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People scattered around the world join forces in a virtual workshop to create a project plan

 

People scattered around the world join forces in a virtual workshop to create a project plan. How do you give everyone a feeling of immediate, live participation? How do you keep them engaged? The answer-structure the workshop around three principles:

Visualization of ideas: Elements of the project plan are captured on sticky notes and displayed on a flipchart
Simultaneous participation: All participants generate ideas in real time, as they would in an actual conference room
Rich experience: Regardless of physical location, everyone is active both through audio and visually
The three principles come into play in a virtual workshop leveraging project management best practices, web conferencing with Cisco WebEx, and an innovative software application. As the participants generate ideas for the project plan, they type them into an application shared on their computer screens and print them locally on sticky (3M Post-it) notes. The notes are then pasted on flipcharts, visible to the entire group-both locally and remotely. The project plan takes shape as the group discusses the ideas printed on the notes and moves them around on the flipcharts. The final sequences of notes are scanned into Microsoft Excel or Project, where they are fine-tuned into a coherent project plan. At the conclusion of the workshop, the plan is distributed electronically to all. Virtual Workshops

Preliminary considerations

The setting

This case study describes a workshop conducted in early 2011 at a division of a major manufacturer of communications and information technology equipment. The purpose of the workshop is to secure broad acceptance of a project plan among a group of thirty project stakeholders dispersed over several locations. The project involves a reorganization of the compensation structure for employees. In order to maximize the active engagement of the stakeholders in developing the plan, the workshop organizers strive to create an atmosphere of face-to-face interaction regardless of whether the stakeholders are local or remote.

Traditional methods

Brainstorming teams have a choice of two popular methods.

Method 1 (local team). The team gathers in a conference room. As the participants come up with ideas, they write them on sticky notes such as Post-its. The notes are pasted on a wall or a flipchart and moved around. Once all the ideas have been submitted and ordered into a plan, one of the participants types up the notes in the correct order from the flipchart into Microsoft Word, Excel, or Project. After the typing is completed, the electronic file is distributed to the other team members.

Sticky notes are a simple and effective visual tool to facilitate the discussion at workshops. However, the final typing is easier said than done. Typing up a few hundred Post-it notes is a strain on the typist’s wrists and eyes. Trying to decipher scribbled notes is as little fun as putting them back in order in case some fall off the flipchart. No wonder it usually takes a while before the entire team can see the results of their collective labor arrive in their electronic inbox.

Another drawback of brainstorming with Post-its is that the procedure can be employed only at one physical location. Team members who dial into the session by phone cannot see the notes. This limits their ability to participate in the discussion. This is why teams that collaborate remotely typically resorts to Method 2.

Method 2 (remote team). Team members join a web conferencing session, for example through WebEx. As they speak out their ideas, a delegated person enters them into Word, Excel or Project. The file is shared, so all can watch the entries accrue. But watching is a passive activity. While waiting for their turn to speak or for the ideas to get typed up, some participants disengage to check their email, get the latest stock quotes, or daydream. With the typist inevitably failing to keep up with the flow of ideas in real time, the meeting progresses slowly and the creative enthusiasm is dampened. This is a far cry from the intuitive Post-it technique, where no one needs to wait for their turn to paste or move a note on a flipchart.

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