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How to Build a Successful Virtual Facilitation Team

Blog_ Building Virtual Teams2

I just participated in one of the most profound and interesting team experiences of my life! It took place in just under two years.  The project came out of a client request to train 25 healthcare leaders (later called the Enable learning cohort) in Saudi Arabia in the art and science of process facilitation.  The intent was to strengthen the ability of these influential healthcare leaders to implement an ambitious healthcare vision for the country over the next 10 years. Their hope was that most of the participants would apply to become Certified Professional Facilitators (CPFs) after the 18 months of training!

The only way I knew I could take this project on was if I had a fairly large, dedicated team that had a variety of international experiences. They also had to know and respect each other. And finally, they had to be well versed in process facilitation skills and in developing training curriculum. That is a lot of very precise criteria to assemble a team quickly! The client offered me two weeks to figure out if I could take this on.

I knew I already had such a team in place.  These potential team members had been part of a North Star international learning cohort from 2017-2019. We had members from 8-9 different countries and met monthly to build skills and knowledge around intermediate and advanced facilitation competencies.  Some of these members I have still not met face-to-face. Most had only known each other for these 2 years. And a few I had worked with regularly over the last 5-12 years. 

Note two team members missing from this photo*

I think the client, the learning cohort and our North Star team would say that it was highly successful in many ways. So I have asked our team to offer ideas about what key features, concepts or principles helped us be successful on a large scale virtual project. Now, we will reveal them to you. The specific questions that I asked the group were:

  • What did you learn during the Enable project that allowed you to feel part of a larger virtual team?
  • What was helpful during the project to create an atmosphere of teamwork?

We’ve scattered only some their ideas throughout this blog.  (As an example of how amazing this team was, over half of the team responded within 24 hours with some deep thinking.)

Based on my observations and their feedback, here are four key principles we used to a build a successful virtual facilitation team. May these principles help you with your virtual, in person or hybrid teams regardless of project scale.

  1. Choose every member for their immense potential (pre-team start up things to look for)
  2. Create a flexible supportive structure that will help team consistently perform
  3. Hire/assemble a larger team than you think you need to deal with unpredictables
  4. Determine communication modes and always over-communicate

Choose Every Member for Their Immense Potential

I was looking for particular qualities for a team that would need to stay cohesive throughout a multi-year project. They needed to be absolutely fascinated with continuing their own growth in process facilitation skills. I hoped they would offer everything they learned along the way to the client group.

The team did not need to commit to the entire time period, but they needed to be honest about what they could commit to and what they could not. This way, we could plan around their other commitments. I wanted to be able to like and respect every team member. The team needed to be diverse in terms of their strengths, passions and interests. For example, some needed to be very detailed oriented and experts in curriculum development. Some needed to be culturally knowledgeable about Saudi Arabia and Muslim customs. Some needed to be really good with technology and graphics. Everyone needed to be conscientious and reliable. Everyone needed to be respectful and committed to working with a culture very different from their own.

Because of the learning cohort that we had created a few years before this client project, I had been able to assess if these qualities existed in this team. I didn’t know all of the strengths and talents of those that stepped forward. But I knew we had great potential. I then went on to develop the structure and values I would hold for anyone who chose to join the team. See this set of structural values in point 2 below.

Here are specific comments from the team related to this principle:

“I learnt early on that it’s not about us but that we were part of a very large purpose and we were catalysts and changemakers in that experience.”

“The sense of belonging and uniqueness – that each one of us are a part of that beautiful puzzle and we bring a different note and song to the harmony we created.”

“I MATTER in the project as I bring my perspectives, my culture, my experiences and my curiosity to know more, do more and be more.” 

“I learnt that leadership is both from the front, side and back! Every contribution matters.”

“When anyone needs ideas for their projects, they would reach out to the team for ideas. And every time someone would jump in to contribute ideas.”

“Trust the wisdom of the leader and their choice of team mates and then trust the expertise of the team mates.”

Create a Flexible Supportive Structure that Will Help a Virtual Team Consistently Perform

The structure one creates in working with a virtual team is extremely important. I have no hesitation in recommending this type of structure to you to use whenever possible.

1.      Let people know they are fully supported throughout the entire project. Explain how you as a leader will support them and how you expect to be supported as the leader. Let them know they can in your view, “make no mistake” as long as they are honest about admitting it and rectifying it with the support of the team to the extent they can.

2.      Make the project an amazing learning and growth opportunity for everyone involved. The competencies of facilitation require a lifelong commitment and journey. There is no end to skill building. That’s probably true in any organization. I knew that people would find this KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) project interesting form a variety of angles but I made sure they knew this was a growth opportunity for them, not just the KSA healthcare leaders. We would continue to teach each other, try new things and reflect on what worked and didn’t work.

3.      All team members can come and go throughout the project. This principle may seem counterintuitive. How can you possibly have a cohesive virtual team if people are constantly coming in and out of a “revolving door”? What I knew was that this was an immense undertaking. Some people would be invaluable but would not be able to commit to the whole period. Everyone would need to feel welcome to step off the project for a certain amount of time when needed, and come back on. I made sure to tell them that they had to let us know when they were stepping out. I also needed to let them know that some of them would have to step into my leadership position if needed because of my own life circumstances.

Here are specific comments from the team related to this subprinciple:

“I am free to choose which role or project for which I have a passion, so it is not an assignment but a learning opportunity I want to develop myself.”

“The ability to say, ‘No, I’m slammed and can’t support this part’ and the knowledge that your team has your back.”

“Our cohesion served as the foundation for our resiliency in the face of COVID and our ability to lean on each other in even bigger ways as we figured out how to take our programming 100% online.”

Hire/Assemble a Larger Team Than You Think You Need to Deal with Unpredictables

The kind of support we would need to be successful in this project meant we needed a larger team than one we would initially expect. We ended up with 13 of us. For every task throughout the project, we made sure there were at least 3-4 volunteers. Everyone was invited to attend or participate in every task if they wished. I made that very clear. This would allow their growth and their continuity throughout all tasks. This allowed me to gradually put people into key leadership roles according to their interest and willingness. At the beginning, there were some people that were keen and had already taken on projects elsewhere. I knew they could be part of the early core leadership. As time went on, we had some people step out of leadership positions and take on something in the project that was more fitting to what their life and work would allow. We learned a lot about our selves as leaders.

We needed to ensure there were enough team members to cover roles such as lead session facilitator, co-facilitators, tech producers, document design, Miro, Mural, etc. layouts, Zoom room setup, curriculum design, admin, mentors, etc.

Here are specific comments from the team related to this principle:

There were great encouragers who brought joy into the (Zoom) room and created a welcoming and uplifting space with their presence.”

“We had a coordinator for key areas, e.g., one person was the “glue” that kept the mentor team connected and aligned with the bigger picture, and gave us clarity on the details of what we needed to do with our mentor group.”

“Mentors who worked quietly and heroically with their mentor teams and could always be depended upon to work their ‘magic’.”

Examples of how the team supported each other and their comments included:

“Someone who edited observation reports for those who did not have English as their first language; someone willing to take the extra workload to reach out to my mentee who did not respond to me; someone who led in designing sessions and completing Miro boards. This working atmosphere was so beautiful.”

“We had many talented resources to take care of such a big group.  When someone showed up to take care of extra rounds of observation, it relieved the workload.  When others unexpectedly showed up at the critical moment, it made me feel that we are the best team.”

Taking time to get to know one another at the beginning while simultaneously getting clarity about our vision, role, and plan for the project really helped do two critical things from the start: 1.) Build relationships, and 2.) Create alignment. The relationships helped create an environment of support, trust, and joy, which are critical ingredients for any high-functioning team but especially one that was attempting to work across 8 countries and 7 time zones. The alignment allowed us to focus on the work and not constantly fall into circular discussions about purpose or process – of course we had some of those too but they were related to our session designs, not our own internal process. 🙂 

Determine Communication Modes and Always Over-Communicate

We needed a way to stay in touch constantly, and to all access the same information easily. This was tricky since for example, WhatsApp is hard to access from China and different people had different communication preferences. Email was not going to work but was one of the ways the client preferred to communicate. We chose a platform called Basecamp and stored all material there that we’d need to access regularly. This is also where people entered their hours worked by both and task (keeping it transparent for everyone). If someone did not respond to an individual or group request, we tried again a few days later using a different platform or app.

Here are specific comments from the team related to this principle:

For this virtual team, here is the infrastructure that supported us (and the platforms that supported the healthcare client): 

  • Basecamp – central document storage of key documents and communication
  • Group chat (WhatsApp) for informal communications 
  • Email for formal communications with client
  • Miro, Mural, Google Jamboard, Google Forms – platforms used during client sessions
  • Doodle – for determining team availability for design sessions, debrief, etc.
  • At first Adobe Connect for Meetings and then Zoom for team design session, client online sessions and team debriefs
  • Thinkific – a resource library platform for the healthcare cohort to access all session recordings, handouts, notes, etc.

Conclusion

Working with a virtual team can be so rewarding! Naturally though, working long term with multiple team members across the globe will have challenges. One of our team members, Teck Kwang, Singapore, calls this “Navigating through the Team Development Cycle“. He writes…

It is inevitable that when we work on tasks, our unique differences shows up. In a project as complex as ours, with the faculty team being so diverse —  different countries, culture, age, and working across different time zones — tensions will surface from time to time. They come in different ways…it could be as simple as arranging a suitable time for us to meet, to different working styles, different perspective on things, to schedule commitments, and shifting project objectives due to COVID-19.

These are some of the things I recall us doing to get over the most critical stage: 

Matching people’s passions & strengths with their roles/tasks (Principle 1)

Many people giving generously, contributing content, expertise, and helping one another learn different skills (Principle 2)

Covering & supporting for one another, not pointing blame, and working to hold space for one other’s strengths to show up (Principle 2)

Plentiful pre-session planning, trial runs, and debrief sessions to ensure we supported one another well enough, and we learned along the way as we did the work (Principle 3)

Regular check-ins to keep everyone aligned on the big picture and what role they play, and also for building trust and relationships (Principle 4)

We emerged as a much more cohesive and stronger team. The focus was helping the client and the learning cohort, the Vision of transforming healthcare, and the willingness of the North Star team to support one another really made it work.

OUR QUESTION FOR YOU?

What have you learned about building successful virtual teams in this pandemic era?


*North Star team members included: Tony Wang (China); Rainbow Chow (Hong Kong); Grace Tan (Singapore); Lyn Wong (Singapore); Andrew Lee (Singapore); Loh Teck Kwang (Singapore); Eric Tseng (Taiwan); Fara Shahed (India); Mireille Beumer (Netherlands); Robin Parsons (Canada); Ian McDonnell (Canada); Rangineh Azimzadeh Tosang (USA); Barbara MacKay (USA/Canada)

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

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