitor to view meeting controls and share applications, while seeing what participants see on another.  I’ve closed the doors, cutting off noise from other parts of the house (and to keep my cat Cricket from jumping in front of the camera).  As host I’ll use a webcam for part of this meeting; I finish my preparations by adjusting the camera placement until satisfied with my image background and absence of glare, reflections, and shadows.

Outside my window I see the flakes piling up in the trees, and I have some concern that my standard internet access (via satellite dish) will extinguish with the snow; however I have a backup plan using an alternate 3G connection, and Plan C will work with just POTS [plain old telephone service], so I’m prepared for the worst.

When is it?

Mid-afternoon for me in my northeast corner of the US, the sun already starting to sink below the horizon.  There’s ½ hour to review the agenda before the scheduled start time.  Final tests of connections and control transfers went fine, ready to open the web conference at the appropriate hour.

For some attendees it will be late morning; they’ve agreed to use their normal lunch hour to make this meeting, and I’m hoping they aren’t too cranky and have already eaten.  We’ve been working toward this meeting for some time, and as of yesterday we were all committed to being there in mind and spirit, even though we couldn’t be together physically.  We carefully chose the time and date to suit everyone’s schedule.  It’s not so bad; if our global counterparts were needed for this agenda, we’d be meeting at lunchtime in Mumbai, which spans the workdays in most of world’s GDP (except the US of course, where it would be evening).

All the invited participants committed to give their full attention for just one hour of broad and deep discovery. Experts say time runs 5 x faster by phone than during a face-to-face meeting – we’ll see.  We’ve shared background materials in advance and followed up with pre-meeting surveys to collect initial insights and issues, so the sense is that everyone is prepared to work during our time together.   The participants also know they’ve been granted an unusual perk – a chance to stay on the call for a bit of socializing afterward.  I know this was popular from prior feedback; this distributed team relies heavily on e-mail communication and for some reason finds it hard to make time for conversation.  The post-meeting phone breakout sessions are likened to the hallway conversations that pick up so often after a face-to-face meeting.  The chat feature allows anyone to request a private break-out session with one or more attendees after the meeting, and they often do.

Who are my collaborators?

The Team

The entire project team was briefed on the analysis approach, and agreed to coordinate their input through Lead Subject Matter Experts (SME) who will attend the virtual workshops on their behalf.  The team has access to all supporting materials and participated in initial surveys collecting data, process, and organizational background. However we acknowledge that not everyone is needed for every discussion, and so have adopted a “hub & spoke” structure.

The Lead SMEs

Through the pre-work we were able to identify lead SMEs for each subject area that would represent the other Stakeholders during the live meeting.  These are my collaborators this afternoon, each bringing the ideal characteristics for a virtual forum … open mind, factual, lack of bias, attentive, creative.  (Remember this is a dream!) They are charged with a mediator role, acting as a hub for their colleagues, bringing to the forefront the issues and knowledge of the group. The lead SMEs take their role seriously; they’ve already consulted with their colleagues in preparation for the live event, and will bring any open topics back from the meeting for their consideration.

My Virtual Hosting Partners

I’ve also indulged myself with assistants – other virtual hosts who will help to run the workshop and supporting technology.  Teaming up with others is almost a necessity when you’re responsible for a virtual workshop.  As facilitator my job is to engage the Attendees – before, during, and after the live meeting.  Because there are no visual cues this is harder than during a face-to-face meeting and will take my full attention. Handling the controls as well is a huge responsibility, so instead my helpers will monitor attendee feedback, support back channel help and sidebars, initiating break-out sessions, polls, sharing of applications and whiteboards.  We’ve practiced our roles, tested the meeting technology, and feel satisfied that the script we created as the live meeting agenda will achieve our objectives. Our preparations complete, now we wait for everyone else to arrive.

Next episode: Why, What, & How.

Epilogue

Notice the golden rules of virtual collaboration that are coming to life in this dream journal:

  • Practice using the supporting technology until you become a virtuoso.
  • Accept technology snafus with a smile and a backup plan.
  • Give consideration to time zone and work day.
  • Optimize live time with pre-work & sharing information in advance.
  • Allow space for relationship building.
  • Maximize and minimize the number of participants to encourage dialogue.

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Comments

  1. Pardon my ignorance but what does this mean “in English” 🙂 “…Since hybrid meetings make it difficult to balance collaboration, shared participation in conference rooms was specifically prohibited, leveling the playing field….”

  2. You’re welcome, and thank you for the feedback. Weaving a tale can capture attention in a memorable way – so much more interesting than bullet lists!

    [BTW, Jo is quite a communicator herself, known as one of the best group facilitators in the world, and is a certified expert in the Technology of Participation (ToP®), teaching team members how to collaborate on projects and group facilitators how to effectively lead their team. Check out the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) for more information.]

  3. Joan,
    I love the way you presented this — story first, then summary of key messages. You are an amazing communicator. (The key messages are insightful, too.)
    Thank you!

  4. It’s good to hear from you Michelle. Since we can’t always meet first in advance, a friendly, introductory phone call can go a long way to break the ice. I find we rely too much on e-mail & text messaging today, modes of communication that can sometimes build a barrier between people instead of building a relationship. I’d like to hear more about the practices you follow to build relationships virtually.
    I’ve trained on a number of web conferencing tools (see my response to Kerie above) and find the features quite similar. Skype was initially promoted as a way to make one-on-one long distance phone calls over the internet and has evolved for small conferences and multiple webcams. Skype, and also DimDim, provide a limited-usage web conferencing environment for free, making it easy to try out. [If you’re originating from within a corporate environment first find out if there are any internal security constraints; you may find restrictions on accessing these kinds of sites.]

  5. Michelle Swoboda says

    Joan, awesome article. I have been doing virtual BA meetings for about 8 years now – and find the relationship the most important key to establish before critical meetings such as requirements gathering. Technology is wonderful but it can also fail us but you can always have a back up plan.
    I always considered the time zones we worked in when scheduling meetings but one thing we fell into a bad habit over was using the lunch hour for these meetings because this was the only time to get the 4 time zones in sync.
    Did you use Skype or another web conference service?

  6. Hello Brian, thanks for sharing these critical insights into distributed team-building. After clarifying meeting objectives, I like to start by confirming the ground rules already established by the team (not by me or the project lead), with each participant in a virtual meeting again giving a verbal commitment to follow those guiding principles. This public promise of cooperation puts peer pressure on the disruptive and even in a virtual setting can help to resolve discourse.

  7. Joan

    That’s a very interesting article. I investigated online collaboration for problem solving as part of an MBA module about eight years ago and have been following developments in using the tools and technology ever since.

    One book that I recommend is Where In The World Is My Team – it has it’s own website here: http://www.whereintheworldismyteam.com/

    I did an online facilitation course last year and this demonstrated to me the need to manage communications carefully among team members. Ground rules need to be set to ensure that all communication open and honest and that any issues are quickly identified and dealt with. When communication is limited to voice or text, then a lot of the message can be lost. Problems can also occur when different cultures are working together.

    It’s VERY important therefore that online groups go through the stages of Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Closing. Putting a team together and going straight into the Performing stage is taking a risk. This is especially so if the team have only met together briefly online and are not part of a common culture e.g. an international company that has its own norms.

  8. Hi Karie, there’s no greater compliment for me than to hear that a tip is new and useful. Engaging virtual meetings absorbs a lot of energy, but when done right can leave everyone with an exhilarating feeling of accomplishment. Rehearsal and attention to the details helps to ensure that it doesn’t derail, even with something as unpredictable as the weather.

    I love breakout sessions, and you can be assured there will be a bit of that in the next episode of “the vision”. Breakout sessions are tremendously useful for getting full participation with a larger group – virtual or f2f – and can streamline relationship building faster than anything else I’ve encountered. Let me know if you’d like some help designing breakout sessions into your next virtual forum; I’d be happy to collaborate.

    I can’t say that I have a favorite web conferencing tool, as I’m usually using whatever my Client subscribes to. GoToWebinar and Webex are two common ones that offer a form of telephone breakout session. I’ve also had great experiences with MaestroConference, a teleconference tool with a web-based driver’s seat; participants only need a phone connection to participate in breakout sessions and keypad voting.

  9. Joan – thank you for sharing some of the “little things” (which are really big things) behind prepping for a virtual session with your stakeholders! As a remote BA, I pictured myself going through all the same steps as you mentioned above. I think it is easy to overlook all of the extra prep that goes into being ready for a virtual session over a face to face one. The one I hadn’t personally thought about previously was having back up plans for my actual internet connection! (And considering I’ve lost my internet/phone/cable bundled service a couple times in the last 6 months, you’d think this would be top of mind!) Thanks for calling this out!

    I’m not sure if you plan on discussing this in your next post (please just tell me if you are and I’ll stay tuned)…but what web conferencing technology do you use? I’ve recently been reading more and more about break out sessions with participants and love this idea! I’m sure many of the web conferencing tools these days offer something like this. But as we all know some work better than others. So if you have a service that you’re happy with and would be willing to recommend, I’d love to check them out. 🙂

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