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Essential skills to work and collaborate in 21st century... part 2 (Technology skills)

Someone once told me: “Technology doesn’t allow you to have better meetings. It allows you to have worse meetings more easily”.

And it’s absolutely correct; if you don’t engage your team with a purpose, they will lose interest, and start working on something else (I do too...). This is not new (unfortunately) - even in physical meetings, this old adage still holds true. But in a virtual setting, it is much easier for people to work on something else.

I will not blame them - actually, I will blame the project manager for not doing his or her homework. Why them again?? - you can’t be serious? Oh yes: the project manager’s finest job is to manage team members in the most time efficient way - and this includes managing the environment where the meeting takes place.

So what do project managers tend to

  • not send a few personalised step guides for how to participate in the meeting
  • not make sure that the technology is working properly for the meeting
  • forget that audio quality needs to be very precise, firm and clear
  • forget that the first and last few minutes of a meeting are the most crucial
  • attach all materials for a given meeting to the meeting invite
  • use few channels for communication - sometimes only one (email)

In this post I will focus on Technology which is interrelated to Facilitation:
I talked about the facilitation skill, which is essential for how to Plan, Execute, Evaluate and Follow up on a meeting, so now let me paint it with technology, and see how technology can support each step.

Plan (Calender, Email, Shared file store)
Let’s start of, for better or worse, with calendar technology (Google, Lotus, iCal, Outlook...). For the past decade, we have been “blessed” with the ability to schedule a meeting, based on free slots in the desired participants’ calendar (if the participants are in the same organization). As a result, most people now block time in their calendar, in order to make sure they have time for doing actual work. So that didn't help much...

As a result, project managers (still) spend incredible amounts of time arranging meetings. The challenge here is that focus will be on finding time to meet, instead of focus being on the actual purpose of the meeting.

One good thing about virtual working, is that you now don’t need a big conference room - though sometimes I would recomend getting a small room for 4-5 people, along with a conference phone & a whiteboard.

So besides writing the purpose, agenda and objective for the meeting, you need to:

1) Book people
2) Book room
3) Book Technology

and at least 24 hours before the meeting

4) send guide to attend the meeting
5) send purpose and final agenda of the meeting
6) send prep materials

All these steps are something a project manager is forced to do. So as a project manager, whose actual job is to oversee a project with huge impact on the business, you might feel that you spend more time getting people together, than actually doing the project you are supposed to do. Trust me: deep down, everyone appreciates your efforts, even though they tend not to tell you.

So a few technology tips:

  • Send an invite, including only the purpose, agenda and objective (this will "disappear" into their calendar when they accept the meeting)
  • Send an email referring to the meeting invite, containing purpose, agenda and objective, as well as a list of meeting participants
  • Send links to documents, instead of including them in your email (they get lost, or you update them, and email servers tend to frown upon large files)

Execute (WebConf, Phone (for now), Presentation tool)
Today, in a global setting, three extra dimensions have been added to the “Execute” equation:

  1. Time and Culture differences
  2. English which for most people are second language
  3. More technology

Besides your previous 6 steps, you need to take into account what local time people are able to meet, based on their location. Also, you need to make sure that some sort of web conferencing tool can be used (part of the planning).

Finally, you pray that everyone understands what is being said, because English is a second language to most people.

As a result, the audio quality needs to be extremely good. You can survive without a camera, if it’s a meeting with people you already know, but if the audio is bad, keeps dropping and / or there is excessive background noise, it will become such a problem for participants, that they will cut off mentally. They might still be in the call but they will have turned the sound down low, in order to minimize accoustic agony. And if they can’t hear, why should they bother to involve themsvelves in the discussion? At this point, you still need a phone line, because VoIP is still not mature enough for large conference calls.

Camera or not
There are many technological alternatives in this space, but very few are actually good at using cameras. In a study made by Siemens, only 34% use video. Interesting part is, that 72% would find teamwork easier, if collaboration included video.

So why aren’t people using video? I think most people will claim that it is due to:
- Low bandwidth (especially if using VoIP)
- Video being “muted” in order to multitask
- People hesitant to be the first to turn on the camera
- Lack of space on the screen to share content and people

My claims is much more simple: You don’t use it. And that brings us back to the project manager: he or she needs to be the first to adopt this, because they are the change agents.

So what technologies do you use for your meeting, besides a web conferencing tool? Well - what would you use if you were in a room together? A presentation tool, flip chart, and a simple whiteboard for everyone to write and draw on. And because you are the facilitator of the meeting, you need to able to switch between these three tools:

1) Your agenda - so you can steer your conversation
2) A note tool - so you can write down actions as they occur during the meeting
3) A shared tool - where everyone can write and draw

In most cases, a presentation tool like PowerPoint will do the trick, except for the third tool: for this task, you could use a shared Google document.

Evaluate (Sheet)
Getting back to my statement - that project managers forget that the first and last few minutes of a meeting are most crucial; the first few minutes of the meeting should be used to set the scene for the meeting, so that every participant knows why they are here. Conversely, if some participants don’t need to be there, they can drop off - for everyones benefit!

The last few minutes are so crucial for the success of your meeting. When people log off, they are usually off to a new meeting, going home, going shopping or some other prior engagement. So you need to revisit your action list with them all, and make sure that every action has been assigned to a person, and that every action has been given a deadline. That person has to be among the participants in the meeting. By doing this particular evaluation before the meeting ends, you will definitely make the life of the project manager much easier.

Follow up (Shared team room, Calendar)
As a project manager, you need to follow up on each of the actions. Doing this at the next meeting is not an option, as you will no doubt find that a given task will stay in limbo this way, forever, until someone asks about it, and everyone has forgotten what it was...

In the course of different assignments, I have done two things:
1) assigned/delegated tasks directly to a person in their calendar, and/or
2) assigned tasks to a given person in a shared, virtual team room

This was a brief introduction to the art of applying technology to your facilitation skills. I highly recommend experimenting with different tools; in my experience, there is not one tool that can be used for everything - it is a mix of tools, and sometimes, the most simple tool is the best.

Good luck!

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