Going virtual for just about everything this past year has tested our nimbleness and patience. In the research world, many of us can probably agree the shift to meeting and collaborating virtually has presented both blessings and curses.
Just about any team science pain point can be solved with good facilitation, says team science facilitator and NCEAS senior fellow Carrie Kappel, who regularly facilitates for NCEAS working groups. She believes facilitating meetings virtually can be more complicated than in person, but many of same principles apply.
Kappel is among those at NCEAS, where team science is the norm, who have been helping our working groups adapt to the virtual realm. Here she shares some of her tips for leading a virtual team science process to success that are useful to anyone leading collaborative research and could serve as your facilitation mantra.
At a meta level, Kappel promotes four metrics to help you set up a virtual collaboration for success: interactivity, accessibility, connectivity, and efficiency. In other words, design your meetings to invite interaction, prioritize accessibility and equitable participation, create opportunities for participants to bond with each other, and use everyone’s time well and focused on what’s most important.
Turning those metrics into actions, facilitators or collaboration leaders might consider following this mantra: prepare, delegate, connect, and equalize. Let’s describe these actions in more detail.
Preparation, the Unsung Collaboration Hero
Preparing for a meeting ahead of time is an underestimated and undervalued practice, particularly in a day and age when few of us feel we have breathing room between meetings and emails to plan for anything. But winging it is often a recipe for a bad meeting.
“I can’t emphasize enough the importance of planning and preparation. That’s where all the action is,” says Kappel.
No matter the size, length, or complexity of your meeting or collaborative process, preparation starts with clarifying the purpose and intended outputs and outcomes. Knowing the end goal, as well as where you are in the process to achieving it, will also help you design how you will engage your participants or collaborators.
“Sometimes the idea of a meeting is to open up the set of ideas and brainstorm; in other situations, the point might be to narrow in and make a decision,” says Kappel. “You’ll need different tools and structures for those different purposes.”
Kappel uses a couple of planning frameworks as a tactical trick to prepare. One is answering the Why, What, How, and Who for the meeting – in other words, why are we meeting, what do we need to walk away with, how will we get there, and who needs to be part of the planning and at the table…correction, on the screen.
Another framework, which is best used for multi-step collaborative processes, is called the Goals / Success Spectrum, developed by Eugene Kim, a collaboration consultant who runs Faster Than 20. It prompts you to articulate your minimum, target, and epic success metrics, as well as name what failure looks like.
“For virtual meetings, you really have to home in on a few things and do those well, because people just don’t have as much stamina for virtual as they do with in-person meetings,” says Kappel, adding that you may be able to accomplish some things offline asynchronously.
Another key tactic is preparing your teammates. This could mean creating and sharing with them a Google doc for the agenda and notetaking to help them track the process visually, confirming their awareness of, and agreement with, the purpose and intended outcomes, and confirming they can access the virtual platform you’re using.
Delegate, Because You Can’t Do It All
Let team science be that – teamwork. Even though you are the facilitator, you do not need to be responsible for everything that keeps the meeting running smoothly. Share the load.
For example, you might designate a notetaker or even invite the whole group to contribute notes to the shared Google doc. Another person might be responsible for monitoring the chat – anyone who has facilitated a Zoom meeting might empathize with how tricky it can be to both lead a meeting and pay attention to the conversation in the chat.
If you use breakout rooms, assign the role of breakout facilitators, who keep the conversation on track, take notes, and report back the highlights.
Especially if your meeting is on the larger and more complex side, make someone the “tech lead,” who can help you admit participants to the Zoom room (if applicable), assign and manage breakout rooms, mute people when they don’t realize everyone can hear their background noise, and troubleshoot any technical difficulties participants experience.
Connect, Despite the Social and Physical Distance
No one can argue with the value of group cohesion to collaboration, but getting a group to gel virtually, when lacking the innate energy and nonverbal communication of real-life interactions, can be hard, especially for new teams.
One of Kappel’s favorite facilitation tricks to build connection is giving people short, focused opportunities to share their own stories. This gives them a way to connect not just with each other, but also to the purpose of the meeting and to the greater “why” of the research.
“Stories, in general, are super connecting,” she says. “[Storytelling] softens people and gets them in the place of realization that we share something in common or maybe we’ve come at this from different perspectives.”
For example, if your team is designing a collaborative network for research on biodiversity loss, start the meeting by having participants group in pairs or trios to share their personal stories about how they feel connected to biodiversity or when they first realized the issue was meaningful to them.
Perhaps obviously, breakout rooms are a helpful way for participants to connect with each other, as well as to mix up the format. Kappel says it is important to give breakouts structure, such as giving participants specific discussion prompts and time checks. It can also be as simple as one good question.
Building connection also applies to yourself, as the meeting leader – in other words, take a deep breath and get present, particularly as part of your immediate preparation before the meeting starts.
“That’s hard for all of us who are busy and moving from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting. Finding that pause is helpful if you are the facilitator,” says Kappel.
Equalize, Because It Lifts Up Everyone
Power dynamics can seem omnipresent in research groups, particularly if your team is a mix of ages and career stages. The virtual world can just add an extra layer of awkwardness.
Kappel urges that facilitators always pay attention to whether power dynamics are holding back the process or the people. When she detects a power dynamic gone awry in a group process – for example, if someone seems to have shut down because someone else just coopted their idea – Kappel addresses it directly and early to help allow for full and equitable participation.
She will also work to amplify the quieter voices. She might even delegate someone (or everyone) to help track who hasn’t spoken yet and amplify ideas that need more airtime.
Kappel recommends creating conditions where everyone in the group is attentive to power dynamics and feels they can be open and communicative about what they need or want from the process.
“Successful groups hum when they figure out how to align their work with people’s incentives for being in the group,” says Kappel.
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Preparing to lead or facilitate a virtual team science process? Check out these additional resources NCEAS has produced to support you: