The 5 most surprising lessons from our virtual innovation workshops

Unicorn

In March 2020, we realized that our business model would no longer work. 

Locking ourselves in a room with our clients for a day or more in order to come up with new ideas or business models? Not a good idea during a pandemic. 

We had to reinvent ourselves. 

Since then, we have created virtual versions for most of our services as different as Scenario Analysis, Pitch Trainings or Design Sprints. It helped us a lot that we already worked routinely in a virtual set-up internally back then. Still, the dramatic shift in our client work led to some big surprises. I asked my SOMMERRUST colleagues about their learnings and summarized them for you. Here are our top five:

  1. It works. It really does. – Nina
  2. Preparation, the invisible hero – Marius
  3. Digitize minds, not post-its – Eva
  4. Social undistancing – Frank
  5. “Wow” them! – Axel
Nina © SOMMERRUST 2020

It works. It really does. (Nina)

When we started translating our services into virtual formats, we were worried that they may feel like inferior versions of the “real” thing. To our surprise (and to our delight), however, client reactions were overwhelmingly positive. Admittedly, some of the praise may have been due to the novelty and might wear off over time. But we also realized that virtual workshops have some fundamental advantages compared to their face-to-face siblings – if, and only if – you rethink your approach for the virtual world and smartly leverage the digital possibilities that exist.

For example, collaboration tools like Miro or Mural enable a seamless capturing of results through virtual whiteboards. The extra work of digitizing paper sticky notes is no longer necessary. Polling features, digital timers or the use of multimedia directly on the whiteboard further enhance the experience. Moreover, unlike the limited wall space of physical rooms, virtual boards enable creating a much more sophisticated workshop flow. At the same time, however, the new possibilities also require facilitators to put way more thought into how to design the overall experience.

Another key advantage is that it is easier to get the right people together if they are located elsewhere. The virtual world is smaller. However, some fear that it is also more stressful. Attending videoconference after videoconference can result in the now famous “Zoom fatigue”. Frequent breaks certainly help, and so does a focused agenda. Our impression is that well-designed virtual innovation workshops are no more draining than physical ones. And don’t forget the upside: even though physically demanding, (virtual) innovation workshops also generate creative energy that can serve as a great source of job satisfaction.

In some situations, direct human interaction is unmatched, e.g. when it comes to building trust or creating a flow within the team. But virtual collaboration tools will continue to evolve and already today have reached a level of sophistication that justifies their use even when the pandemic no longer necessitates it. We frequently get asked if we believe that innovation projects can also be done virtually. Our answer is a definite “yes!”.

Marius © SOMMERRUST 2020

Preparation, the invisible hero (Marius)

“Does it work now?” – a question that probably everyone has heard at the beginning of some virtual workshop. In nine out of ten cases, it is preventable. Technical problems, frustrated users, failed workshop exercises, inefficient capturing of results – the list of things that can go wrong tends to be even longer during virtual workshops than for their physical counterparts. To make things worse, ad-hoc fixing and spontaneous improvisation are often difficult when you don’t sit in a room together.

The solution, however, is still the same: thorough preparation. 

If your preparation is really good, no one will even notice that it happened. You will have solved most problems before they occur and handle the rest with ease. To be effective, preparation for virtual workshops should anticipate three potential sources of problems.

  1. Prepare yourself – interaction, space & time: The first question you should ask yourself is what kind of interactions you need to facilitate in order to achieve your workshop objectives. Then, choose the right combination of tools that support these interactions and set them up properly. For example, Zoom combined with Miro is great for large Design Thinking workshops: People can collaborate seamlessly by moving to virtual breakout rooms for generating results in small teams and then back for sharing them with the entire group. One critical success factor for interactive workshops is to design an intuitive, well-timed workshop flow on a virtual whiteboard (e.g., Miro) that guides the team without obstructing its creativity. Usually, workshop time with all the key people is very precious – make it count!
  2. Prepare your participants – technology & skills: The best workshop design fails if the participants are not able to use the required tools. Hence, make sure that everyone has the right software, the right hardware and a stable internet connection. Find out about the level of proficiency of your team beforehand. Do a separate technical onboarding before important meetings and factor in sufficient time to explain the tools. To avoid a boring block of technical instructions, you can introduce features en passant during early agenda items. For example, you may ask workshop participants to create virtual sticky notes or use icons to express their expectations – or even already use the technical onboarding to do so and save some time during the workshop.
  3. Prepare for the unexpected – backup & plan B: No matter how good your preparation, some things can still go wrong. It is therefore a smart idea to build some robustness into your workshop. For example, for large meetings we use a “tech facilitator” who can fix things without interrupting the flow for the others. Also, consider simulating new or risky workshop elements with colleagues to get a realistic feeling of how well they actually work. And you should have a plan B (or C) for critical exercises and interactions – technically and conceptually. This can be an alternative way of sharing content or a workable shortcut in case you run out of time. You will rarely need your plan B – let alone C – if you follow the advice above. But when you do need it, preparation will be your hero!
Eva © SOMMERRUST 2020

Digitize minds, not post-its! (Eva)

Digital transformation neither started with the pandemic, nor will it be “completed” in the foreseeable future. At the same time, the crisis has accelerated digitization in an unprecedented way. It would be a big mistake, however, to reduce the current shift to remote work to the replacement of physical meetings or to the digitization of analogue sticky notes. Rather, the crisis is a unique window of opportunity for facilitating a mindset shift in people – to a new, digital, and hopefully better, way of working.

As old habits get disrupted, we should leave the bad ones behind us: No more meetings without a clear agenda. If people used to talk a lot in meetings without documenting any results, break that habit by leveraging the easy capturing options through virtual whiteboards. Play with ideas and virtual prototypes instead of producing countless pretty slides. Replace endless email conversations with an effective use of collaboration platforms (MS Teams, Slack, etc.).

If you find this all too obvious – consider yourself lucky. In many traditional organizations, the productive use of digital ways of working is still in its infancy. For some people, the new possibilities actually seem like a revelation. One professional virtual workshop or a single, well-managed remote project can therefore have a positive impact on productivity and collaboration that goes well beyond the immediate scope of the innovation effort. If you can, spend the extra effort to establish a smart digital way of working with your team.

Frank © SOMMERRUST 2020

Social undistancing (Frank)

Social distancing is one of the key measures against the pandemic, but it is also a misnomer: physical distancing would be a much better term. After all, we are all social beings, and healthy social relationships between team members are a key ingredient for productive work and creative outcomes.

Luckily, with some imagination, digital tools can support social undistancing in a number of ways. This includes dedicated social events, social workshop elements as well as allowing socializing to happen naturally.

  1. Dedicated social events: examples of formats that we successfully tested are the virtual pub quiz, a remote wine tasting (the bottles get delivered beforehand), and “speed dating” (in which two people at a time have a few minutes to get to know each other in a breakout room).
  2. Social workshop elements: During face-to-face workshops, socializing happens automatically in the coffee corner. In virtual settings you should deliberately build in these kinds of occasions, e.g. by using breakout rooms for a virtual coffee, or by sharing recipes (and potentially even mailing ingredients) for a joint lunch. Also, make sure to check your team’s well-being over the course of the workshop and restore the energy level with “warm-up games” when needed. Team screenshots can be a nice way of documenting the joint innovation journey.
  3. Allowing socializing to happen naturally: Some people now prefer to blur their home office background during videoconferences. I think that’s a pity. The sailing picture on the wall or the fat cat sitting on the coach can be a great conversation starter. If you allow it to happen, people will start socializing naturally.

Unfortunately, when we encourage the team to have some fun together people sometimes think that this implies that we give lower priority to generating serious business results. As a result, social undistancing is not considered essential in some organizations, and reserving meeting time for it is considered a waste. The opposite is the case – especially for innovation projects! A team that has fun and likes working together is typically more open, more creative, more motivated and more productive in the end. Therefore, it is important to institutionalize the social part also in virtual environments – not despite, but because of the need to deliver tangible results.

Axel © SOMMERRUST 2020

“Wow” them! (Axel)

You can conduct a thought-out, smooth virtual workshop that everyone agrees was professional, and that reached every stated workshop objective – but that no one will remember a month later. And that’s alright for a virtual project update meeting or for a routine online working session. But if you need to create momentum and enthusiasm – for future scenarios, a radical business idea or new ways of working – then you better build in some highlights that participants won’t forget. You’ll want to create a memorable experience! One that people talk about to colleagues and friends. 

Initially I was worried that these moments of “wow” will get lost in a virtual set-up. They are already difficult to create in a physical setting. So how can one replicate the experience of jointly building a physical prototype in the virtual world? How do you achieve the level of immersion that participants of a scenario workshop reach through an “Exhibition from the Future” with real objects and live performances?

Well – you can’t.

But: wowing people still works surprisingly well if you are creative in using and stretching the possibilities of what digital tools are already capable of. For example, do a live visual recording of workshop discussions via tablet and Zoom. It can even be something small like using the “celebrate” function in Mural at the end of a strenuous Sprint day. We also like to blend the analogue and virtual world, e.g. by mailing physical workshop boxes to each team member and by creating an “unboxing” experience at the beginning of the workshop. There are many ways of creating “peaks” and we are learning new things every day.

If you want to create lasting excitement, you should therefore really pay attention to the wow factor. According to the so-called “peak-end rule”[1], the peak moment of an experience alone determines ca. 50% of how it will be remembered. Add a smooth landing to the peak, and the awe-inspiring memory can work wonders when you need people to contribute to your next ground-breaking but outlandish innovation attempt.

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  1. See Kahneman, D. (2011): “Thinking, fast and slow”, p. 380ff., Penguin Books: London, England

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