How to collaborate without another meeting

Now more than ever we spend a lot of time in pointless meetings. In an effort to stay connected and collaborate, we have proliferated the number of meetings in our day to the extent that “Zoom fatigue” is now a common phrase and we’ve forgotten how to use an ordinary phone call. It’s enough to make anyone want to become a work hermit, working alone on their projects and tasks.

However, we can’t do without collaboration and connectedness. These elements are critical to creativity. What’s an alternative to cut down on the fatigue and the pointless meetings that feel like they could have been an email?

Asynchronous collaboration is one solution.

Asynchronous (adj): 1: not simultaneous or concurrent in time: not synchronous Merriam Webster Dictionary

Despite the number of syllables in the term, asynchronous collaboration simply describes the process of working together on a shared outcome without having to do the work simultaneously. This is not some specific formula or workshop recipe. It is an approach to working together that doesn’t require all the collaborators to be in the room at once. It’s a great substitute for those times when you shouldn’t run a workshop.

All you need to get started is a physical or virtual space where you can set up an overview of the problem being solved, display the work done to date, and enable collaborators to capture and contribute their thoughts.

Asynchronous collaboration can happen in a virtual or physical space (Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash)

1. Set up your collaboration space

You may have seen physical project or innovation hubs before. The walls are covered in butchers paper with the project plan, personas hung on the opposing wall and whiteboards strewn with the remnants of previous conversations.

This is the kind of space you will need, but it doesn’t need to be nearly that complex. All you need is one or two surfaces. One to represent the problem being solved and the work done to date and the other to capture thoughts and contributions that aren’t finalised into the current iteration of the solution.

For example, let’s say the problem you’re solving is your teams OKRs for the next quarter. On one surface, print out the organisation’s strategy that cascades into your OKRs, your previous quarter’s scorecard, perhaps a little bit of information about what makes a good OKR and any OKRs that have already been agreed by the team or carried over from last period.

On another whiteboard or wall, have a prompt about the type of input you need from the team (“What objectives do you want to hit this quarter?” Or “How can we measure X objective?”). And nearby have a pile of post-it notes and Sharpies.

Creating a virtual space is very similar. You can use Miro, Mural, Google Slides or any other virtual collaboration tool. Have a section of your virtual board or a slide showing the context information (organisation strategy; prior OKR scorecard; already committed OKRs; etc). Another section or slide should outline the instructions and have space for collaborators to add their contributions in text boxes, diagrams or virtual sticky notes.

2. Share the space and invite contributions

Sharing your collaboration space involves both the practical act of pointing your collaborators to the collaboration space, and also seeding a collaborative mindset so they feel the permission and courage to contribute. This starts with how you introduce the space. Use open language in your invitation, be it an email or a tour of a physical space.

It can be helpful to give some examples of how to make a contribution when you invite your collaborators. It’s even better if someone other than you provides the first example. Pick a brave, collaborative colleague and ask them if they can make the first contribution. It doesn’t have to be a groundbreaking idea, just a thought or question on a sticky note to get started.

For a physical space, encourage a variety of inputs. You might want post-it note comments to critique the work done to date, new ideas sketched on the whiteboard, sticky notes describing new inputs, or even private messages from a contributor to you as the facilitator. Make sure you put these anonymously into the shared space so all work is visible to the team.

For the collaboration to work, the team needs to be able to see what work has been incorporated into the work product as well as what other in-progress ideas have been shared by their colleagues.

3. Act on the inputs

Equally as important as inviting contributions is to actually incorporate the contributions into the work product.

It’s helpful to have someone with clear responsibility for iterating the work and updating the output for the decisions made asynchronously by the team. This allows contributors to understand how their contributions will be incorporated and cut down on confusion between what work is in-progress and what has been worked into the result.

Set up a regular rhythm for yourself or the responsible person to review what’s been contributed, have any follow up conversations and incorporate the feedback. If conflicting ideas have been contributed, this is where a meeting can be useful. Keep it casual by catching up with the contributors for an informal discussion about the different points of view. Or if the whole team needs to be involved, consider holding a debate. (You can find out more about these in Radical Candor.)

If the views are consistent, immediately incorporate it into the work product. Use the contributor’s original words or artefacts where possible. For example, move the sticky note (virtual or physical) with the suggested OKR measure over to the display of currently agreed OKRs for the next quarter. Using the same materials that were contributed reminds everyone that the outcome is a result of everyone’s input.

4. Have clear checkpoints

When you invite your team to contribute, make sure you set clear expectations around timing, otherwise, the competing meetings and calls will prevent them from getting to the work done. Give a reasonable amount of time that factors in different time-zones and the amount of thought required to contribute. Optionally, book time in the team’s calendars, but make it clear this isn’t a meeting, it’s work!

Use existing meetings and routines to update the team on how the work is progressing rather than creating a separate meeting to check-in. Giving updates will help the contributors feel the work is important and attention is being paid to their contributions. It will also remind the team to make their contributions.

Once the inputs have been gathered and incorporated and you have finalised the team’s solution, share it back to the team. Consider using an asynchronous approach to this as well, allowing the team to review the finalised product in their own time.

5. Iterate your approach

Like many things, there’s a lot to learn about how your team best collaborates asynchronously. Throughout the process and at the end, review how it’s going. Who has made the most contributions? Who has not contributed? When and how are your team making their contributions?

Iterate your approach from what you observe. If you find your team is more comfortable writing on the whiteboard rather than adding sticky notes, add more whiteboard space and use whiteboard markers instead of sharpies (You don’t want the permanent markers ending up on your whiteboard!) If you notice a lot of people logging in to your virtual space and then never returning or contributing, consider whether you’ve put too much information to read before they feel they can contribute. Is there a way to simplify the information or share it in a different way? (How about an embedded video?)

6. Apply asynchronous collaboration to everything

Ok, maybe not. But this approach can be used to solve a lot of different problems, in the broadest sense of the word. For example, I used the example of developing quarterly OKRs above but you can also use this for:

  1. Weekly status updates

  2. Developing a response to a project brief

  3. Ideating on a new product or service

  4. Troubleshooting ineffective internal processes

  5. Running a retrospective

  6. Developing and refining a product backlog

  7. Creating an organisational or team strategy

  8. Developing communications or content

  9. Producing a report

  10. Managing a project timeline, risks and dependencies

  11. Even team building! (Have team members share a story, photo, drawing or emojis in response to a team-building question)

Pretty much any time you need the collective thoughts and creativity of your team, but you are struggling with Zoom fatigue, calendar Tetris, time zone conflicts or circular conversation, asynchronous collaboration can help.

 

If you want to apply asynchronous to a problem or project your team is working on and you’re not sure where to start, email me at lauren@wizardinnovationlabs.com. I will share a specific virtual whiteboard template for the problem you’re facing. If I don’t have one ready to go, I’ll create one for you.

#bettermeetings #collaboration #techniques #workshops