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The Dangers of Virtual Workshops (And the Framework That Makes Them Exceptional)

Justin Mertes
November 16, 2021

When running virtual workshops, Miro or MURAL* should primarily be used as a presentation tool rather than a collaboration tool.


In this blog, I will unpack why this is my conviction and provide a framework that will equip any facilitator, project manager, or leader of any virtual meeting or workshop to determine just how collaborative to make their virtual whiteboard experience.


*or FigjamLucidsparkStormboardGoogle Slides, etc.—the framework applies to all digital collaborative tools


When virtual workshops go wrong

Workshops are fundamentally about people and the problems they’re trying to solve. Virtual workshops run the serious risk of inadvertently making them about the collaborative tool.  Some common symptoms of poorly executed virtual workshops are the following.


1. Time spent addressing tech issues:

Scarce are the virtual workshops that do not inevitably require some sort of “Okay, right-click. No, right click. Okay, with a trackpad that’s a click with two fingers. At the same time.” Wasted time is exponentially damning in a workshop where spending 15 minutes troubleshooting one person’s tech-illiteracy ends up wasting the other 8 people’s time as well, thus throwing a cumulative 2 hours into the trash.

This problem is as unfortunate as it is common. In my early days of virtual facilitation (before the existence of this framework which would’ve changed my approach drastically) I lead a 5-day workshop in which some client team members were unable to zoom in and out in Miro at the end of the second day. We’d been using the tool for 16+ hours, I provided an introductory exercise, we used breakout rooms to troubleshoot, and all the rest… and yet, still, things weren’t as seamless as we planned (or needed).

2. Confusion and mental check out:

When a participant finds your technology-of-choice to be “too far outside of their comfort zone,” your carefully crafted agenda takes the form of trees and signs passing through the window in the glazed-over-eyes of a train passenger—they may see the bright stickies on the screen and hear the voices of their team, but they are mentally removed. The common catch-phrases of these participants include…

  1. “Where are we at again?
  2. “Sorry, were you asking me a question?”
  3. “This is all over my head, I’ll just be here if y’all need me."

3. Elevation of the voices of the tech-literate:

Perhaps the most dangerous result of the poorly-executed virtual workshop is the creation of a new social hierarchy within the decision-making process. If social confidence, verbal articulation, and being dressed and presented professionally (to say nothing of being a part of the majority culture, be that sex, race, or industry experience) are the currency that is taken into consideration when making decisions in an in-person meeting, surely tech-literacy, fluency with shortcuts, and ability to seamlessly jump between Miro and Zoom are the currency of the digital workspace. 

Knowing that workshops exist to bring the right people to the same place to solve one problem means that everyone needs to be on the same playing field, that all voices be heard, and that participants focus on the problems and potential solutions, not who is doing the speaking. A poorly-planned virtual workshop allows the for tech-literate to shine and leave the tech-confused in the dust behind them.


Other times workshops may not have gone wrong, per se, but they still found themselves to be unbalanced. I send out post-workshop surveys to all participants to better understand what went well, how we could’ve improved, what they found most valuable, and other qualitative metrics. One particular client, much to my remiss, “oohed-and-ah’d” over the tool, but spoke little about the problem we worked to solve.*


An example of a “Miro-heavy” workshop I facilitated that, though well-organized, was confusing for the client.

This lead me to an epiphany that was years in the making: I had been maximizing the tool instead of maximizing the people. At best, I was using a tool that allowed for amazing work and sometimes it took people a while to catch up… at worst I was maximizing the tool at the expense of the people and the problem-solving.


*It should be mentioned that I don’t think that a client providing feedback that praises our use of a tool is necessarily a negative thing. We were humbled that our tools & processes opened this teams’ eyes to the possibilities of digital collaboration, but it was the lack of emphasis they put on the rest of the work that gave us pause and made us rethink our processes.

The Workshop Capacity Triangle

In the careful evaluation of our processes, templates, digital collaborative efforts, and the feedback we had received from clients, I found myself holding three essential workshop elements in tension: The problem, the process, and the tool. 


These three elements are the primary elements* that workshop participants are juggling at any one time, and together they make up what I call The Workshop Capacity Triangle: a way to visualize what workshop participants are trying to process at the same time.


*When I say “primary elements,” I’m referring to the things that are within the facilitator’s control. A facilitator cannot always control the outside-of-work elements that may be distracting their participants, the upcoming deadline that’s on everyone’s mind, or the phone call with test results that someone is anxiously awaiting.

The problem

Ultimately, meetings and workshops exist to solve a problem:

  • Why aren’t we converting at the rate we like?
  • We need to refine our brand.
  • When do we pull the plug on this service?
  • How can we create an additional revenue source?

This is why the team is there, and all agenda items are (read: should be) working towards the goal of either answering these questions or establishing next steps.

In short, this is where the majority of the participants’ mental capacity should be.

The process

The process is the agenda the facilitator or meeting leader has crafted to drive towards the problem. The longer a process, the more natural it is for there to be concerns or questions on the mind of participants. A one-hour meeting usually has a straightforward process:

  • Settle in
  • Address the goal of the meeting, confirm with the team
  • Present/discuss/work towards the goal
  • Open time for questions or other items that need to be dealt with
  • Leave

This meeting process is simple and leaves little room for confusion. As meetings extend to 3 hours, 8 hours, 1 week, or 3 weeks, questions about the process become far more common and concerning:

  • Why haven’t we talked about X yet?
  • I thought we were doing Y on Thursday.
  • I have a call tomorrow morning and will miss the main exercise.
  • This feels useless, I can’t imagine what we’ll be doing with this activity.

In Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky’s book Sprint, How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, it’s no wonder that they often encourage the facilitator to remind participants to “Trust the process:” participants are curious, confused, and feeling like they’re strapped into a week-long road trip and they don’t know the stops along the way… or where they’ll even end up!


Process should require a bit of the participants’ mental capacity, as the facilitator needs to constantly remind them where they are in context of the larger goal, how what they’re doing right now is working towards that goal, and how to prepare for the next exercise or day of work.


It should also be expected that as a process is repeated with a team, the amount of mental capacity they’re applying towards it should decrease. A team that has run 6 Design Sprints together will inevitably be focusing less on the process than a team that is running their first one.

The tool

Tools exist to equip the user to accomplish something. Hammers drive nails into wood, cars get the driver from place to place, and Vulfpeck’s Animal Spirits makes cleaning dishes an absolute party. Similarly, workshopping tools equip participants to engage in the workshop.

  • Sharpies allow participants to write on sticky notes and draw on paper
  • Stickies allow participants to communicate your ideas
  • Dots allow participants to vote on their favorite ideas


Similarly, one of the “jobs to be done” of online collaborative whiteboards (or, the reason you “hire” said software) is recreating the in-person workshop tools in the digital space. Writing, voting, sketching, and other tools exist (in this context) to allow you to carry out your traditional workshop tasks.


The dilemma is thus: the mental capacity it takes to engage with an online whiteboard is (likely) far greater than that of engaging with your traditional workshop tools.

The Triangle applied

With these elements defined, the application and implication become fairly obvious: The more participants are focusing on one, the less they are focusing on another.


Let’s take the “traditional in-person workshop” as an example:


  • Tools: Stickies, sharpies. Very little of the participants’ mental capacity is dedicated to the tools.
  • Process: Assuming the agenda was laid out, very little of the participants’ mental health is dedicated to the process
  • Problem: Because there is minimal capacity spent on tools & process, the mind of the participant is able to focus most fully on the problem they’re solving.


In-person Design Sprints allow for a little less focusing on the problem primarily because it is a new process (Why are we sticking these to the wall? Why is it anonymous? Who is getting the users signed up for testing?).


As explored above, when workshops are moved to the digital workspace, an increased focus on the tool comes with a slew of problems—namely that participants are less able to focus on the problem at hand.


Things become increasingly dangerous when teams create an elaborate Miro experience full of all kinds of hyperlinks, gifs, unique Miro apps, and commands to “use Bulk Mode,” “Go to the sidebar,” and “post your screenshot here and drag or duplicate dots over the area you are most interested in.”


Note: this is also why we immediately say “no” to any potential client who wants us to simultaneously “lead a workshop” and “teach how to lead the workshop.” This experience will focus almost completely on tools & process and almost none on the problem they’re trying to solve.


To make this framework quantitative, I created a simple checkbox system to go through as you prepare for any digital meeting or workshop. The score represents the mental capacity of the workshop’s participants.

Each box you check deducts 5 points from their total-of-100-capacity to solve the problem. The results will provide guidance as you plan just how collaborative to make your online white-boarding space:

  • 90+: Feel free to use Miro or MURAL to collaborate freely! The team is familiar enough with the tool and the process to maximize the tool to help them solve problems.
  • 70-90: Use your tool to collaborate when/if necessary. Use for elements that cannot be replicated in any other way, or that must be brought to the digital space for one reason or another. 
  • 0-70: Use Miro or MURAL to present information, not collaborate. This team is at the point where the tool will likely serve as a distraction to the solving of the problem.


Dana Publicover, Managing Director of Publicover & Co. in Hamburg, Germany shared the following when reviewing this framework:


We facilitators can fall in love with our tools and even become a bit too dependent upon them, so I love this framework to quantify the team's preparedness in a way that gave you a go/no-go metric: is this team in the right headspace for this tool? Are we set up for success? Is there a better approach that fits the mood right now? How might we all work best?


It’s worth mentioning that this scale is not a “hard-and-fast rule.” I have worked with teams that were more technologically lacking, and we did our best to get them up to speed. I’ve worked with teams that should’ve been at 90, but one person brought the whole thing down.

As a power user of Miro, I also can help use built-in tools to bring someone from a 30 to a 60 by making it easier on them, which may not be possible for someone newer to the digital facilitation space.


The framework still serves to guide facilitators and those leading meetings in the right direction of working to set their workshop up for success, not simply assuming that “because we have the right tool, everything will be just fine.”

Now what?

Though this is a new framework, I’m certainly not the first person to acknowledge that “facilitators need to think critically about digital workshops and how they position their participants for success.” There have been several other industry experts who have their own tips and tricks, some of which include:

  • Jake Knapp, who uses his iPad to manually write out the top suggestions from workshop participants. He has also worked to make his Design Sprint process more analog by encouraging participants to write things down by hand and then verbally share as opposed to typing them into the digital whiteboarding space.
  • Daniel Wirtz of Facilitator School in Utrecht, Netherland is investing significant time and energy creating templates and resources that equip facilitators to design boards with a focus on the participants' experience.
  • Jo Scott of Manchester, UK’s Truth Creative sends out pre-work that prepares the team in advance and starts her workshops with a 5-minute tutorial on the most essential functionalities of her tool of choice.
  • Douglas Ferguson of Austin, TX’s Voltage Control created their 2 Canvas System, ensuring that participants aren’t overwhelmed by the size of the workspace’s infinite canvas, the work they have to do, and the amount of board navigation they need to do to participate. “Operating virtual Design Sprints with a 2-Canvas System increases facilitators’ ability to coordinate the workshop and streamlines things from the perspective of the participant.”
  • Sam Pierce Lolla of Michigan, USA, has created Shuffleboard, a tool that enables meeting participants to use their mobile device to engage with the workshop.
  • Dana Publicover (mentioned above) sends out a 2-minute MURAL onboarding video that makes the tool less intimidating. 


Clients that participate in Crema’s workshops will notice that we pick and choose from many of these strategies, depending on the specific needs of their team and the goals, constraints, and duration of the workshop.

One of Crema’s solutions

At the start of 2021, we had the idea to have texts from a mobile device auto-populate as sticky notes in Miro. We now use a spreadsheet into which I drop a workshop’s unique Miro board ID.

I’m given a corresponding phone number, which participants text and watch as their submissions are dropped into Miro as a sticky note. This allows for full participation without requiring them to ever open up the Miro board. It has been an absolute game-changer for me and has changed the way Crema facilitates workshops.

Miro’s Smart Meetings

At Distributed 2021, Miro shared what we’ve been providing feedback on for more than half a year: Smart Meetings. This constrains the “infinite canvas” to familiar slide-like frames with limited functionality. As the facilitator, I can set permissions so that “people can only add stick notes,” and it’s impossible for them to zoom in or out, delete items, click on the wrong sidebar icon, etc.

Conclusion

Adam Kahane in Facilitating Breakthrough: How to Remove Obstacles, Bridge Differences, and Move Forward Together wrote:

The essence of transformative facilitation is not getting participants to work together but helping them remove obstacles to doing so. You can't push a stream to flow, but if you remove the blockages, it will flow by itself.


That’s the heart of this framework: It's not about what's possible and what's not, it's about empowering your team to focus primarily on the problem at hand. This isn’t to say that Miro boards can’t be beautiful and immersive or that you can’t have fun creating exciting collaborative activities. Rather, it’s to say that the primary goal of a digital collaborative space is to help participants solve be immersed in solving problems… and it's the facilitator's to protect that at all costs and remove any and every hindrance along the way.

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