Written by Katalin Juhász
On 28th May the members of the Switzerland chapter gathered for an exciting experiment, aiming to try out Open Space Technology in a virtual setup. 41 curious chapter members have come together to explore how the method can help to engage participants in a discussion around “Project management in a remote environment”. The event had been created by a team of volunteers taking care of the preparations from the design of the session, through the application management and the facilitator roles.
As part of the introduction an animation video helped to give a quick overview about the method itself, positioning Open Space Technology as an agile facilitation methodology which helps to take down walls for participants with diverse backgrounds to engage them in open discussions. (More about the method here)
According to Matteo Mazzeri, an advocate of the method, the real value of the technique lies in its ability to connect and engage participants in conversations according to their strongest interest. The most important enabler of such discussions is a safe environment, where participants feel encouraged to share their authentic self.
During the session, the precise implementation of the agenda and a clear guidance regarding the collaboration tools turned out to be a very powerful foundation, which helped to minimize the discomfort in the lack of physical proximity and to orchestrate the break out and the plenary sessions smoothly.
Two virtual collaboration tools have been used during the session:
- Google Meets served as the primary communication platform with one virtual plenary room and 3 breakout rooms. The separate room links enabled participants to leave and reconnect discussions reinforcing the ’voting with feet’ rule.
- Slido served as a facilitation platform to conclude on the three topics of the breakout rooms (participants could list their suggestions and vote on the most inspiring topics)
As several topic suggestions listed on Slido were overlapping, some consolidation was required by the facilitator. Finally, the following three topics were selected:
- Maintaining engagement in a remote work environment
- Remote project management opportunities in the post COVID-19 era
- Stakeholder engagement in remote home-based working environment
The participants joined the breakout rooms rather evenly, the group size was fluctuating between 10 – 16 people during the discussions. After a few minutes dedicated to a short introduction shedding light on the diverse background of participants, engaging discussions emerged, which resulted in valuable conclusions.
In the first breakout room the focus of the conversation was the leadership challenge of keeping employees engaged and enabled in a remote work setup. The participants agreed that a different leadership style is required in the virtual space, corresponding with the identified needs of the employees. Shorter, but more frequent video meetings, small talk at the beginning can help to reduce the discomfort of the remote setup. It is equally important that the leaders do not only talk, but listen as well, even if keeping silent might be frightening for some. Being flexible and available to the team is a precious asset too, just like open and transparent communication. On a general note, a crisis can be an opportunity for leaders to deliver on their leadership capabilities and open a window for precious change opportunities.
In the second room remote project management possibilities in the post COVID-19 era were explored. The participants have concluded that although the crisis might bring business benefits and opportunities for innovation, in some cases face to face connection is indispensable.
The third discussion was focusing on ways to engage stakeholders in a remote setup. The importance of overcoming communication barriers to understand stakeholder expectations was concluded to be essential. Soft skills, like empathy and availability play a fundamental role in remote collaboration. Having small talk at the beginning of the meeting can help to strengthen social bonds and create a pleasant environment. Besides the challenges it is fair to acknowledge that remote setup can deliver some benefits as well. According to the participants, we tend to appreciate the time with others in the virtual space much more due to the extra efforts it takes to maintain connection. Another advantage can be the fact that it is easier to connect remotely: making a short call instead of long emails can be faster. The importance of body language enabling meta-communication has been highlighted in this group as well, so using video definitely has an added value. After the small group discussions, all of us gathered in the virtual plenary ‘main’ room to share the essence of the discussions.
As we considered the event as an experiment to explore how the method can be utilized within the PM domain, we could celebrate two important achievements: we found evidence that remote Open Space Technology can be a useful PM tool and we gained some learnings as well.
Starting with the positive findings, as Ka Yi Hui, one of the organizers phrased it, ’it is possible to transform a normally in-person event into a virtual event. […] the participants engaged during the brainstorming and discussion, just like they would have met in-person.’
Participant feedbacks are mirroring the high energy level of the discussions:
"It was the first time this kind of event for me and I am glad to be able to take part. Despite the virtual approach it was valuable experience and was great to discuss and learn from others. Thank you!"
"It was a great example of a community which is learning new ways of working while sharing their current feelings and building up new experiences"
"I enjoyed the team spirit we had in such a short period of time! It was great and it was because the participants and definitely the facilitator! Great job PMI Switzerland team!"
"I appreciated very much the opportunity from the PMI Switzerland chapter to get hands on experience of how remote open space works. It was very inspiring, and surely I will be able to use it in my PM practice."
"I am grately surprised by the efficiency of the tool the quality of the discussions and the outcomes"
Many of the participants shared the view that despite the complexity of the event (’especially from the technical side, participants were asked to open new tabs (i.e. voting, event site), to join breakout rooms, exit main room, re-join main room’), the discussions had a smooth flow. Having a clear agenda, well prepared facilitators and clear guidance on the virtual collaboration tools definitely contributed to the success.
‘This is one of the few online formats that actually helps build new network relations’ says Patryk Nosalik, whose idea it was to hold the Open Space, and the event’s Project Manager, (interestingly also his first volunteer experience for PMI). Furthermore he shared that ‘such positive feedback from participants is because they are active in the format – in uncertain times just another webinar doesn’t give you the feeling you’re being heard’.
We have gained a couple of learnings as well: ‘We have seen that the technical part is a bit more complex and needs a lot more guidance for the participants and the speaker’ – according to Philippe Soupart , VP Operations of the PMI Switzerland Chapter.
Besides the clear guidance, it is essential to dedicate sufficient time for introduction in the small groups and additional visualization boards can help to display shared ideas, making it easier for participants to join another small group discussion.
Based on the participants feedback Open Space technique seems to be an enriching tool in the PM toolkit, primarily for brainstorming of ideas, doing retrospectives or any other instances where breaking down of barriers are desired to harness the collective intelligence of the participants. The organizers are going to further build on the learnings of the event, driven by their belief that the method can help to engage the PM community in fruitful discussions, so hopefully a wider audience will also have the chance to have a first hand experience.