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Galen Ellis on Virtual Meeting Spaces: Minefields to Gold Mines

Greetings! I’m Galen Ellis, President of Ellis Planning Associates Inc., which has long specialized in participatory planning and evaluation services. In online meeting spaces, we’ve learned to facilitate group participation that – in the right circumstances – can be even more meaningful than in person. But we had to adapt.

Although I knew deep inside that our clients would benefit from online options, I couldn’t yet imagine creating the magic of a well-designed group process in the virtual environment. Indeed, we stepped carefully through various minefields before reaching gold.

As one pioneer observes,

Just because you’re adept at facilitating face-to-face meetings, don’t assume your skills are easily transportable. The absence of visual cues and the inability to discern the relative level of engagement makes leading great virtual meetings infinitely more complex and challenging. Assume that much of what you know about leading great meetings is actually quite irrelevant, and look for ways to learn and practice needed skills (see Settle-Murphy below).

We can now engage groups online in facilitation best practices such as ToP methods and Appreciative Inquiry and group engagement processes such as logic model development, focus groups, consensus building, and other collaborative planning and evaluation methods (see our video demonstration).

Lessons Learned:

  • Everyone participates. Skillfully designed and executed virtual engagement methods can be more effective in engaging the full group than in-person ones. Some may actually prefer this mode: one client noted that a virtual meeting drew out participants who had been typically silent in face-to-face meetings.
  • Software platforms come with their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. The simpler ones often lack interactive tools; but the ones that do allow interaction tend to be more costly and complex.
  • Tame the technical gremlins. Participants without suitable levels of internet speed, technological experience, or hardware—such as microphoned headsets—will require additional preparation. Meeting hosts need to know ahead of time what sorts of devices and internet access participants will be using. Participants should always be invited into the meeting space early for technical troubleshooting.
  • Don’t host it alone. One host can produce the meeting (manage layouts, video, etc.) while another facilitates.
  • Plan and script it. Virtual meetings require a far more detailed script than a simple agenda. Indicate who will do and say what, and when.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Run through successive drafts of the script with the producing team.

Rad Resources:

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3 thoughts on “Galen Ellis on Virtual Meeting Spaces: Minefields to Gold Mines”

  1. Hi Galen,
    I am currently a student in the Professional Master of Education at Queen’s University. Your post “Virtual Meeting Spaces: Minefields to Gold Mines” on the American Evaluation Association blog caught my eye because meeting online and engaging in group participation is an area I’d like to learn more about. Coincidentally, I also work at Queen’s, primarily with first year students living in residence, but am part of a professional association that I connect with weekly. As Chair of one of the sub committees within the association, I facilitate online connections with a group of about fifty colleagues from across the country. These connections are usually through email which is effective when it comes to information sharing and a survey at the beginning of term and at the end of term to gather data on what is working and what is not. I find these methods less than engaging when it comes to collaborating with those who do the same job as I do at other post-secondary institutions across the country.
    When I came across your post I was struck by the bolded sentence in your opening paragraph:
    “In online meeting spaces, we’ve learned to facilitate group participation that—in the right circumstances—can be even more meaningful than in person.”
    Prior to finding your article, I had checked in on the survey I just sent out to the members of my subcommittee and was a little disheartened about the less than enthusiastic feedback on my proposed idea of connecting online. I am well versed in facilitating face-to-face meetings and want to connect with my colleagues virtually because, like you, I think it would be a great place to discuss and look critically at best practices and collaborate on evaluation initiatives. However, I am quite sure that whatever the initial virtual connection looks like, it could make or break any future connections using technology other than email and surveys. I want to hit the gold mine…not the minefield.
    Your lessons learned were helpful in thinking more about how the approach you outline would apply to my context. Everyone participating means that whatever technology platform I use needs to be accessible to everyone so I will need to vet a few options before launching the idea to my committee members to make sure it’s straightforward and easy to use. The third lesson you outline is something that happens so frequently in my job but isn’t something that is usually considered until someone has an issue. The Rad Resources you shared are great and have prompted me to learn more about Appreciative Inquiry.
    I have a few questions about your experience facilitating group meetings and evaluations virtually:
    – Which of the ToP facilitation methods do you find you refer to most often and what do you consider when choosing which approach to use?

    – What types of connections/collaboration have you found Appreciative Inquiry to be most effective? How do you incorporate it into evaluation processes?

    – From the video on your website, I learned that Adobe Connect is so much more than a webinar platform! It seems user friendly but I am curious to know from your experience what the most common barriers are for users?

    Thank you for your informative and thought-provoking post! You’ve given me some ideas and resources to investigate in hopes of connecting with my committee members online to collaborate in a different way.

  2. Hi Galen, thanks so much for the mention. I really liked your lessons learned – especially the part about needing a detailed agenda, indicating exactly how you plan to engage every participant, every minute. People are a bit overwhelmed when they see how detailed my virtual meeting agendas tend to be, but absolutely nothing can be left to chance (or to the tech gremlins!), and we can rarely afford to squander a single minute. I’m motivated to watch your video demo! Thanks again.

  3. Pingback: Ellis Planning Associates Inc » Getting There

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