Design Council as a Virtual Team

A Design Council is an activity that starts usually with a workshop and continues for a certain period of time. Interests and goals of participants and stakeholders are not identical but they converge somehow, and the Design Council setup provides the frame to promote the related synergy effects. Regular phone conferences, deep dive workshops, asynchronous exchange via communication platforms etc. ensure a continuous communication and collaboration. In a sense, you could say that a Design Council is a virtual team.

I don’t want to dive too much into theoretical details about virtual teams and conditions that make them work most effectively (that is actually not true. In fact the empirical psychologist in me would love to elaborate more, but I will try to keep it crisp). Some explanation might be useful nonetheless.

Face-to-Face: Costly but Worthwhile

There is one basic prerequisite that makes virtual teams efficient and successful that is so self-evident that no scientific references are needed: Trust. And – this actually goes without saying, too – it is easier to trust persons you know than persons you don’t know. And – I apologize for continuing to state the obvious – it is much easier to connect to people face to face than via video-conferencing, let alone in audio-only conference calls.

Generally it is recommended to have a kick-off event at an early point in time, preferably face-to-face. We are offering initial on-site Design Council workshops that are taking place at different locations in order to enable every participant to meet the others at least once during the lifetime of a Design Council.

The face-to-face meeting is an important opportunity for setting the frame and preparing the ground for a fruitful and efficient Design Council. Content can be shared virtually without significant loss. But there is nothing like personal interaction when it comes to trust building and creating a constructive atmosphere within the group. The more trustful the atmosphere, the more openly the participants will contribute.

Exploit the Power of Personal Interaction!

It is tempting to prepare tons of input for a face-to-face workshop: Presentations, key notes, lectures. And all of these make sense as we appreciate the participants’ efforts and we want to provide them with information they want. Also we need to get a common understanding of what we are talking about, so information and input are crucial for setting the frame and making a Design Council workshop successful.

Nevertheless: The unique selling proposition of a face-to-face workshop is not the content, but the opportunity for immediate interaction and informal communication. Be careful to reserve enough time and space for socializing. Face-to-face time is short in supply in a Design Council so it should be planned very carefully.

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So: when preparing the agenda for a Design Council Workshop make sure to …

  • … reserve some time for introductions and ice breaking.

Name, role, company is useful but not sufficient. Small talk is often the starting point for substantial communication, so providing opportunities to learn more about the others is an investment in fruitful interaction. One example is the exercise “Draw your favorite hobby” (blog post in preparation) which allows not only the Golf players and hobby musicians in the room to relate easily.

  • … remove any agenda item that is not essential for the workshop itself.

Face to face time is too valuable to be stuffed with information that you could easily broadcast remotely or asynchronously. Select the presentations very carefully, focusing on those contents that are absolutely necessary for the workshop and on those topics that you want to have a lively discussion or interactive feedback on.

  • … prepare exercises that foster personal interaction, e. g. by creating short-term work groups.

Interaction may become difficult if the group size exceeds the number of 10 persons. You will get livelier discussions and more results when splitting the group from time to time. Splitting can be done arbitrarily (1-2-1-2-…) or on content-based (topic A, topic B).

  • … allow for informal communication

Within a workshop, breaks are not just for checking e-mails and get some more coffee. Breaks are the opportunity to continue discussions on special interest topics, to have a personal exchange on aspects participants are reluctant to share in front of the whole group, and – last but not least – to socialize. If you like you can provide informal content-related space – rooms or corners or tables – participants can approach and meet at easily.

  • … appoint a Master of Ceremonies

During the workshop, there will be situations where it will become tempting to disregard the agenda: Lively discussions, enthusiastic presenters or participants asking for specific details are most welcome in a good workshop, aren’t they? What’s the harm in skipping a coffee break or dropping a topic when the workshop is running so well? But remember: the agenda made perfect sense to you when you set it up, and you may also have agreed on it with the audience beforehand. Does it really deserve to be dumped, just like that? The answer would generally be: no, please, not just like that! In order to not give into this temptation completely, it is a good idea to have a dedicated Master of Ceremonies (aka: moderator) in the workshop who keeps track of the agenda, advocates bravely for endangered agenda items and makes sure that on-the-fly changes are agreed on by all parties involved.

There is much we can learn from how virtual teams work best, beyond the importance of face-to-face interaction for group success.

Interested in tools, tricks, examples, or maybe even in more background? Stay tuned!

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