Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 13;   March 26, 2008: Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: Part I

Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: Part I

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Whoever facilitates your distributed meetings — whether a dedicated facilitator or the meeting chair — will discover quickly that remote facilitation presents special problems. Here's a little catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.

Within the past decade, coaches and group or meeting facilitators have been engaged with increasing frequency in virtual environments — usually telephone or videoconferences. For groups, remote facilitation — when identified as such — is usually synchronous. That is, it occurs in real time over the telephone or a video link.

An air traffic controller using a display system at an Air Route Traffic Control Center

An air traffic controller using a display system at an Air Route Traffic Control Center, one of the 22 such facilities that guide air traffic between airports in the U.S. Of all distributed "meetings," one of the most difficult to manage is the global air traffic control network. In the U.S., en-route traffic is handled by controllers located in groups at 22 Air Route Traffic Control Centers (ARTCCs). The busiest of these (probably because of its location) is Cleveland ARTCC, call sign "Cleveland Center." The geometry of these meetings, "facilitated" by controllers, is hub-and-spoke — that is, each "attendee" (pilot of a controlled aircraft) speaks with the controller, and no pilot ever addresses another pilot. It's especially important that these communications proceed without error, because mistakes can cost lives. This error-free communication must occur between people who probably don't know each other, using a communication link that's noisy and of quality lower than most telephone connections. For these reasons, each exchange follows a strict protocol that defines how people identify each other, and which requires confirmation of the information exchanged. You can listen live to this traffic at LiveATC.net. See if you can figure out details of the protocol for participation in this "distributed meeting." Photo courtesy U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

By contrast, asynchronous facilitation has been widespread for several decades. In the context of email distribution lists, we call it "moderating," though facilitation is now also emerging in chat and wiki contexts. Remote facilitation in asynchronous contexts will be a topic for another time. For now, let's consider synchronous contexts: the telephone and videoconference.

Remote facilitation (or distance facilitation) of synchronous groups requires a skill set that overlaps, but is distinct from, the skill set of a face-to-face (F2F) facilitator. The differences vary with the process the group is using, but here are some of the differences for general discussions. Let's begin with issues that arise before the meeting begins.

Meeting geometry
In face-to-face meetings, everyone is in the same room. The ability to participate is fairly uniform across the attendees. In virtual meetings, some might be "phoned in" while others are face-to-face. There might be several meeting sites conferenced together, or everyone might have called in to a bridge line. Geometries in which everyone has roughly equal access to the facilitator are symmetric; the others are asymmetric.
Managing asymmetry requires special skill. Less effective access to the flow of the meeting tends to hinder contribution and enhance the temptation of distractions. The facilitator of an asymmetric meeting can take two actions to mitigate these risks. First, educate all attendees about the issue and ask for proactive cooperation of geometrically advantaged attendees to reduce the effect of meeting asymmetry by listening for attempts to participate, leaving space for those with less access, and even asking for their opinions and perspectives directly. Second, the facilitator can make a special effort to check in with the geometrically disadvantaged.
Materials distribution
Less effective access
to the flow of the meeting
tends to hinder contribution
and enhance the temptation
of distractions
In the F2F context, materials distribution is relatively simple. In the distributed context, network interruptions, security concerns, time zone disparities, priority differentials and uncontrolled distractions all conspire to create a need to distribute materials much sooner than we would in the F2F context.
Make sure that materials are distributed early enough for your particular environment. Require acknowledgment of receipt. If materials don't arrive in time, or if you don't receive an acknowledgment, be prepared to cancel the meeting. If the materials don't arrive, or the acknowledgments don't arrive, and if you're reluctant to cancel the meeting, then ask yourself: (1) Were those materials really necessary? or (2) Were those attendees really necessary? If the answers are in the affirmative, a postponement is probably the right choice.

Once the action starts, things get really interesting. Next time we'll examine some of the dynamics of open discussions in the distributed context. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: Part II  Next Issue

For suggestions for facilitating highly charged distributed meetings, see "Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: Part II," Point Lookout for April 2, 2008. For suggestions for making remote facilitation easier using protocols defined for everyone in advance, see "Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: Part III," Point Lookout for April 9, 2008.

303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsIs your organization a participant in one or more global teams? Are you the owner/sponsor of a global team? Are you managing a global team? Is everything going well, or at least as well as any project goes? Probably not. Many of the troubles people encounter are traceable to the obstacles global teams face when building working professional relationships from afar. Read 303 Tips for Virtual and Global Teams to learn how to make your global and distributed teams sing. Order Now!

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Balancing talk time and the value of the contributionComing March 29: Virtual Blowhards
Controlling meeting blowhards is difficult enough in face-to-face meetings, but virtual meetings present next-level problems, because techniques that work face-to-face are unavailable. Here are eight tactics for controlling virtual blowhards. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
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