The idea of sitting through a requirement workshop via teleconference seems like torture. Virtual requirements meetings tend to bottleneck our ability to effectively collaborate. Attendees and facilitators:
- dread the dead air and the anonymous beeps in and out: “Hello, this is Angela. Who joined?” “Bob. Bob? Bob, are you still on the call?”
- seem lost without visual cues like hand raising, eye rolling and head nodding. “Does everyone agree with that change? Is there anything else we need to add?” Silence. Facilitator wonders: “Does that mean everyone agrees or no one is paying attention or everyone is talking on mute?”
- feel constrained when they can only collect/offer information verbally, one person at a time.
- feel limited when their most successful in-person techniques don’t translate to a virtual environment.
Painful, but Required!
Despite the dread and pain, the need for effective virtual collaboration is increasing. Even in small to mid-sized organizations, it’s rare to find all stakeholders sitting in the same building or even in the same city.
Every partnership, packaged software purchase, acquisition and merger, expands the geographical and administrative footprint of an organization, making face-to-face collaboration more expensive and more difficult to schedule.
Instead, we conduct most of our professional business virtually via phone, email, or instant message. Face-to-face communication, even in our personal lives, seems to be dwindling. (I know you have sent a text to someone in your home instead of walking to the other room to talk to them!)
Whether we like it or not, virtual communication is a key requirement in our modern, global and mobile life! So, until we can teleport or project Jedi Council-style holograms, we need to find a way to make current virtual collaboration methods, like conference calls, more efficient and effective.
Let’s Get Practical!
If there is a practical need to boost our virtual communication competencies, then where should we begin? How do we address the pain points that prevent us from feeling comfortable with virtual requirement meetings? Here are a few ideas:
- Chunk It. Don’t try to do requirements for the entire project in a series of 5 consecutive, full-day virtual sessions. Find a way to create requirement components so the meeting length stays reasonable and stakeholders are more likely to attend the entire session.
- Offer a Straw Man or Prototype. Do your homework in advance using stakeholder interviews, shadowing, organization documents, etc., to build a starting point for your requirements meeting. Create a prototype, outline a basic business process or system flow, or propose high-level requirements. The starting point will provide a context for dialogue.
- Sidebar: Use instant messaging (or texting or email) as a way to communicate with others during the call.
- You could instant message the host when you have a question.
- The host could ask participants to vote on a question via text.
- The host could ask participants to send new issues to the group via email.
- Share documents. Many requirement conference calls feature a group of people moving page-by-page through a large project document that was emailed to attendees. Everyone sees a copy during the meeting, but usually only one person edits. Efficient virtual facilitators take document sharing to the next level by allowing participants to annotate documents collaboratively during a conference call.
- Modify techniques. Most, maybe ALL, facilitation techniques used in-person can be modified to fit a virtual environment. Explore your organization’s suite of conference call tools. Do you already have access to virtual whiteboards and sticky notes? Experiment with these tools. Get creative and find a way to “virtualize” your favorite facilitation techniques.
- Use templates. Create templates for gathering information from your conference call stakeholders before or during the call.
- During that awkward time when you are waiting for people to join the call, let them add information to a status report or update an issue log.
- Ask them to update an agenda template with discussion items or questions.
- Ask them to add requirements to templates broken down by functional areas.
- Use new virtual collaboration tools: There are all sorts of online virtual tools that can be used in combination with traditional conference call applications to engage participants. These tools are great for brainstorming and problem solving; they are amazing for truly engaging participants in a meaningful way.
Advantages of Virtual Communication?
Is there any upside to virtual requirement meetings? Can they be more effective than face-to-face sessions? Yes! Especially when attendees participate in a non-verbal way, by annotating documents, filling out templates, or using virtual whiteboards. Here are a few of the virtual advantages:
- Anonymity: Contributions to virtual whiteboards and templates can be completely anonymous. Participants can be honest without fear of backlash. Shy participants can “speak up” without feeling judged.
- Equal Input: Introverts and extroverts stand on equal footing when they are asked to annotate a document or update a template with text tools rather than verbally.
- Difficult Personalities: Personalities are neutralized when using effective facilitation techniques in person or virtually, helping ensure difficult personalities and power dynamics do not sabotage your meeting.
- Efficiency: A well-crafted meeting and use of virtual tools and techniques can help facilitators gather a large amount of information in minutes. Well-crafted meetings remove the virtual bottleneck of one speaker at a time and allow all attendees to submit information to the template simultaneously.
Virtual communication and facilitation skills will remain a key competency for BAs for years to come. Stop torturing your stakeholders with boring, ineffective conference calls. Find new and creative ways to alleviate the common pain points.