Five Tips for Running Remote Discovery Workshops during a Pandemic

I really enjoy the early phases of new greenfield Microsoft Business Applications projects. It might be delivering a fixed scope project with expected outputs already defined. It might be formulating and documenting new requirements for a truly agile project. Fundamentally however, it’s about getting into the minds of business users, perhaps building some SFDs and mapping the technology to participants, perhaps unknown, wants and needs.

Most organisations generally accept that a large proportion of any IT project can be delivered remotely. With the advent of consumerisation of remote tools and working practices, even non-technical customers know configuration, development, testing, documentation and release management can be more effectively carried out remotely.

One phase however that is traditionally still held on-site is requirements gathering and discovery workshops. This is where Microsoft (and other) modern workplace tools alongside the Microsoft Power Platform can really help you become productive as a consultant when working from home.

Why are discovery meetings traditionally held face to face?

With many projects, a ‘Requirements Gathering’ or ‘Discovery Phase’ is often the most critical phase of a project. It’s where expectations are set, where stakeholders motivations are understood and where the foundations for a successful IT project are laid.

Back in 2013 when remote working was widely accepted in the IT industry and beyond, Marissa Mayer, new CEO at Yahoo! decreed there would be no more working from home for Yahoo! staff. One of the reasons cited for no remote working is captured in a quote from her memo.

“Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

In the same way that Marissa didn’t want to risk communication not happening because people were working from home, many organisations will consider it too risky to run a discovery phase for a new project remotely. There are valid reasons for thinking this – the hallways, cafeteria discussions and impromptu meetings are important tools in building relationships and that helps to elicit the knowledge and understanding you need to progress your project.

Are you more likely to get the information you need from someone over a coffee or a walk down a hall than you would from a brainstorming session? Perhaps, but this can still happen very effectively remotely, it just requires some more careful thought and planning!

With this in mind, here are some of my tips to gather requirements remotely.

1. Practice and Plan

Remote workshops are hard work. You can’t rely on a ‘water cooler moment’ or an unplanned coffee to clarify something you misunderstood earlier. In remote workshops, there will be very little energy to bounce off, so you need to plan ahead. There is a need to quickly engage business stakeholders and keep them engaged throughout your session.

Most in person requirements workshops are held between 9.30am – 4pm to allow for business commutes and other appointments. But within core hours in a face to face scenario, participants can focus fully on the session and lunch is typically provided! With virtual meetings, this approach is hard to sustain.

Instead, consider focusing on shorter one to two hour sessions. This will allow you to gather requirements across whatever time-line suits the group best. For example, requirements workshops could take place over a week’s worth of mornings, or via afternoon and evening sessions.

So, once scheduled, how should you run a remote session. Consider the following tips :

  • Don’t just try to crack on with the way you would have run an in-person workshop. While having people in a room for 7 hours is acceptable, it’s doesn’t really work remotely. For me, 90 minutes is a good rule of thumb for a maximum workshop length.
  • The format should not be the same as in-person, especially if it is with people you don’t yet know.
  • Make your sessions asynchronous, not synchronous. At a natural break, let people go offline for a period of time, with a concrete task, to then reconvene and share their outputs. This might be to do something individually, or to ask them to call each other in pairs to complete.
  • Don’t squeeze in too much. If you can see people are getting tired or bored, take a break, but set a hard reconvene deadline to get everyone back on-line. In this way, virtual workshops need to be more rigid than in real life.
  • Like real life workshops, there is a need to continue to work hard to grow collaboration between your participants. It shouldn’t be you asking all the questions. Try to make your sessions as ad-hoc and informal as you can. Don’t be afraid of long silences, people need time to pause and reflect.

2. Use the right tools for the job, not just the available tools

Your needs should drive the platform and tools you require, not the other way around. Don’t just decide to use the first piece of software you come across. There are subtle differences in remote workshop tooling across different vendors. I’ve obviously heavily invested in the Microsoft ecosystem, but Microsoft tools may not always be the best answer here!

Remote Conferencing

For remote audio and video conferencing software, Microsoft Teams and Zoom are the current big names, there’s also other established tools such as GoToMeeting or WebEx. Having your participants see each other on a single screen can help them open up and contribute. Zoom has the capability of displaying 49 individuals on a single screen, so there’s never a seat at the back of the room to hide! Microsoft is playing catchup – teams currently has four participants on a single screen, while an upcoming release in April/May 2020 will to increase this to nine – more than enough for a typical discovery workshop. Zoom has a hand raising button, useful for participants to ask a question without interrupting. Teams has the same feature rolling out shortly.

When conferencing, set an expectation that people should turn the video on – This is one I don’t think should be optional without good reason. The most effective human communication requires our being able to see the other person we are talking to. Video calls can help to tell when someone is telling a joke or is not serious. We’ve all had conference call where people have misconstrued someone as being aggressive when they don’t intend to be. It’s important for you and attendees to actually see the truth behind what your participants are saying. Those visual cues you get from video calls can play a big role in the success of your workshops.

Don’t worry about not having a tidy workspace at home – with both Teams and Zoom you can now set your background so your colleagues can’t see your messy bedroom.

Virtual Whiteboarding

In an on-site workshop you might rely heavily on real white boards and post-it notes to run brainstorming or ‘Event Storming’ sessions, or even scribbling down draft entity models. For virtual whiteboarding sessions, don’t even consider Microsoft Whiteboard – it’s not yet ready for prime time. Instead, consider Miro or Mural. Miro has a free plan to get started and Mural has a free Covid-19 related 90 day trial available to allow you to evaluate. Mural also has some excellent pre-configured whiteboard templates which are great to tweak to fit your own requirements.

Quiz and Questionnaire Tools

To break the session up, consider traditional online quiz tools like Microsoft Forms, Typeform or Kahoot. Kahoot is my favourite for injecting a bit of fun into proceedings. If your workshop format means you can’t define the questions you need to ask up front, create appropriate questions during planned breaks and ask participants to complete when they come back online.

3. Train your users in advance

You might be a ninja at using Teams and virtual white-boarding tools, and have a fantastic session planned out. Unfortunately your attendees may not have a clue how to use them and disengage as a result. In virtual world you need to be very explicit. Your goal is to enable people to understand the tooling enough so they don’t have to focus on it. Don’t have them stumble through one of your most important workshops. Practice in advance. Let your participants know that they will struggle at first so they don’t feel so bad and get through to the acceptance phase of the Kubler Ross Change Curve quickly.

To train your participants, you should consider :

  • Having an unnofficial icebreaker session to help users get familiar with how the workshop will be run and what they need to do. This should be completely unrelated to the business process. Leave that for the next ‘official’ session.
  • Creating a video for users to watch in advance as a pre-requisite for attending.
  • Creating a one page ‘cheat sheet’ for users to get started and send it to them in advance. If they are working from home, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to rely on their IT support department to get them up and running.
  • Making the training visual and interactive to encourage familiarisation with the tools you’ve chosen to use.

4. Bring a Helper

Being a sole remote facilitator can be a lonely business. For face to face discovery workshops, it’s generally recommended to have two people attending – one to lead and facilitate, and an other person to note take and record decisions or actions.

For virtual workshops, to improve your own confidence and that of your participants, you should bring your own ‘virtual helper’. They can act as both a demonstrator or coach. If someone is struggling to use the tools, it’s their job to do a one on one call to help that person out. As a facilitator you may set tasks and keep the conversation going, but back in the main group, your virtual helper can also join in and set an example to the rest of the team.

The virtual helper should also be responsible for taking online notes, decisions and actions as you go. Based on the feedback you gather, they could be creating online quizzes to kick off a new session after a short break. At the end of each call, review the online notes or whiteboard as a basis for agreement. People are more likely to contribute when they see what the output of the meeting will be on-screen.

5. Empathise

It’s one thing running a remote workshop in normal circumstances, it’s another when your participants are forced to work from home in a pandemic situation with a household of dependents in the background! You also need to consider that your participants are at home during a global crisis and trying to focus in alongside that. Try and find out in advance if participants are under pressure and plan your session accordingly. If someone has to drop out in these circumstances, that’s ok. Try and arrange a follow up one to one session if required or a short recap before the next meeting.

Now is the perfect time to get started. Rather than resisting change, in the current crisis people expect change and are more likely to accept change, because everything is changing. As a remote consultant, over the next few months, you have a once in a lifetime opportunity to harness that acceptance. You may never need to run a face to face discovery workshop again!

Get in touch. Please leave your own thoughts, tips or tricks in the comments.

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