Life After Post-its and Sharpies: The role of a workshop facilitator in the WFH era
By: Juliette LaMontagne, Ed.D., Chief Learning Architect
One of my superpowers is the ability to run a room. I lead great workshops in real life. But in this new work from home era, as we each attempt to translate our gifts to the virtual world, I am rethinking how best to support my teams. At our company, Bionic, seasoned entrepreneurs are embedded with enterprise employees to build new businesses. They form a startup team — two parts of one whole — and it is my job to facilitate workshops at critical junctures in their search for commercial viability. Generally, these take the form of kicking off new teams and orienting them to new ways of working, synthesizing insights from the research findings, generating solutions in new opportunity areas, and conducting quick cycles of “sniff tests” before more rigorous experimentation.
The beauty of these in-person engagements is that multiple objectives are met simultaneously like a braided thread: we build team cohesion, foster an entrepreneurial mindset, and drive to project outcomes. But in the era of remote work, the workflow is changing and by extension, the objectives we use to frame that work must also change. It has been several weeks since the pandemic transformed our lives and in order to be most effective, I am unbraiding that thread.
The virtual workshop is not a facsimile of the real-life workshop. I am confident we can find alternative solutions to the same objectives, but I find myself wondering if we’ll ever recover the felt experience of shared physical space: Where the space itself engenders expansive thinking and signals to participants that this is not business as usual. Where we work shoulder to shoulder in intense sprints. Where we grapple with the complexity of ideas and with the complications of working together. Where we take risks and take to the streets to conduct impromptu customer interviews. Where we eat together, drink together, and recount personal tales. I miss the walls papered in green and purple Post-Its — equal part inspiration and road map — for there, we were securely bound by time and space.
Tethered to neither, the online world presents new challenges and new opportunities. Here are a few insights into how we are approaching the challenge so far at Bionic.
Virtual workshops require extra attention to energy
Maintaining a team’s energy and momentum is a key responsibility of the workshop facilitator. People have less stamina for online meetings. Keep the sessions brief with ample breaks to help head off participants’ fatigue and disengagement. A regular cadence of short working sessions accomplishes more now than blocking half a day. To make the most of the team’s focused energy, I make sure everyone understands the objectives in advance and that they have time to review and prepare before convening. This often means assigning specific activities as part of the prep work. Facetime is reserved for key collaborative efforts and anything else is delegated asynchronously.
New mindsets need intentional coaching
Our work disrupts the taken-for-granted assumptions and default mindsets of most enterprise employees. In a workshop we call The Mindset Sprint, the aim is to introduce a customer-centric orientation and methods of rapid experimentation. We’re finding ways to replicate aspects of this workshop experience online through simulations like Forio’s ready-to-run entrepreneurial sims. Nothing is more important than modeling these new mindsets in everyday interactions with our clients. The lack of facetime requires that the facilitator and the entrepreneur be intentional and explicit about our own thinking processes: how we get beyond what the customer says to reveal what they actually do; how we reveal the latent need beneath the express want. We model the humility of strong opinions loosely held. We gather evidence to validate hypotheses. It is the cumulative effect of these moments that model new mindsets. Absent are the subtle cues that would have allowed a facilitator or an entrepreneur to read the room and tailor the right level of push and pull to challenge existing mindsets. Without these real life touch points, we’re doubling-down on intentional mindset coaching.
Culture deserves a room of its own
We know it’s easier to extend a relationship that began in real life into the virtual world than it is to develop a new relationship that is exclusively virtual. Without an in-person kick-off to achieve that initial infusion of team culture, we’ve adopted activities whose sole purpose is team-building. We’re fans of video games with entrepreneurial whimsy, like Patently Stupid. Teams who enjoy the ambient awareness of co-working will find the open audio channels of Discord communities a surprising delight. And because trust and communication undergird high-functioning teams, we’ve increased participation in semi-synchronous chat channels — Slack and the like. Icebreakers and other well known team-builders are always useful. We recently dedicated a session to a world-building activity where team members created the environmental conditions and cultural norms of a new world. The results look like science fiction and also include possible new business opportunities. In these settings, where we’ve intentionally left the known for the unknown, a neutral party like a facilitator is essential to encourage innovative thinking and create psychological safety.
Facilitators are co-designers
In many cases, freeing ourselves from the constructs of the multi-day workshop makes for a dynamic cadence of work, where teams address their objectives in a more bespoke and immediate fashion than we have had in the past. Short working sessions instead of workshops means distilling large complex objectives into smaller component parts: Our synthesis meeting is separate from our ideation meeting, which is separate from the selection meeting, for example. Facilitators have become instrumental in helping teams tease out those objectives and identify the right tools and modalities to achieve them. The demands of remote work put more emphasis on the facilitator to be the co-designer as we work together to adapt our methodology and adopt new practices.
My goals as a remote facilitator are not different from the goals of the in person workshop, but are achieved differently. Our structured sessions will continue to evolve. Change is not easy, but continual adaptation will yield unexpected benefits. We may find that people are more comfortable being open when they are behind a screen. Others work better in short sprints than in half day sessions. Some of us are more productive in sweatpants. And even though I’m no longer bound by four walls, I still keep my Post-Its and Sharpies within reach.
Juliette LaMontagne, Ed.D., is the Chief Learning Architect at Bionic where she designs learning systems that enable new business growth. She is the Founder and former Director of Breaker, a non-profit dedicated to closing the gap between education and employment. LaMontagne spent fifteen years piloting innovation initiatives with the New York City Department of Education — as a classroom teacher, professional developer, and teacher trainer. Her work is recognized by TED, where she is a Senior Fellow, and by the Institute of Design at Stanford University where she is a d.fellow. She was named to the Public Interest 100 in 2012 and received excellence in teaching awards from Columbia University, Teachers College where she was a Lecturer from 1999–2004.