A full remote highly collaborative teams self-design workshop with 80+ people? Yes!

Written by , in category Agile & Scrum

11 June 2020

This Spring, one of our customers wanted to change the distribution of people in the teams that work to develop their main product.* To do this, we were planning to have a large workshop to do a redesign of the current team layout by teams themselves. Taking into account certain constraints of course.

After the workshops, in their next Sprint, the teams would work in the newly designed teams, leaving the old teams behind. There was a (big) event planned for the formal start of the new teams, with mostly lots of fun, but also time for team building and making agreements within the teams. In total, it was about 86 people to be divided in the teams (with teams of around 7 people). The official event was planned...

...and COVID-19 kicked in. We talked about postponing, because we didn’t think about having a way to do this remotely. At the same time, the customer wanted to move forward, because it was an important step for them to improve. First, we thought this redesign would not be possible remotely. However, we took the challenge and did it anyway. COVID-19 has taught many of us a lot about remote collaboration and remote meetings; my main learnings came from a course on remote work and online collaboration by Jurgen de Smet, that gave me a lot of inspiration.

Most important decisions

First of all, we decided to have two workshops instead of one, because usually people have time to ‘chit chat’ during the workshops. In our experience, this is an important aspect for teams to design themselves. To be able to still have these discussions, we had one week between workshop 1 & 2.

Our focus was more than usually on the preparation of the self-designing team workshops, because we wanted it to be highly inclusive and interactive. It seemed harder to do this remote, because open discussions and conversations are terrible with a large group. Therefore, we needed to change the way we usually do this workshop. Most important change was to use an online collaboration tool heavily in the workshop. The choice for Miro was easy, because most people that joined, already had an account or worked with it (even though it was not much) before. Within Co-Learning we use Mural, which is similar and both tools are great options for this kind of workshops. The second important change was to use Zoom, while their company video conferencing tool is a different one. Zoom allows for setting up ‘breakout rooms’ easily, so people could still have discussions in a smaller group.

The setup of the workshop

Regular things of a large group workshop are still necessary: have a clear beginning and end, explain the goal of the workshop and each exercise really clear and specific, draw the larger picture (if there is any), in this example it was to start in new teams that would be better able to deliver work end-to-end. And we repeated - most people knew - the Responsibility Process to remind them how to take responsibility and help others in doing so.

The whole workshop had areas in Miro, so each participant moved during the workshop from one area to another. We started with the goal & constraints of the team redesign, so the optimization goal and expected outcomes were repeated. We used multiple iterations for the team design. After each iteration there was an evaluation to identify where each (draft) team could improve. For this we had vertically outlined space per team, so it was easy to see the progress between each iteration.

In advance, roughly half of the people already had spoken about changes in their current teams. In the (short) first round, we asked people to silently add their names to a team to have a starting point. Teams that had already prepared something, could just copy this to the board. There was not much evaluation after this round, but we let people read the results of others. Of course, a lot of teams were not ‘ready’ yet, but we had a starting point and also a checking mechanism whether everyone was there.

In the second round there was a breakout session (number corresponded with the team number in Miro) per team, so they could discuss what they needed to reach the optimization goal. People could move between breakout sessions to discuss. In this round, they had specific evaluation questions they answered, with the goal to identify improvements for them to discuss in the next round.

Specifically in this workshop, because their optimization goal was to deliver more work end-to-end, we had an extra round. We listed the upcoming work for the next months, and asked each team to copy the work they could 1) deliver end-to-end with this team or 2) able to and willing to learn. They identified improvements for their team based on this exercise. Additionally, they added in the overview of this work the answers in green or orange, to have an indication whether all types of work are covered with all teams. This exercise was pure for learning purposes, it was not used after the workshop.

A week later, there was the second workshop. In between, there were some open ends to discuss (identified in the first workshop) and people between teams talked to each other about that. The first round started with a summary: what’s the current status with possible changes during the week and what’s the improvement you’re going to search for in the next iteration. We gave people time to read the summaries of the other teams.

In the third iteration, the focus was on improving the ‘team of teams’, how we could improve single teams, so we could all benefit (they work on one product, so only their combined results are valuable to their company and customers). In this iteration, the evaluation was focused on that.

After each round, we held a voting about the current status. After round 3, the voting showed there was not another iteration needed. There was an exercise to identify all actions or open ends that need to be taken into account in the upcoming days before the actual change to the new teams. Four days later, that event was there and the teams started working in their new setups.

This was how one of the workshops looked when zoomed out (a lot!) in Miro:

Facilition tips

Some things to consider in the facilitation of such highly interactive large group events:

  • ‘Over’ prepare: more than in a real life workshop, make sure you have all the steps identified, prepared in the collaboration tool and make sure you explain the exercises clearly and specifically.
  • Ask participants in advance to practice on a board and to set up their equipment (camera, internet connection etc.) well.
  • Very practical: make sure all elements on the board are ‘locked’, except for elements you want them to work with.
  • Make ‘frames’ (or ‘frameworks’) for each part of the workshop: that way you can easily move the whole frame with all the content when you want to change the order of the workshop or when something turns out to be bigger than expected.
  • Instead of asking questions out loud, ask for input from participants in the tool: if you want them e.g. to answer a question, let them do it in a specific space in the tool. Every participant can do it at the same time, it’s very inclusive (people are not afraid to answer) and there is high transparency.
  • Start with a very simple exercise where they have to add something to the board with their name or let them move their name somewhere. That way you immediately know who is there and who is not, and it helps people that are not familiar with the tool yet, to play around a bit.
  • Make sure everyone must join your exercises or questions, so they are constantly contributing. Make specific spaces for each exercise - with enough space - and let people draw, make sticky’s, vote, cluster etc.
  • In the collaboration tool, ask people to go to a certain place with their cursor or follow you; in Mural you can even ‘summon’ people to be on the same place as you are (as the facilitator on the board).
  • Give instructions one by one and not multiple at the same time, and make them simple and specific. This is a tip which is also true in real life workshops, but for the facilitator it’s harder to see whether people understand the exercise/question, so it’s even more important in a remote setting.
  • Share your screen ONLY to explain the next step or exercise. Stop sharing immediately afterwards; it will make people sit back instead of actively going there themselves on the board.
  • Give people time (with timebox) to read the results or summaries of other groups, in which they didn’t participate. In events with a focused outcome like the topic of this blog, you want people to have overview of what others are doing. We are used in smaller groups or sometimes in real life to let people summarize their result, but this takes a lot of time and it’s often hard to keep paying attention. Reading up on other results will help them to get the overview. Give them some space in the collaboration tool to ask questions and let people answer them. This will save a lot of time in - meaningless - large group discussions.
  • Use time boxes and the timer in the tool to indicate how much time people have left. Rather have 2 shorter timeboxes and a clear question/exercise per timebox, than multiple and a longer timebox. For breakout sessions you should combine questions/exercises, because going back and forth between the regular session and breakout sessions should be limited.
  • For ‘concerns’ (after a round of self-design) we asked people to describe them in a specific space on the Miro board. Other people could read the concerns, and we let people vote on concerns that need to be solved right there at that moment. For these concerns, we started breakout sessions for everyone to be able to join to solve them. Voting orders the importance of these concerns, and with breakout sessions you prevent large group - often meaningless and long - discussions.
  • If the main goal is sharing and learning, instead of the previous tip, you can combine breakout groups to share the results with each other, so they learn from at least one other group.
  • Have a ‘cool’ theme for each workshop, one of the people of our customer took care of that and had e.g. the theme ‘Pacman’.
  • Other tips are more specific for this workshop, let us know in the comments.

In the previous period, we helped and designed many large group highly interactive workshops for our customers. This was one of the most challenging and interesting, therefore we liked to highlight this one in specific. Each workshop has its own context and goals, so you need to change your workshop design accordingly. Hopefully a lot of the tips in this blog will help you with that.

 * for this blog, the reasons are not important, contact us if you want to know more about it.

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