• Increase alignment among teams through in-person workshops
  • Foster a work environment that encourages brainstorming and experimentation
  • Technology does not replace the utility of in-person interactions for planning exercises

Why are some companies, like agile startups, able to accomplish so much with relatively small teams? Could working in proximity make face-to-face collaboration more commonplace and lead to greater efficiency? How can a company of any size foster that same camaraderie and create a culture that values the importance of face-to-face brainstorming exercises?

When teams are separated by floors, buildings, remote locations or even just headphones that block out the noise of open workspaces, it becomes easier to rely on email or chat tools for most communication. Technology has developed better live video capabilities and seemingly endless options for digital communication to support productivity on a day-to-day basis. The problem occurs when teams need to break down a more complex initiative that requires cross-functional teamwork. For this type of strategic planning project, technology cannot replace in-person interaction.

This fact struck me recently during a facilitated workshop for a large global company with a siloed marketing organization. The purpose of the workshop was to develop the organization’s first integrated annual campaign plan. The process required people who had worked at the same company for years – but rarely spoke in person – to align and collaborate. There was a variety of personalities and a range of receptivity to the proposed shift from a product-centric strategy to a more solution needs-based campaigns approach. The client brought us in as moderator (aka referee) to keep the workshop on task. It never ceases to amaze me that after a morning of brainstorming and whiteboarding sessions, all of the sudden the corporate walls come down, and the atmosphere becomes more lively and conducive to experimentation, creativity and new ideas.

SiriusDecisions has developed a proven process for conducting successful workshops.

Here are six critical tips:

  1. Prep ahead. Map out necessary alignments in order to level-set before the workshop and maximize on-site productivity. Distribute pre-reading material so the workshop is about work, not education. The education CAN be done remotely (video, webcast, reading), but precious face-to-face time should be used for working, not just listening to a presenter. For the on-site meeting, create handouts and slides that complement the pre-work rather than duplicate it.
  2. Set expectations. Establish a clear agenda that defines what a successful day will look like and what will be accomplished, with a focus on one key initiative.
  3. Establish ground rules. Rules might include “don’t interrupt,” “no bad ideas,” or “no distraction with laptops or phones.” Keep the momentum by capturing “parking lot items” to be addressed at the end. 
  4. Include an energetic moderator. Use someone who fosters fun conversation in a comfortable environment, and provide lots of snacks and beverages (like treats provided at an off-site hotel event), even if the meeting will be in an office conference room.
  5. Invite the right people. Make sure everyone is in the room (not conferenced in) and can provide valid input and complete the workshop exercises. Identify potential “derailers,” “dominators” and “silent observers” ahead of time, but have a plan for engaging and addressing different personalities.
  6. Keep focus. Provide structured brainstorming and whiteboarding exercises to get conversations flowing, and use worksheets to reinforce participation and a sense of accomplishment.

In 1971, Professor Albert Mehrabian combined the statistical results of two studies and came up with the now famous rule that communication is only 7 percent verbal and 93 percent non-verbal. The non-verbal component is made up of body language (55 percent) and tone of voice (38 percent).

Much has also been written about the impact of digital communication on culture and relationships. Face-to-face interaction provides valuable insight from tone, facial expressions and body language. The instantaneous responses of others help us gauge whether our ideas are being understood, and we remember more information that is both seen and heard. The reality is that camaraderie happens when a group meets to come up with a plan in person.

Certain strategic planning initiatives especially benefit when a dedicated amount of time is carved out to get everyone focused, collaborating and open to brainstorming on new solutions. Consider dedicated workshops for quarterly or annual integrated marketing planning exercises, especially if the challenge at hand involves cross-functional teams working together.