Boost Your Teams Using “Blended Facilitation”
By Nancy Settle-Murphy

Posted August 15, 2011

Let’s say you have a geographically dispersed team that’s pressured to deliver results within an absurdly tight timeframe. You’re challenged to tap everyone’s best thinking as efficiently and effectively as possible, keeping the team engaged and focused on shared goals. Some participants are able to convene face-to-face while others are forced to participate remotely.

“Blended facilitation” enables members of a hybrid team to make the most out of their meeting time, wherever they are. By blended facilitation we mean using a combination of facilitation tools and approaches, either synchronously (in “real-time”), asynchronously (at different times) or both. There’s no single solution that applies to all situations, but consider these guidelines when determining how to plan the kind of conversations that will yield the richest results in the shortest time.

  • Think twice about having some people participate in person while others join remotely. This dynamic tends to create an uneven playing field and inhibits open sharing among all. Better to have everyone participate remotely, with equal access to the same technology. Or, if you want to take advantage of face-to-face interactions by those who can get together in one room, use that face time to plow through the work that can more easily be done eyeball to eyeball, and share the results with the rest of the team. If you must bring together co-located and remote members on a call, adapt the agenda to minimize the time the remote people must spend on the phone.
  • Plan your agendas to encourage engaging conversations that will accelerate time to results. Assume that a group will lose focus after 60 minutes on a conference call—90 minutes tops. This means no more tedious slide decks or extended report-outs on the call. Instead, send them out or post them ahead of time. Asking people to do a little homework (e.g. bring “three top ideas” or “two major challenges”) is a great way to encourage people to pay attention to prework. Send agendas in advance, along with explicitly-stated intended outcomes, so all have a chance to prepare.
  • Make use of asynchronous web meeting software to augment same-time meetings. This works especially well when participants work across time zones and speak multiple languages. If you open an online conference a few days before the same-time meeting, you can solicit vital input to help sharpen the focus of your meeting. It also provides an easier way to assess priorities, issues and ideas, saving you valuable phone time later on. When everyone finally meets in real-time, you can share results and jump right into the needed conversation.
  • Pair web-based tools with phone for a really productive working session. Say you have 12 people on a call. If you poll each one sequentially about top challenges or new product ideas, those who are not talking may tune out quickly. Instead, set up a virtual conference space that people can use while they are together on the phone. Consider which topics lend themselves to electronic brainstorming, and which are better addressed through an open discussion. Make use of voting, action planning and priority-setting capabilities as well.
  • Consider cultural differences when thinking through the facilitation options. Especially when people don’t guage, providing multiple communication paths will elicit more participation from everyone. For example, if you went around the virtual room and asked each person to name challenges or propose ideas, you might find very different responses. Some cultures place a high value on hierarchy and seniority. Others relish a high-spirited debate over differences, while some seek to preserve group harmony at all costs. Some people may feel more comfortable communicating verbally, while others may be more confident when expressing views in writing. For all of these reasons, giving people a choice between verbal and written input on a team call is often the wisest approach for removing barriers to participation and eliciting the best ideas.
  • Maintain momentum through frequent asynchronous communications. When teams work from a distance, out of sight really can be mean out of mind. Establish conventions about how, when, where and to whom vital group communications will take place. Find ways to keep members of the group working together between meetings and milestones by using multiple channels, both synchronous and asynchronous. Make use of shared portals to share progress, review and edit documents, raise issues, and generate ideas. Consider, for example, setting up a permanent asynch meeting area where you pose a topical question to the team every week or so and send via email. Once a critical mass of people has responded, you can share responses at team meetings, via email, or ask people to view online. This can help keep the team engaged and cross-pollinating knowledge and ideas even when they are not meeting in real-time.

Posted by Nancy Settle-Murphy