If you’re like many of our clients and colleagues, you work some distance away from your key colleagues. This may mean that you rarely get the chance to brainstorm ideas, share lessons learned, or explore difficult issues with your peers.
With technology as an enabler, virtual roundtables can be an effective way to exchange ideas and pick up new tips and tools. To succeed, they need a thoughtful structure, and agreed-upon ground rules and operating norms.
In this edition of Communiqué, Penny Pullan of Making Projects Work and I map out some practical steps you can take to assemble a virtual roundtable of peers. You can use these guidelines to set up other kinds of virtual roundtables too, perhaps with clients, partners or industry experts. We use examples from our upcoming mastermind group for leaders of virtual teams.
- Clarify the group’s purpose, focus and objectives. What do members want to get out of the group? For example, are there certain skills or knowledge that people want to develop? Or do people want to share ideas, solve problems or build new relationships? Make sure members agree on the goals and objectives and use these to articulate a charter for your group. Example: Our mastermind group for virtual leaders is designed to help members learn how best to solve common challenges through interactive conversations.
- Invite the right participants. Would your objectives be best met with a homogeneous group with similar jobs or interests, or by people with diverse perspectives? How important is it that people have similar titles? What’s the right number of people for the kind of conversations you plan to have? Consider whether location or time zone will be important in scheduling, as this can affect the type and number of participants. Example: Our mastermind group will consist of no more than 12 senior, virtual team leaders from different non-competing organizations, based primarily in the Americas and Europe.
- Quantify the commitment each member needs to make. How frequently will meetings be held, and how long will each one take? How long must people sign up for? What preparation work is required by whom? What roles will each person play, and will this vary with each meeting? Who will host, and who will bear the costs of set-up? Are substitutes allowed and, if so, under what conditions? Make sure that all members are clear on the level of commitment required, and that each is in a position to make such a commitment. Example: We will have monthly 60-minute conference calls, with members committing to participate for the full year. All members will be expected to do an equivalent level of prep work, which may vary from meeting to meeting. Penny and I will host each meeting, using a conference call line and web meeting tool. We will limit substitutions to one meeting per year to ensure the kind of continuity that helps galvanize new teams.
- Set ground rules that you’re prepared to enforce. For example, does everyone have to do prep work, or is it merely suggested? Can people join for just part of the meeting? Are all conversations held in strict confidence, or can portions be relayed to others, as long as no names are used? With a team of peers, it’s especially important to have the group develop their own ground rules, and agree how strongly they need to be enforced. For our virtual leader roundtable, we will suggest a few ground rules, which we’ll encourage members to modify to best meet their needs.
- Establish multiple communications paths. In addition to a conference call at agreed-upon intervals, consider other ways the team can communicate. Might team members benefit from a shared portal, blogs, IM, Twitter, texting, or emails? Is occasional face-to-face interaction a goal? As the team evolves, members will get a feel for the methods of communication and the tools most likely to help achieve their goals. Example: Our virtual mastermind roundtable will use a bridge line and web meeting tool during our calls. We will set up an ongoing virtual conference for members to use whenever they’d like. We’ll poll the group about other preferred methods and tools during the first couple of
- Accommodate change. At what point has a virtual roundtable outlived its usefulness? How does one know when it’s time to bow out, or to disband the group altogether? When’s the right time to invite new members? In virtual teams, there are few opportunities to have the unplanned conversations that face-to-face teams rely on to make difficult decisions. So, allocate time to create shared operating principles to cover when and how membership will change.
If you work some distance away from people with whom you would like to collaborate regularly, perhaps it’s time for you to start up a virtual mastermind group of your own, following some of the steps in this Communiqué.
Read our related Communiqué: Brainstorming Across Borders: How to Stimulate Creative Thinking from Afar.