How to Conduct a Requirements Workshop That Connects Your Distributed Team

You probably know this feeling. You’re on a conference call with technical and business resources, explaining the business problem that needs to be solved, when suddenly it feels like there’s no one else on the line. Why don’t they respond? Where did you lose their attention?

This very real situation is a common source of frustration when teams can’t meet in person.  Call me a dreamer but I think that can change, and by keeping participants engaged you can achieve a higher quality outcome.  In my last article we started envisioning a new way for remote teams to come together.  Now let’s take that a step further to deconstruct a virtual workshop to elicit requirements.

The What, Why & How of being a Virtual Business Analyst

With the exception of 2 small groups that are continuing the conversation off-line in breakout calls, the rest of the meeting participants – so recently “raising their hands” for a chance to speak – have left the virtual workshop. Now there only three people are left on the main conference line: myself and my two Virtual Hosting Partners who helped to moderate and record the workshop; we’re giving each other a virtual high five for a job well done.  We’re celebrating because of the high level of participation achieved during our one hour of live collaboration, delivering clarity around each of the Stakeholder’s area of concern and where their priorities overlap.

What just transpired?

Our distributed team had to quickly move forward from Information Gathering to Collaborative Decision-Making.  The stakes could not have been higher, the problem and solution options complex, so we trusted a standard scope-framing technique to design this collaboration:

  • The Guides delivered the purpose – our reason for collaborating and any factors that influence the team works.
  • The Enablers provided the infrastructure for meeting, the people, technology, and facilities needed to conduct the meeting.
  • The Inputs consisted of all the information – questions, facts, status, opinions, expertise – that would be examined and transformed in some way by our group process.
  • The Outputs correlated to the desired outcomes and an evolving bank of knowledge that generates from collaboration.

Central to the model is the “Virtual Group Process”.  We choose a “diverge / converge” approach that we had hoped would yield the desired outcome – consensus among the 12 participating Subject Matter Experts on an initial set of deliverables that would resolve the majority of objectives and associated obstacles. Here’s a look at the detailed steps – before, during, & after the meeting – that allowed us to optimize our time together.

Why this process?

In a nutshell, distributed team-building is really difficult, and we needed to get to honest answers in a very short period of time.   I know the team wants to pay attention during our virtual meetings, but someone inevitably feels the need to multi-task, or something diverts attention, and we could find ourselves incomplete – without full representation.   In the old days I might have become impatient and frustrated when others became disengaged, but now my virtual facilitation skills help me to detect and intervene when someone is not “fully present”.

But engaging participants started long ago by making sure we had the right people, the right objectives, and a shared level of knowledge coming in to the live collaboration.  Time together can’t be wasted on sharing information that could have been done in advance. Asynchronous methods – Wiki’s, discussion threads, surveys, etc. – work so well for collecting feedback and comments, that the groundwork of “Inputs” was well established before the synchronous (live) collaboration.

During the live meeting the Ice Breaker & Technology Sandbox exercises were vehicles to warm up the group, get them talking and familiar with the tools they would use later to collaborate.  The ground-rules served as a platform for expected behaviors and processes; when issues arose we could return to the ground-rules to determine if we still agreed or needed to refine the principles that guide our virtual collaboration.  The agenda framed what was to transpire, but was elastic enough to respond to any necessary shift in focus or approach.  The rest had to do with attaining a level of interaction that doesn’t allow participants time to split their attention, and also encouraging them to be forthright in their contributions.

How did we make it work?

I credit our success to a highly interactive agenda as well as several tactics that were woven into the fabric of our collaboration – emphasis on teambuilding, open & timely sharing of relevant information, and hearing from all voices.  Our web conference welcome page (also the first page in the slide deck we shared in advance) depicted our virtual conference with a photo of each participant arranged in a circle, introducing them by name, affiliation, and area of expertise. The supporting team was identified as well, with information on how to get back-channel support by phone or chat if someone had a technology or other issues.

A Brainstorming Exercise that called for concurrent text contributions forced participation and made good use of limited meeting time, while using verbal conversation to summarize helped us to build on that divergent information in an engaging way.

Just like face-to-face meetings and training, the ability to analyze and join participant’s ideas keeps the momentum going, and the use of tools to organize and vote created a record of the evolving solution sets.  Our team turned to those web and phone conference tools that would enhance the experience and not add frustration. Here are a few highlights:

  • Chat to capture anonymous text entries during a short brainstorming exercise.
  • Web-based visualization tools to graphically record a problem map and requirements affinity exercise.
  • Web-based collaboration environment to issue research assignments, initiate discussion threads, and share files during the pre-work stage, and to whiteboard notes during the live session.
  • Teleconferencing to ensure the highest quality audio, manage timed small group breakout sessions, and initiate keypad voting.

In the end we gained a deeper understanding of each other’s priorities and assumptions, figuring out where our interests aligned in resolving the challenges of our team’s objectives.  The participants shared positive feedback about feeling heard, gaining knowledge, and understanding the terms of agreement and reasons for dissent.  We all walked away with a feeling of great accomplishment that comes from knowing we had thoroughly vetted the root causes and interdependencies, closely examined alternatives from an enterprise perspective, and understood the impact of decisions that were made.

Epilogue

In these days where multi-tasking seems the norm, it’s incredibly difficult to engage people’s attention even in face-to-face situations.  Ensuring you’ve properly architected your virtual interactions to optimize the “voices in the room” will deliver the framework for a meaningful dialogue.  Blending collaboration tools and group processes in a smart way will help you to facilitate an amazing virtual experience that keeps your team highly connected to their purpose.   Just imagine!

See Robin Good’s fabulous Collaborative Map for a hyperlinked & very current MindMap of options in virtual collaboration technologies.

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Comments

  1. Ah, I see what you’re saying Jarett. Thanks for coming back to clarify.
    For me, getting the attendees to help build the agenda in advance generally avoids getting off track during the live event. If a pesky off-topic issue does come up during the meeting, I find that allowing a moment of venting helps relieve the pressure, and quickly “parking” the item on a shared list of items to be addressed later allows participants to move on. Note that all parking lot items should be revisited during the closing activities of the meeting to determine what actions are needed and who will take responsibility.

  2. Hi Joan,

    Thanks for your reply. I agree that a ramp up period in a meeting is critical – I was at a talk by Glenn Brule tonight and he iterated how he will repeat the core mission/purpose for a given group at every meeting for that group to ensure everyone is still engaged. I also find having a good introduction helps focus everyone’s attention to the meeting at hand and reduce the background noise in everyone’s brain from what was going on in their lives before the meeting, what they need to do after they leave, etc.

    My point on minimizing level setting had more to do with ensuring meetings don’t get derailed by non-core issues and topics. I often see meetings that become quickly challenged by ‘agenda creep’ not because of lack of a proper introduction, but because there are outstanding ideas and thoughts on the group’s mind that haven’t been adequately addressed yet. Thus the facilitator has to spend time addressing topics that would have been best managed via offline channels or pre-meeting one on one sessions, and then reset everyone’s mindset to the original topics at hand.

  3. Thank you Jarett, I’m glad it clicked for you. Great idea to conduct one-on-one conversations with attendees before a meeting, and the time investment has a tenfold payback if you don’t have to spend time during the live meeting straightening out misconceptions. It sounds crazy when you think about how much effort we’re talking about everyone putting in before and after a 1 hour virtual meeting, but ideally your distributed team can evolve to a mode of ongoing collaboration that intensifies with a live meeting when required.

    I like your reference to “actionable content” … well said, and important for f2f meetings as well. However I don’t want to dismiss “level setting” in the introductory part of a meeting; I find it helps the group to get focused, and as a rule set aside 10 minutes to allow people to say hello, warm up on the tools, and check in on the objectives, agenda, and ground rules.

  4. Hi Joan,

    Very good article; you touched on the two greatest factors required for any successful virtual meeting in my experiences: having the right people pre-engaged and prepared and ensuring that the time spent within the meeting is focused on performing tasks where value is achieved by having everyone together at the same time (as opposed to offline asynchronous collaboration).

    I’ve found that those long awkward silences are often because people don’t understand what the meeting is about, don’t believe they’re important to the meeting or they don’t believe that the meeting is important to them. To ensure the right people are on board and engaged, I typically have one on one conversations with each and every attendee prior to a meeting (or set of meetings). I can work with people offline to ensure that they understand the value of the meetings and the value they bring, and gauge how committed they are to the process. This helps ensure that the meeting is focused on actionable content rather than trying to level-set at the beginning of a meeting.

    I wholeheartedly agree that using online collaboration tools is one of the greatest productivity boons we now readily have access to that can ensure that our as much work as possible can be done on each person’s own time, which frees up meetings to become what they were meant for in the first place: an opportunity to achieve greater than the sum results by having people feed of each other’s ideas, thoughts and opinions to arrive at collective decisions or understandings. It’s liberating to know that 95% of the groundwork is done going into a meeting leaving your group to focus on the 1 or 2 key issues that can be best resolved through real-time interaction.

    Again, great article!

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