Successful distributed meetings require considerable upfront planning and vigilant real-time meeting management.

In this article, I’ll share key success factors from a meeting that I recently co-facilitated. This meeting was comprised of agile leaders of a distributed software organization dispersed across the United States and Canada. During the meeting, some leaders collocated to a hotel meeting room, while others participated from their work locations. The organization grew rapidly and the leaders wanted to discuss the shifting demands on their roles and decide on what might need to change.

Over the course of 2.5 days, participants raised and discussed key issues, formed breakout teams to examine possible solutions and new approaches, and came back together with clear direction and new energy for the year ahead. What were the success factors that made this focused collaboration possible for this distributed group of leaders?

1. Give priority to the meeting theme rather than a detailed agenda. Agile leadership teams with a lean startup mindset can feel constrained by detailed agendas for offsite meetings. Each leader holds a unique perspective on the organizational challenges and wants to share their observations as soon as possible with their peers.

However, these leadership gatherings need to have a focusing element. Executive leadership needs to set a theme that states the overarching goal for the organization over the next six to 12 months. Challenges and observations presented by other leaders can then be evaluated and prioritized using this theme.

Regarding this particular event, the organization was experiencing rapid growth, and many attending leaders felt somewhat overwhelmed. The overarching theme for this event became:

“An Examination of the Evolving Roles and Responsibilities in Our Distributed Organization”

2. Consider setting up preparatory meetings to introduce the theme. To prepare everyone for the offsite, the agile coaches facilitated a few smaller, one-hour distributed meetings the week before the offsite meeting. These meetings were held with small subsets of the offsite participants and prepared these leaders to look at their current roles, other roles they interact with and how responsibilities were currently delegated.

Organizing these preliminary meetings by role and nearby time zone allowed for small groups with focused discussion.

3. Make concerns visible to all. As with any successful meeting, the leaders needed to explore the current situation before moving toward solutions. This divergence to explore the current state becomes key in any facilitated meeting, but becomes critical for distributed leadership where everyone has very different perspectives based on their time zone and relationships between distributed colleagues.

To do this, the agile coaches started the offsite meeting with a simple exercise that allowed everyone to get their concerns out in the open. This exercise, referred to as Constellations, has a facilitator place an object in the center of the room and everyone form a circle around the object. The facilitator then makes a statement and asks everyone to move closer to the object if they agree or further from the object if they disagree.

Statements for this particular exercise began with some warm-up statements like: “I enjoy cold weather” or “I had a pleasant trip.” We then moved into statements that helped people connect with the theme and start to orient around each person’s perspective.

Some of these statements included:

  • “I understand the responsibilities of my role.”
  • “Others understand my role.”
  • “I’m clear on how I interact with other roles.”
  • “I’m often asked to do things outside my role.”
  • “I’m uncertain how my role will deal with some of the challenges we face.”

The statements were developed based on some of the preliminary meetings the week before. As facilitator for this exercise, I invited participants to share some of their own statements. This exercise allowed everyone at the offsite to observe some of the stronger and lesser concerns within the first 30 minutes of the offsite. It also allowed everyone to get to know each other as they do not often meet in person.

4. Explore issues together, breakout to ideate, come together to plan. We then took a deeper dive into the pre-work and discussed the implications of the current roles and responsibilities. Different perceptions arose, and the need for a common understanding became clear. This work continued into the beginning of the second day.

We then held an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) session with the senior executives who called the meeting. This allowed participants to better understand the shifts in the market, how the executives were redefining the business objectives to address these shifts, and some of their own hypotheses on how the distributed organization may need to adjust. The AMA session became a first crucial step to coming up with a convergence plan for resolving the challenge of evolving roles and responsibilities.

After the AMA session, we formed breakouts where the leaders explored different ideas and solutions to the raised issues. The next day, we debriefed the ideas, decided which ones had merit and closed the formal meeting. With different individuals having different return flights, some stayed longer or connected with other distributed leaders to refine some of the ideas.

5. Ensure everyone has an equal voice. Leaders with different roles in our distributed organization attended, but not everyone could be present in person. As a distributed organization, we find that it becomes increasingly challenging to bring absolutely everyone together for these key discussions. So, we must find ways to connect everyone who needs to be in the meeting and make sure they all have an equal voice.

A few patterns we follow allow everyone to have that equal voice in our fully distributed and hybrid collocated-distributed meetings work:

  • Chat backchannel
  • Co-pilot facilitation
  • Buddy system

chat backchannel supports every meeting for our distributed organization. This allows everyone in the meeting to connect with any remote member. Sometimes this channel is monitored by one individual, but typically, it is monitored by multiple individuals as it has become habit.

We also provide paired facilitation, which can be referred to as a pilot/co-pilot model. One facilitator focuses on the main discussion as the pilot. For a hybrid collocated-remote meeting like this one, the pilot facilitator manages the room. For a fully remote meeting, the pilot facilitator focuses on the audio and video facilitation.

The secondary, or co-pilot facilitator, focuses on the chat backchannel to make sure that all remote participants have clear audio and video. If not, the co-pilot facilitator shares information or queues up questions via the chat backchannel.
The co-pilot will deal with other issues that come up during the meeting. Perhaps someone is running late and needs to be reminded. Or, a remote participant might need an alternative way to connect to the meeting if they have technical difficulties.

The pilot and co-pilot facilitators will frequently check in with each other during a large group meeting to make sure all sides can contribute that equal voice.

When breakout sessions take place for a hybrid collocated-remote meeting, a buddy system supports remote participants. In this facilitation model, any remote team member who participates in a breakout session will have at least one person in the room providing a connection to others in the meeting. This support could consist of an impromptu audio-video connection into the breakout session, or just monitoring the chat backchannel for that participant to see what they may need to participate in the breakout session.

Everyone collaborates in distributed meetings

Meetings where some individuals are remote and some collocated can be challenging. But with the right mindset and preparation of all involved, they can be effective. Designing the meeting so that all can collaborate to make it successful are the ones that reap the most benefits for all the participants.

A previous version was published on March 14, 2019 by Mark Kilby.