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Facilitating Effective Remote Collaboration - Interview with Rachel Smith

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
November 18, 2015

Remote collaboration is hard. Good facilitation helps. The facilitator plays an important role in bringing people together and accomplishing the intended work.

Rachel S. Smith knows. She's an expert on remote collaboration and facilitation and a Senior Consultant and the Director of Digital Facilitation Services for The Grove Consultants International in San Francisco, CA.

Rachel develops ways to integrate technology into visual practice. She has a deep understanding of new media and its application to education. Rachel is a skilled visual facilitator and recorder and works with groups both both face-to-face and virtually. She blogs at Digital Facilitation and tweets under @ninmah.

I caught up with Rachel in an interview via email. Here’s what she has to say.

JIM: Tell us a little about yourself and your company, The Grove. What's your secret sauce and what role do you play in the company?

RACHEL: The Grove Consultants is a small company, with only 12 employees. We're a consulting firm and publisher in the area of organizational change. Our secret sauce is that we work visually, and all of our work is graphically facilitated, which means that we use words and images to capture what happens in the meeting.

All group activities are supported by visual tools like templates, sticky notes, and so on. Using visual tools transforms group work in amazing and wonderful ways. We also offer workshops on graphic facilitation, large-scale organizational change, process consulting, strategic visioning, and facilitating remote collaboration.

JIM: So what's your role at The Grove?

RACHEL: I have a dual role at Grove; I'm a consultant and trainer, so I work with clients and lead workshops, but I'm also involved in research and development. My background is a mix of art, teaching, facilitation, and technology, and I'm really curious about the ways we can work visually with people at a distance.

I've seen over and over how much it changes the way people work, the amount they are able to do, and how much they enjoy doing it, when they are able to work visually; and I've also seen over and over how painful it is to try to do complex collaborative work with people who are not in the same room together.

Bringing visual tools to remote work makes a huge difference in the experience of working at a distance, so that's my area of R&D: I play with technology, imagine and explore how it can be used to support remote visual work, and teach people about it.

I also have a personal mission, and a message, that ties into what I do. A lot of people deeply believe they can't draw, because a long time ago when they were young, an adult told them they couldn't in one way or another. My personal mission is to help everyone I work with unlock the door in their head that got locked the day they started to believe they can't draw. Everybody can draw. Not everybody is going to be a great artist, but everybody can draw well enough to communicate. So I help people realize and experience that.

My message has to do with technology, and it's pretty simple. Everyone who uses technology for anything has experienced it failing on them. A lot of people are afraid to use it, especially for work, because of this, and they think that there is a magical level of competence that experts have, where technology never fails. My message is this: Nope, it fails for everybody once in awhile. That's just how it is. The experts just know they need to have backup plans. People find this very comforting :-)

                                                                                 Rachel's TEDx talk on drawing

JIM: Remote collaboration and remote facilitation can be interpreted in many ways. In your opinion, how do we best understand and define those concepts?

RACHEL: In the work I'm doing, remote collaboration and remote facilitation are different but related activities.

Remote collaboration is working interdependently with other people who are not co-located; that is, on a team engaged in remote collaboration, the work can't be done by only one person, and the work that each person does feeds into and pulls from someone else's work also, but those people don't go to the same office or building to work every day. It can be ongoing work or temporary, project-based work, and it's usually complex. Often, when I talk about remote collaboration, people think I mean virtual meetings, but meetings are only a part of remote collaborative work.

Remote facilitation is making it easier for people to do work, without being in the same room they are in. Although there are professional facilitators (I'm one of them), there are lots of ways to be facilitative that anyone on a remote team can employ.

The model of facilitation that I'm working with was developed here at The Grove by David Sibbet and Laurie Durnell. It breaks group dynamics into seven stages:

  • Orienting to purpose
  • Connecting people
  • Drawing out information
  • Getting closure on agreements
  • Supporting action
  • Monitoring progress
  • Leveraging learning

The sequence isn't strictly linear, but it's useful to think of it as a process.

At each of those stages, a facilitator can do specific things to help a group or team work better together, be more efficient, and achieve its outcomes. Remote facilitation calls for special considerations, special tweaks and adjustments, because the setting is so different. Again, people tend to think of remote facilitation as belonging to virtual meetings, but one of the things I'm exploring is how people can be facilitative in between meetings, when ongoing work is actually happening.

JIM: Lets just focus on remote collaboration for a minute. What are the biggest challenges you see people facing when engaging in remote collaboration, as you describe it?

RACHEL: We actually surveyed people and asked them this question. The responses fell into three broad categories:

  • People-related challenges, including online behavior, lack of experience with tools, and feelings about working remotely
  • Technology-related challenges, which are usually about tools being hard to use or not working properly or the infrastructure not supporting what people were trying to do
  • Setting-related challenges, such as real life events or sounds intruding into virtual settings, or having to be sitting down at a computer in order to do the work.

The most-cited challenges were in the people group, and I think this is reflective of how hard it is to connect with and be in the flow with someone who isn't in the same room you are in. Once you get to know someone well, it gets easier; but it takes a lot longer to get to that state when you're working remotely.

Another challenge that I personally experience as a facilitator in this space is that a lot of my clients can't access the emerging tools that would let them work visually, because they are working within fairly restrictive company IT policies. They may be using an outdated web browser, or they may be unable to access certain websites or install client software on their own workstations. Policies like these are in place for reasons of security and workforce management, which I understand, but they also make it very challenging to use current approaches to working collaboratively.

There are a host of other challenges, but those are the ones that are top of mind for me right now.

JIM: What are the top two or three recommendations for overcoming the people-related challenges?

RACHEL: I think a lot of the people-related challenges stem from a failure to grasp that meeting remotely actually takes more preparation than meeting face-to-face. There's often an assumption that we're just going to pick up the phone, maybe click a link to get into a web conference, and after that everything is the same as if we were meeting in one room; but it isn't the case.

It takes a lot more effort to handle the basic things that people need in order to function well in a group setting. People come in to a group setting with a common set of questions: why am I here? who else is here? what are we supposed to do? how are we supposed to behave together? when can we leave? If those questions aren't handled, people disengage and feel dissatisfied.

So my top recommendation is to handle those questions right from the start.

  • Make sure everyone understands the outcomes of the engagement.
  • Make an opportunity for people to introduce themselves in a graceful way that makes sense and doesn't involve people talking over one another.
  • Create and share a clear agenda and establish ground rules.
  • Make sure everyone understands how the tech works, and/or have someone on hand who can help.
  • And be clear about how long the meeting is going to last.

Just handling those few, obvious-seeming things will go a long way toward eliminating a lot of the issues that were listed under 'people problems' in our survey.

JIM: We touched on remote facilitation briefly earlier. Is this were the facilitator then needs to come in -- to make sure everyone understands the outcomes and logistics? What else does the facilitator do?

RACHEL: The facilitator often designs the process and outcomes in partnership with the meeting sponsor or steering committee, and then either the meeting sponsor or the facilitator will orient the group to the agenda and outcomes at the start of the meeting. The facilitator usually is responsible for the process during the meeting -- what we would think of as the flow -- although sometimes this is shared with the meeting sponsor.

The facilitator is also responsible for creating and maintaining a safe space for participants to contribute, which encompasses quite a lot of behaviors.

A graphic facilitator will also be capturing and organizing the content of the discussion, or orienting the group to an online tool like MURAL and helping them contribute and make sense of the contributions. A facilitator may also serve as a moderator for discussions when that role is needed, help the group transition from one topic or activity to another, close the meeting, and provide or assist with follow-up materials. There are a lot of other things the facilitator might do; too many to cover comprehensively here.

JIM: Let's talk tools for minute. How should people best approach the technology in remote collaboration? What are the important things to keep in mind when selecting and using tools?

RACHEL: When people ask me what tools they should use for remote collaboration, I advise them to first get really clear on the outcomes they want to achieve in a given session or workflow.

Then I ask them to design a process to support the outcomes, and only then look for a tool or tools to support the process. I recognize that this is a little tricky since there are so many different options out there, and it's hard to know what's even possible if you don't have time to research collaborative tools yourself.

However, people tend to get excited about a tool and work forward from there (the tool determines the process, and the process determines the outcomes), and that's a little backwards.

When someone is at the point of picking tools to support a process, I advise them to list the must-have and the nice-to-have features for the tool, if they can.

Then it's best to try two or three, if possible, because different people will prefer different interfaces or look-and-feel combinations. This is also not easy and takes a lot of time, and sometimes the first choice doesn't end up being the best one.

I have very few 'best tool ever' recommendations, and I always try to find out as much as possible about a given situation before recommending anything.

I wish I had a better answer for this question, but for now, I don't. One of the pieces that I'm building to complement the book is a source of reviews for online collaboration tools that are linked to practices in the book, so if you want to do practice X, you could look at the reviews for a set of tools that support it. Hopefully that will help narrow down the field a bit for people.

JIM: So what are those situations in which you'd recommend using MURAL? What remote collaboration processes benefit from that tool?

RACHEL: I'd recommend MURAL when the outcomes include any of the following:

  • Getting everyone engaged: People are more engaged when they have something active to do. MURAL builds that in because everyone can create and move sticky notes and interact with the material directly rather than watching someone else do it.
  • Getting input from everyone: Whether it's in a synchronous session where everyone is on a call and using MURAL together, or an asynchronous project where people can drop in and make changes when it's convenient, using a tool like MURAL lets everyone contribute. This is particularly useful in situations where it's hard for some people to speak up because of the awkwardness of taking turns talking in a remote meeting, or because they are more reflective thinkers, or where the team is separated by wide time zone differences.
  • Generating and sorting lots of ideas: One of the things I love about MURAL is that everyone can generate ideas and then everyone can work with them, because you can see each idea and move it around. Once it's out there, it's easy to deal with the idea independently of the person who suggested it, so teams can focus on the merit of each idea rather than always following certain people or discounting others. Having people generate and then cluster ideas is a quick way to show where there is a lot of interest -- you'll see right away where there are a lot of variations on a given theme.
  • Making sense of complex systems or processes: Process diagramming is incredibly useful when you have a large team and not everyone knows what everyone else is doing, which tends to happen with remote teams. Getting everyone together to collectively diagram a process gives the whole team access to the big picture when parts of it are stored in different people's heads. With MURAL, each person can create notes that show the part of the process he or she understands, and then everyone can arrange all the pieces into the full process. Working through this process can reveal where work is duplicated or where there are opportunities to increase efficiency in other ways, too.
  • Comparing different choices and making a decision: Using a very simple high-low grid or a 1 to 10 agreement scale, groups can quickly sort choices to get a visual sense of relative difficulty vs. expense (for example), or see whether there is agreement around a proposal or not. MURAL makes this really easy; just drop in a framework template, write ideas on stickies (for the grid) or people's names on stickies (for the agreement scale), and drag the stickies to show where they fall.

JIM: Thanks, Rachel!

About the author

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim Kalbach is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in customer experience, experience design, digital transformation, and strategy.