In the product strategy phase, objectives of participants in the conference room and at a remote location may be the same, but the experience is different. Effectively managing product strategy facilitation means adapting your strategy for a remote audience.

First, let’s start with a simple definition; what is the significance of a facilitator during the invention phase?  A facilitator, in product strategy work, is anyone who helps the product team create a shared language and common understanding of the product facets – for example, the feature set, stakeholder value, target market, delivery timeline, product launch strategy, and evolution. Often, facilitators will try to create the feel of a conference room by mimicking the tactics with remote participants, including electronic whiteboards, apps, and video conference live feeds. While technology can enhance most workshops, when it comes to remote workshops, less is more. Don’t try to reproduce what you do in a conference room with a remote group – it can be costly and doesn’t necessarily yield better results. With simple tools like conference bridges and screen sharing, your remote facilitation session can be extremely effective.

One of my colleagues, Bob Zimmerman, taught a great deal about remote facilitation when I first started doing facilitation work. His advice was to remember that there are 3 simple rules when it comes to remote facilitation: energy, rhythm, and objective.

The 3 Rules of Effective Remote Facilitation

Rule #1 Energy

In a conference room setting, it’s easy to gauge the energy of a group. The facilitator can read facial expressions and “feel” when the energy dips in the room. It’s also easier to remedy low energy in a conference room setting with tools, like whiteboards, colorful markers, and taking a snack break. Keeping the energy high in a remote session requires a little more effort. Here are a few tips that will help:

Use your voice.  In remote sessions, a bit of exaggeration goes a long way. Find out what brings more power to your voice, like standing up or smiling when you’re speaking. Varying your voice can also make it stronger and able to hold more emphasis.

Work at a faster pace: Because it’s hard to gauge energy in a remote session, it’s easy for participants to get distracted and often, tacitly agree with the contents of the discussion. Moving at a slightly faster pace keeps people alert. It also helps to recap decisions and ask participants to agree or disagree before moving on.

Rule #2 Rhythm

Rhythm is all about getting work done. If it’s a new kind of work, people don’t know what to expect, and even worse, don’t know when they are actually finished. Here’s a quick tip to stay mindful of your product strategy cadence:

Schedule shorter remote sessions than in person: Keep your remote sessions under 3 hours, if possible, to maintain interest. No matter how engaging the work, the risk of losing interest (and wasting time) isn’t worth it. It may take a few more sessions, but participants will be more effective and the work will be done more efficiently. Also, consider holding sessions as early in the day as possible, to accommodate global schedules.

Rule #3 Objective

Rhythm is the vehicle for which the team can work toward the objective. The goal, or the objective, is not the discussion; rather, the discussion is only a means to an end.  If the rhythm is the discussion, the resulting decision is the objective. The easiest way to manage rhythm in a remote session is to identify the objective for the work that will be accomplished, how the team is going to do the work, and what the output will be. Keep these things in mind to help your remote team reach your objective:

Use a visual aid: Visuals help guide and manage work for remote teams. It serves the rhythm by providing something for the group to engage with and react to, and it also serves the objective as a “starting point” to accomplish the work.

Don’t send out notes after the call.  Product strategy sessions are not meetings; they are facilitated work sessions where the team comes together to do work. If participants can catch up after the session, why should they participate?  Your objective for your sessions will be to do the work (e.g. create the project charter, define a set of functionality, and agree on the stakeholder value). Post-session notes should only detail the result of the work and any remaining work to address.

How does your team approach remote facilitation in the product strategy phase? What are some of the roadblocks you’ve experienced?

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