Remote facilitation and the global project team

Jerry Wilson, Facilitation Methodologist, Center for Business Transformation, Ernst & Young, LLP

Howard Smogor, Intellinex, Ernst & Young, LLP

Valli Hoski, Center for Business Transformation, Ernst & Young, LLP

Introduction

As corporate globalization continues and the geographical deployment of virtual project teams increases, project managers have turned to technology to maintain continuity and cohesiveness within their teams. Software applications such as Net Meeting, Netpodium, and Group Systems enable teams to share a virtual project room and conduct status meetings even though members are scattered around the country. Remote facilitation, also known as distance facilitation or virtual facilitation, offers time/cost savings so significantly large that it is an area being explored by leaders in most industries.

While technology has advanced to meet the demand for remote conferencing capability, advances in remote facilitation techniques have lagged behind. Consequently, some project managers have found themselves at the mercy of the technological environment when conducting remote sessions. Project teams that work well together when everyone is physically present suffer miscommunications, lack of participation, and technical miscues when the team meets remotely. Information is exchanged and decisions made, but the synergy that is the primary strength of the project team is lost.

Remote facilitation problems fall into several categories: Communications Factors, Facilitation Techniques, and Technology Issues.

Communications Factors

Communications problems result from the significant loss of communications ability caused by the removal of visual cues from the communications link. A simple response such as “I don’t think so” may communicate any of several different meanings when it is spoken by a remote participant. The long-distance listener must rely solely upon content and inflection to determine the true meaning of the statement.

The lack of visual communication cues can be mitigated by the project manager or facilitator through the application of two simple techniques. The most important technique is to raise the group’s awareness of communications issues early on in each session. This can be easily accomplished by involving the group in a simple exercise such as the one presented in the example next.

Most groups easily adapt to the demand for increased verbal cues when they are made aware of the problem. With a little practice and an occasional reminder from the facilitator, enhanced communications techniques can become part of the group’s normal operating procedures thereby increasing the productivity of remote sessions.

Another technique that will enable the group to overcome a lack of visual cues is to familiarize them with the necessity of using appropriate two-way communications techniques. These are simple and well known:

Questioning— “Please explain further.”

Paraphrasing/Restating—“What I think you are saying is ...”

Soliciting Feedback—“What are your questions” or “What does the group think about that?”

When all participants of a remote session practice these techniques, information flow and accuracy increase dramatically. Essentially, everyone becomes a facilitator.

Example of a Remote Communications Awareness Exercise

Provide each group member with the same simple sentence in written form, e.g., “I want you to finish the charter.” Ask the group what they think the sentence means and facilitate discussion for a few minutes. The group will eventually postulate that the meaning of the sentence can be altered by emphasizing a different word or by changing the inflection with which the sentence is delivered. If they fail to reach that conclusion, demonstrate the concept by instructing several participants to read the sentence with each participant emphasizing a different word. Point out that the meaning changes each time a different word is emphasized. Then read the sentence with no emphasized words, but with a totally different inflection. Create a question by adding an “up” inflection at the end of the sentence or indicate disappointment by lowering the inflection of the entire delivery in a dejected manner. It’s quite possible to communicate 10 different meanings with a simple seven-word sentence. The group will catch onto this quickly. Be sure to include both remote and local participants in the exercise.

Facilitation Techniques

Facilitators depend heavily upon visual cues to “read” the group. When these cues are not available they must develop other methods to monitor group awareness and energy. Time-honored facilitation techniques must be modified to account for the lack of physical presence and visual cues. One of the facilitator’s primary functions in a remote facilitation environment is to direct and promote communications. Several techniques can be applied to increase the effectiveness of this “communications traffic cop” role.

Filling in the Gaps

Because remote participants interpret silences differently, the facilitator must learn to constantly provide a narrative description of what is actually taking place among participants who are physically present. This “fills in the gaps” and provided remote participants with a complete picture of what is occurring. Example: “We’re waiting for John’s computer to bring up the PowerPoint presentation” or “Kara stepped out to take a message and we’re waiting for her to return.” The facilitator must learn to visualize what the remote participants are “seeing” and provide information to fill in the gaps. In some cases, this means that the facilitator must constantly talk to provide the verbal “glue” that holds the session together.

Facilitating the Handoff

Transitions between speakers are normally accomplished by visual cues: a look, a nod, a gesture, etc. When these cues are unavailable, the speaker who is “handing off” must provide a verbal cue to the next speaker to prevent confusion and uncomfortable silences. “That completes my part of the program. William, I believe that you have information on the Value Proposition.” If the speaker forgets to do this, the facilitator must be prepared to step in and perform the transition.

Minimizing “Check Out”

It’s easy to mentally “check out” of a remote session—nobody’s there to notice and long periods can occur where one person’s participation is not missed. Normally, speakers and facilitators monitor mental participation using visual cues: eye contact, body position, preoccupation with other tasks, etc. When these cues are not available, as is the case in a remote session, the facilitator must assist the group by ensuring that everyone stays “plugged in” to the session. This can be accomplished by occasionally polling selected individuals or even the entire group: “I want to take a moment to make sure everyone is comfortable with the direction we are headed. Sharon is this working for you? John? William?”

Providing Visual Cues

Through the use of available technology, limited visual cues can be provided to facilitate communications. PowerPoint slides or Word documents prepared in advance can provide a focal point for all participants. Use the white board function of Net Meeting, Netpodium, or a similar program to capture and “push” back to the group real-time information. When these techniques are used however, the facilitator must also keep track of what is being pushed out to the group as well as what remote participants are “seeing” mentally. If the two pictures diverge or if a single pushed image is transmitted for a long time, confusion and boredom can result. The best use of this technique is for the facilitator to assign someone familiar with the technology the sole task of transmitting visuals to remote participants.

Energizing the Group

As a result of the lack of visual cues, remote sessions require more concentration and participants tire easily. The facilitator must monitor the group’s energy level and take action to increase it when necessary. Plan frequent breaks, announce the plan, and stick to it. Alternately, include an exercise to give everyone a break and to reenergize the group. Exercises such as “Two Truths and a Lie” in the example below work well remotely.

Delegating the Technology Burden

Facilitators new to remote facilitation often make the mistake of attempting to “drive” the software themselves instead of enlisting the support of an expert who can relieve them of this burden. Because the facilitator will have his or her hands full employing the techniques outlined above, another person should be appointed to operate software, computer, and telephone links. Facilitators must be “free” to facilitate, unencumbered by technology. This person should also be given the responsibility of developing emergency procedures to address “drop-outs” and communications loss and for training participants on new software prior to the session.

Example of a Remote Energizing Exercise: Two Truths and a Lie

Ask each person to develop three pieces of information about themselves, two of which are true and one of which is not true. In turn, let each person state their information without identifying the truths or the lie. As each person takes their turn, ask the group to determine which piece of information is the lie. In determining order, ensure that remote participants are interspersed with participants who are sharing a meeting room. This bonds the group and creates a sense of cohesion that facilitates a working relationship. Although this exercise makes a good icebreaker, it also works well as a remote energizer.

Technology Issues

Remote conferences, meetings, and working sessions rest squarely on the shoulders of technology. And although rapid advances in communications software and equipment have taken the “cork out of the bottle,” some project managers have found out the hard way that the genie waiting to emerge is not necessarily a benevolent one. A thorough knowledge of technology is imperative for the facilitator or project manager who ventures into the realm of virtual facilitation. The tools that are available are powerful however and significant rewards await those willing to embrace the genie.

Technology Context

Assuming a broad perspective, nearly every kind of facilitated process involves some form of technology. From the early use of a stick to draw in the sand to the contemporary use of slick boards, markers, and projectors, whenever technology is employed the facilitator runs the risk of technological failure. Yesterday, a sudden wind could erase an elaborate construct written in sand, while today markers run dry, projector lamps expire, and well-meaning housekeepers prematurely erase days of work from meeting room white boards.

The common, if pessimistic credo, “To use technology is to invite failure,” is perhaps amply rebutted by the more contemporary notion, “If we continue to do what we’ve always done, we’ll continue to get what we’ve already got.” In today’s business environment, failure to embrace and leverage technology is a prescription for stagnation. And with the world’s current speed of change, stagnation rapidly invites failure.

Perhaps the best advice for someone considering any technology-based solution is to do the homework, rely on seasoned experts for advice, and always have a backup plan. Experienced facilitators develop contingencies for dropped conference calls, dead phone lines, crashed computers, and failed Internet connections. In the most catastrophic of these scenarios, there is little to do but regroup and try to pull the group together at another time, but sometimes simple planning can save the day. Knowing the telephone numbers and locations of participants, a backup phone line or cell phone for the facilitator, or simply having someone available who is knowledgeable on the software, hardware, and networking scheme being employed, can provide a soft landing.

Technology Considerations

Since widespread access to the Internet has only happened in the past five years, the solution packages, tools, and infrastructure required to support Distance Facilitation are similarly young. Most software products that occupy this niche are currently in version 2.x or 3.x and wideband Internet connections are available only to business users and a small percentage of U.S. homes. Yet, with the time compression typical of development at webspeed, today’s Model-T tools and infrastructure will morph into tomorrow’s hypersonic offspring within the next five to seven years. Full-featured facilitation environments will only be a click away, supported by high fidelity audio and video to and from every participant. Until then, we must attend to three central considerations when contemplating a Distance Facilitated session: connectivity, strategic selection of solutions and tools, and maintaining a balanced scorecard of cost, bandwidth, solution choices, and group size.

Connectivity is a central issue because it determines who can participate in a remotely facilitated session and where they can physically be located. Distance facilitation requires two essential connections for every participant: a stable, clearly audible voice connection and a sufficiently fast data access point. If participants cannot hear each other, cannot see what the facilitator is presenting to them, or cannot access the tools that enable them to contribute—all in near real-time, the session will fail to meet its goal and greatly frustrate the participants in the process. The availability of high-quality connections within a business voice and data network are fairly universal, but joining a group together across enterprises requires special planning. Voice connections via the global telephone network can easily be attained and the Internet’s global playing field is perceived to be a similarly easy solution for data connections. In practice, however, most organizations safeguard their data assets by buffering Internet access with security devices such as firewalls and gateways. This has the effect of blocking the kinds of data streams that are vital to most electronic facilitation tools. The threat of malicious entry is so great that many organizations will not even consider opening the data ports that enable live data communication with outside entities. Often the simplest resolution is to bring participants into a single organization’s infrastructure.

The second key entails selecting a set of software tools, referred in this discussion as a software solution. Tools provide specific functions, whereas solutions package the tools together within a single interface. Solution selection is driven by budget and specific functional requirements of the session and is mediated by the connectivity considerations discussed above. Because of the relative immaturity of most of the offerings, the rate of change is great and will require current research to determine specific functionality. A scan of tools, categories, and leading players follows in the next section.

The final critical consideration involves finding a strategic balance between cost, speed, and desired session quality (ease of use, tool features, the “user experience”). In technology planning for distance facilitation, these three elements require consideration of interlocking choices about budget, solution selection, bandwidth requirements, preparation and staging time, group size, session length, and desired outcomes/outputs from the session. The dilemma is analogous to tying a rubber band around a balloon. When pinched in one place, it pops out somewhere else. In the real world of limited personnel, time, and financial resources, the best approach might be to assess and mitigate risk, to manage both sponsor and participant expectations, and to rely either on outside expertise or on building internal expertise step by step.

Tools and Solutions

Current distance facilitation solutions span a wide range of tools to support two major types of group processes: Divergent, for brainstorming, list generation, and discussion; and Convergent, for aggregating, prioritizing, and deciding. These group processes can take place in one of two modes of data communication: Push, where the facilitator sends material (presentation graphics, charts, and prepared text) to the participants’ screens; and Pull, where the facilitator draws in data (ideas, list items, and ballot selections) from the group.

For example, during a divergent brainstorm activity the leader will typically push a question to the participants, pull in their ideas, and then push back a compiled idea list to the group.

Divergence is supported through a range of tools:

  • Presentation tools
  • Application sharing tools
  • Whiteboards (for graphical data)
  • “Chat” tools
  • Discussion areas
  • Sophisticated facilitation “environments” (for text data).

Convergence is enabled by a variety of provisions from sequential, directed polling tools through very versatile voting, ranking, and analysis tools.

A full description of all of these tools is too involved for the purposes of this discussion. Differing implementations within each solution package add another layer of complexity. For example, the genre of chat tools through which participants send text data (comments, ideas, messages, or questions), encompasses three major categories, defined by how the data is addressed (tagged for delivery): to the entire group (“broadcast chat”), to specific individuals (“whisper chat”), or only to a moderator, who decides whether to broadcast the text to the rest of the group (“moderated chat”).

Selecting a solution or combination of solutions hinges on a variety of considerations, tactical through strategic in nature, which are largely driven by the organization’s cost and time horizon. The products range in capability from simple to sophisticated and vary greatly in the degree to which they truly support distance facilitation.

The field of potential solutions is divided into three major categories. Within each category, the leading solutions are listed, followed by a brief description of capabilities. Where more than one leading solution is mentioned, an overview of the capabilities typical of the genre is given. Because this area is evolving so rapidly, this discussion should be taken only as an overview, accurate at the time of authoring. Please visit individual developer’s web sites for the most current information.

Presentation-Focused Solutions

The quintessential player in this space is Microsoft NetMeeting, now in version 3.x. A freeware add-in to MS Internet Explorer, it was developed as a point-to-point “videophone” solution using computers connected to a common network (the Internet or corporate “intranet”). While it includes audio- and videoconferencing capabilities, these tools provide such marginal quality that they are of no use for distance facilitation and should be disabled. By contrast, NetMeeting’s versatile application sharing tool is quite powerful, allowing full-motion application broadcasting to remote audiences. This feature is useful for guided software demonstrations and web site tours, or for simply pushing static graphic screens (e.g., PowerPoint) to the audiences. A powerful Collaboration tool gives remote users the ability to virtually control applications running on someone else’s machine, perhaps half a world away. The whiteboard tool gives the leader the ability to push simple paint (bitmap) images to participants or to pull modified images back from the group. The chat tool is NetMeeting’s primary pull vehicle, enabling both broadcast and whisper chat.

Digest: 90% push, 10% pull. Maximum concurrent users— eight, unless a hosting server is established, in which case groups up to 32 can interact. Ease of installation—moderate. Ease connecting users—moderate. Ease of use—very easy. Phone support—nonexistent. Greatest value—pushing static graphics and conducting interactive software demos. Upside—free, easy to use once installed, configured, and the users are connected, large user base and SIGs, no staging or uploading (graphics can be changed on the fly) during meeting. Down side—no support other than online and text-based help files, requires software installation on all participant’s computers prior to use, bandwidth of slowest user connection determines refresh rate of everyone’s screens, typically blocked by enterprise firewalls.

NetMeeting URL: www.microsoft.com

Web-Based Collaboration Solutions

An increasingly populated software niche is currently led by solutions such as NetPodium, PlaceWare, Horizon, and WebEx, which focus on static content push, whiteboards, directed polling, a spectrum of chat implementations, and, in some, small video presentation windows and dedicated discussion tools. Most players here have adopted an Application Service Provider (ASP) model where users “lease” the developer’s application and server infrastructure. Service plans vary from simple pay-as-you go; per-minute-per-user fees to alliance/integration arrangements, where the developer helps large enterprises establish stand-alone capability.

Digest: 70% push, 30% pull. Maximum concurrent users— dozens to thousands of concurrent connections. Ease of installation—no installation for users, moderately difficult for leader software. Ease connecting users—extremely easy. Ease of use— very easy. Phone support—varies, modest to excellent. Greatest value—pushing static graphics, polling, group discussion, distance learning. Upside—low/moderate cost for ASP fees, requires only a web browser to access, relatively low bandwidth requirements, supports large groups. Down side—pushed graphics and polls require uploading or staging prior to session (cannot be changed on the fly), bandwidth requirements increase when video is used and when group size increases, as with all other solutions, data communication for these products is usually blocked by enterprise firewalls.

Netpodium URL: www.netpodium.com

PlaceWare URL: www.placeware.com

Horizon URL: www.horizonlive.com

WebEx URL: www.webex.com

Electronic Facilitation Environments

High-end tool sets specifically designed for remote facilitation differentiate this software area, dominated by long time player, GroupSystems.com. The product of over 20 years of academic research into business and collaborative processes, GroupSystems was originally developed to accelerate face-to-face meetings and has grown to a true, web-accessed distance facilitation solution. Available through ASP, corporate infrastructure, and face-to-face, meeting room models, this product is mature, currently in the seventh software generation since the late 1980s. A complete facilitation package, it supports all group processes and techniques; employing a rich tool set including Electronic Brainstorming, Categorizer, Voting, Survey, and Alternative Analysis.

Digest: 10% push, 90% pull. Maximum concurrent users— dozens to hundreds of concurrent connections. Ease of installation—no installation for users, moderately difficult for leader software. Ease connecting users—extremely easy. Ease of use— easy. Phone support—excellent. Greatest value—distance facilitation, supports group writing, multi-variant analysis, promotes synergy through fast many-to-many data push/screen updates, can be used for asynchronous (different-time/different place) facilitation. Upside—low/moderate cost in ASP model, requires only a web browser to access, intuitive interface, agenda can be changed on the fly, relatively low bandwidth requirements, can support large groups, statistical underpinnings have been certified by Congressional Budget Office. Down side—virtually no presentation graphics capabilities (only through file uploads or whiteboards), no video capabilities, expensive to purchase for corporatewide or face-to-face-to-face (stand-alone) implementations, typically blocked by enterprise firewalls.

GroupSystems URL: www.groupSystems.com

Mitigating the Risk—A Project Manager’s Perspective

Remote work groups present an almost ideal solution for a project or team manager. They provide the opportunity to leverage “hundreds of miles worth” of skills, knowledge, and experience while reducing or eliminating travel costs, improving team morale, and increasing productivity. What manager wouldn’t jump at the chance for fabulous savings and incredible team results?

But what is the lead under this bullet’s silver lining? What are the real costs in terms of team collaboration, communication, and cohesion? What do teams really produce and how do they really resolve issues via telephone calls, videoconferencing and connected desktops? What are the risks from a Project Manager’s perspective?

Remote work techniques, technology and approaches present solid, effective benefits such as those described above. However, risks for team productivity and success are just as prevalent, including:

  • Incorrect or inaccurate understanding of communications
  • Lost synergistic opportunities
  • Missed critical communications
  • Incomplete or nonexistent team cohesion and commitment
  • Reduced effectiveness of team messages, communications, and results.

Despite these risks, virtual teams can work well together. The reality is that it often takes a more proactive effort and additional guidance on the part of the project manager to make remote work groups work effectively. The project or team manager must ensure “win-win” success for “live” and “remote” team members. Remember, here versus there all depends on one’s perspective and location. Many risks, common to most remote facilitation environments, can be mitigated through the following techniques and procedures.

Risk: Team identity still geographically focused, rather than results focused.

Solution: Apply team-building techniques even for remotely conducted team kick-off meetings. Create team assignments that require collaboration of members across different locations, rather than creating development “silos” based solely on location.

Risk: The team is uncommitted or skeptical about the effectiveness of remote teams; concerned about results and affect on performance.

Solution: Establish agreements with each team member regarding their expectations of remote team performance, their role, and their rewards. Debrief teams at appropriate intervals on the effectiveness of the remote team approach. How comfortable are the teams? How is productivity? How have individual or team results been affected? Establish the remote facilitator as a key change agent with the team. Ensure the facilitator is available to “coach” teams in effective remote work techniques.

Risk: Actual remote work sessions are not being efficiently conducted and are not delivering quality results.

Solution: Ensure that the facilitator’s role and responsibilities are clear and explicit. Evaluate the level of facilitation skill and experience needed to manage the remote teams. Obtain additional or more experienced facilitators. Train all team members in the interaction and communication style needed for effective remote session delivery and results.

Risk: Remote technology is perceived as a barrier or “excuse” for lack of results or decreased productivity by teams.

Solution: Evaluate whether the technology is supporting the team, or if the team is excessively supporting (maintaining, “tweaking”) the technical environment and tools. Ensure that all team members are trained in the tools, and can effectively produce results using the new work environment.

Productive remote sessions don’t just happen through the magic of technology. To be effective and deliver high-value benefits, this approach requires the remote facilitation skills of a master. To increase your team or project’s success, recognize the critical importance of a remote facilitation agent and apply the risk mitigation solutions outlined previously. These techniques will enable your team to safely and assuredly share the rewards of reduced costs and leveraged experience with a team that is literally “hundreds of miles wide”!

Conclusion

In the end, if the problems associated with remote facilitation are not addressed, the team and manager may lose, no matter how great the financial gain. Dissatisfied team members, a lack of team motivation, low morale, and perceived poor performance by the project manager can derail even the best-organized project.

The expectation is that the number of virtual teams will increase, not decrease in the future. Technology will continue to advance to support those teams and project managers will be expected to lead their teams to develop effective solutions. While the techniques presented herein are minuscule in number compared to the knowledge that a competent project manager must bring to the project, they are nevertheless absolutely critical to the survival and performance of the global project team.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston,Texas,USA

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