Distributed Team

Facilitating Event Planning for a Distributed Team

Recently I have been talking to several clients that are seeking facilitation services for the planning of events that are a month or two away and are looking for assistance in convening geographically diverse teams in planning the events.  Having planned many regional and national conferences over my 17 plus year career,  it is clear to me that the facilitation process of planning an event is as important as the facilitation process at the event. While not quite as prophetic as the GIGO mantra of “garbage in garbage out, ” my experience has taught me that there is a direct relationship between the quality of the planning and the quality of the event.  I have also found that he stakes in event planning are increased when planning team is geographically distant and unable to convene face-to-face for the planning process. So in this post, I wanted to outline some of the principles of facilitating an event planning process for a “virtual” planning team.

1.  Technology Choices:  The first principle is to be thoughtful and intentional about technology choices.  In an ideal world, everyone would have broadband access to the Internet, using state of the art computers with integrated Voice Over Internet capabilities and attached video cameras.  In that ideal world, users would have the technology competencies to understand not only email and basic web browsing but also how to use tools like Skype, WIKIS, Twitter, collaborative workspaces, content management systems.  Unfortunately, while the generation now coming up through the ranks is more technology savvy, a facilitator needs to be able to rapidly assess the competencies of a planning team to find the lowest common denominator of technology tools to manage the planning process.  At the most basic level technology tools need to ensure thee things:  a) communication, b) documentation, c) tracking progress.

Communication:  Planning teams need to communicate and  three of the most common formats are teleconferencing, webinar and email.   The trade off of teleconferencing or using a webinar platform is primarily one of cost and technology competency.  If a team can afford it and has the competencies, using a webinar format for planning meetings opens up visual as well as audio communications.  I find email is useful only as an adjunct communication tool because of the inherent limitations that asynchrony bring to the communication process, because of the competing noise of 40-50 other emails a day, and fragmentation inherent in multiple email messages.

Documentation:  The ability to document a planning process using a common technology platform is critical to the planning process.  For example, I have been working with a distributed team on an organizational development process where one of their primary challenges is tracking who on the team has the current version of any given document.  That is not the way to work and we are exploring technology options to solve that problem. However, planning teams need to get documentation correct up front as timelines for event planning don’t reward inefficiency of lost documents. Elsewhere I have written extensively about managing technology-based collaborative workspaces.

Tracking Progress: Tracking progress across a distributed team can also be managed using online collaborative workspaces or can be as simple as using a running task list that is reviewed at each planning call. Ideally tracking progress integrates a dates (calendar), tasks, milestones and responsibilities.

2. Agendas & Ground Rules: I have written elsewhere on agenda development and when working with a virtual planning team, the importance of using an effective agenda in facilitating a planning process needs to be underscored.  When a meeting is being conducted by a teleconference there is an absence of visual interaction and having a clear agenda is one tool to help participants track progress of the conversation.   The other tool that is important to facilitating teleconferences is a discussion of “ground rules.”  While many facilitators rigorously define ground rules at the beginning of a facilitation process, I am much more lax in this processes, often omitting consideration of ground rules, unless a client feels that the step is important. However, for conference calls, I do believe that it is important to establish some working ground rules.  Some rules are related to professional courtesy while others are intended to improve productivity. Specifically, I feel that it is important to create agreements around a) multi-tasking (answer emails and web surf in addition to participating in the call), b) muting phones except when talking, c) identifying oneself before speaking, d) restating agreements in the summary.

3. Facilitation Tasks:  When facilitating a virtual group I believe that the facilitator has five tasks including 1) preparation, 2) movement, 3) understanding, 4) inclusion, and 5) decisions.

Preparation:  There are two dimensions of preparation.  The first dimension is creating the clear understanding of meeting outcomes and make sure that the virtual team has in advance to the meeting, the agenda and background materials needed to make them successful in achieving the meeting outcomes. There is both art and science in using technology effectively and that surfaces the second dimension of preparation. A facilitator needs a deep understanding of the technology media being used.

Movement:  As with all facilitation, the role of the facilitator is to design and implement a process that moves participants from the beginning of the process to the end.  In a technology-mediated environment, without visual cues, such facilitation will rely more on more procedural skills to specifically engage participants and create action.  Polling, sequential talking, motion – discussion & vote, are examples or process tools that are needed to compensate for the lack of visual cues.

Understanding: As a third process, checking for understanding becomes important in a technology-mediated environment. The facilitator may need to check in on understanding using processes like, asking for paraphrasing or verbal affirmations of understanding.

Inclusion:  Ensuring inclusion is a facilitator task in any setting. In facilitating virtual groups the task of inclusion has the dimension of ensuring equity of voice and the occasional dimension of re-engaging those who wander off into multi-taking land.

Decisions: The final facilitator task is to ensure that decisions are made and documented.  I have also posted on decision-making previously and it goes without saying that decisions made are the markers of progress in the event planning process.

4. Documentation: The final principle to discuss is documentation and version control. The success of team-based event planning is the ability to manage the documentation process.  Again, as a subject worthy of more in-depth consideration, I had posted extended thoughts on documentation previously.   As I stated in that post, “developing a documentation plan as part of facilitation should be standard practice, although I have encountered few facilitators who are so intentional about this process.  To be successful in this area, a facilitator needs to be familiar with concepts of information ecology and knowledge management in addition to having strong technology competencies. The benefits of investing the time and energy in document planning are seen in greater productivity, efficiency of the process.”

Successful event planning by virtual teams not only requires facilitation but a well-managed facilitation process.  Investing in the event planning design as well as the event design will often be the difference between an event and an outcome. Events planned by distributed planning teams design a process that use of technology, meeting process, and document management to ensure planning success.




Photo Credit: Robert Pastryk 

Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.