1. Does breaking out really mean breaking away
Overall, online teams seem to communicate best in teams of 5-6 or less. In person teams seem to manage their communication well in teams of up to about 8 people. Sometimes sub groups can achieve these team numbers if the task division is clear and agreed from early on. The shift into sub groups occurs in a different way if groups are operating online.
Groups working around the table will naturally break into task based sub groups, that is small groups gravitating to working around sub-tasks. People will physically move across the room to work together, without a thought as to whether this needs permission or ‘enabling’. The equivalent of ‘enabling’ would be asking the trainer if they can move seats or use the table at the end of the room! Most groups would quickly assume responsibility for this themselves.
In this way, one or more break away groups form to work on sub tasks. They are still available to the rest of the group, remaining at hand for updates, and able to respond to changes in direction and for ‘full team’ updates immediately.
In person problem solving groups organise sub groups that work alongside each other and are at hand for updates so that they can adjust their direction of effort.
Most online training groups are dependent on being moved to break out rooms by the producer or host. The options for video conferencing teams using break out rooms, are a predetermined membership and time slot by the host, or to request these via the host, if individuals feel able to do this, (which has seemed less likely in the training environment). Zoom is evolving the facility for participants to self select into pre planned break out rooms. Even with control of the use of break out rooms, the decision to ‘breakout’ formalises the group’s structure, and the sub group persists outside and away from the ‘main room’ for however long the break out room exists.
The significance of this hinges around control and responsibility. On the one hand we are expecting a group to step up and take charge of a task, whilst probably still controlling their structure and perhaps time scale. Psychologically, it feels a very mixed message, and not really conducive to an uninterrupted unfolding of ideas
FOMO - “What’s happening in the other group?”
With the use of break out rooms, the sub group are opting to leave the large group and everything that might be evolving there. Groups report mixed feelings: relief to be away from the main meeting along with frustration at being left out of the main group. Other alternatives for parallel working in subgroups include use of phone calling and apps such as Yammer and WhatsApp to supplement chat room messaging.
Break out groups report feeling frustrated by not being able to see or share documents and whiteboard space being used by another, or perceived, dominant group. This additional cognitive load prevents a team having a full focus, a kind of team FOMO (fear of missing out). Arguably, most of do not work at our best when under any kind of stress or fear, however minor.
At the closure of a breakout room, understandably, it feels hard to transition back in to the main group. Whilst this difficulty is reported by groups working in person too, there appears to be more capacity in a meeting room setting for accommodating late or new arrivals and returning sub groups. Groups seem to re integrate more smoothly in a face to face setting. In a meeting room, individuals can ‘catch up’, either by physically getting alongside someone in the room, or using non verbal cues to make the suggestion for a group update at an appropriate time.
Round the table, break away groups are still tethered to their main group, whereas break out online groups separate themselves completely. Whilst this may echo the ‘stop - go’ nature of work tasks, (meeting to look at a problem, allocation of tasks to sub teams or individuals, a further meeting to review the data and look at the problem, repeat! it is more cooperative than collaborative, not really synergistic, i.e getting the extra value added of many heads working simultaneously on the same problem.
The distinction between synchronous and asynchronous working means that online groups may work better at collaboration light tasks. These would be tasks that lend themselves to being broken up into chunks with fixed information, than collaboration where there are more unknowns and uncertainties that demands the building of ideas and sense making by everyone together.
Formalising structure damages spontaneity and agility.
Perhaps more significantly for online collaborating groups, if work is to be completed in parallel, through use of break out groups, or break away time, then the different work groups or individuals must be able to work solo and autonomously. This places much greater emphasis on the formal structure of the group - when will they next reconvene, for what purpose - and also the trust placed on the various autonomous units to complete the tasks as expected and make decisions acceptable to the whole group. In turn, this places a much bigger onus on clarity of briefing and checking of understanding when collaborating online rather than round the table.
Groups can fudge through when in person, and usually get there. The culture is informal, flexible, serendipitous even, being agile enough to work with any shift of direction, and then back again.
Online is a less forgiving environment: group organisation, leadership, communication and coordination need to be tight to be effective. Paradoxically, this preplanned formality to meet over specific tasks with agreed objectives may push out the chance of spontaneity, the agility to respond to newly emerging trends, and ultimately, the creation of new solutions.
2. Online groups miss absorbing a shared approach to working and culture that enables individuals to contribute autonomously.
Something that seems to help work streams or subgroups be both more autonomous and effective, is a very clearly articulated frame of work and common approach to working.
In problem solving activities used to date, online groups appear to need to know far more about their specific role and purpose? Who are they representing and working for? than their face to face counterparts before they can even begin. It seems as though face to face groups find it easier to construct their objective and role for themselves from the information they are given, and perhaps are drawing on some kind of ‘culture rich atmosphere’ and able to pick up clues from pictures, logos, time frames, as well as non verbal expressions of curiosity.
Perhaps people working on screen are used to seeing only content on documents, not contextual information? Face to face groups have the capacity and impetus to apply themselves. They will work context out by discovering it for themselves. Online working groups need much more upfront preloading and directional input about how best to work.
This training room experience may have some significance as we move to more remote working. In organisations, an approach to working shapes the culture:
- what are we here to do?
- how do we do that?
- how do we make decisions?
- how do we want to be known for doing that?
- what is important to us?
Culture might percolate through long established culture, mission and purpose, values and desirable behaviours, and of course, previous experience of working together face to face. Newly formed online groups, rather than established teams, have additional cognitive load and appear handicapped without being given a lot of context and more direction about what is expected, of the task, but also of each other and the the group’s way of operating together. They require more direction, and don’t seem as able to think independently or create context or hypothesise, indicating a lower tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.
There could be opportunities here too - a chance to reset values and approaches. This ‘how we do things round here’ framework needs both buy in and sharing across a group if it is to release performance. Ideally, this new working culture would support the
acceptance of taking risks and testing ideas with others.
Information may not be appear as rich when viewed online, offering the remote team less context and potential connections than their round the table peers.
3. Online data sharing has less context and provokes lower curiosity.
Problem solving training tasks presented as scenarios round the table meant information was presented in hard copy, as brochures, emails, listings, menus, reports. Yes, a few trees, but also more context and the potential for making possible connections and seeing more than just the surface.
For online groups looking at the documents on screen, rather than printing them off, it seems as though data in document format is flattened literally to the 2 dimensional representation of what is visible on the screen. There is now the opportunity to use video and audio files in the training activity scenarios that really opens more amazing avenues, but fundamentally whilst engaging, it is cosmetic.
Many sports commentators are now forced to comment on live football games presented to them via live feed, from an ‘on the ball’ camera at the ground that follows action on the ball. In speaking of difficulties and their frustrations, they explain that they can do a ‘pass by kick' commentary, and match player numbers to names, but, with the restricted view offered, what they cannot get is
- a sense of a build up,
- the chance to spot early mistakes leading to changes of fortune,
- team formations, and their break down,
- gaps, and crowding.
In business terms this translates to the
- ground swell of opinion,
- the amount of engagement,
- visible early signs of the execution, or otherwise, of strategy,
- the distribution of power and hierarchy in a client organisation,
- stakeholder interests which are often nuanced.
We can only access what is presented to us, a bit like the the 'on the ball’ camera, missing the background ‘on field action’.
Within a training activity, it’s been interesting to note how much extra information and meaning we might be gleaning from handling our data rather than viewing it. Its source and origins perhaps, or whether it has been seen before. And when we need all the perspectives we can muster, how much context we might be missing out on when we share documents on screen for the data they contain, rather than provoking a curiosity around understanding perhaps, where they have come from, what other paperwork are they associated with, and what importance they play relative to each other. Information seems to persist for longer in a fragmented form, with less inclination to join the dots and make connections. Sense making or the ‘so what, and ‘so that' is more limited or missing.
Furthermore, documents persist and also exist simultaneously in a person to person setting. Screen sharing has a limited scope for what can be seen at the same time by everyone. Scanning across documents is harder for a remote group, and if they do miss a document it is more likely to go astray than a round the table group who still have a tangible piece of paper, even if its at the far end of table that has not been turned over, or inked up, or perhaps even read. If we can only see what’s in front of us, we can only see what’s in front of us!
When collaborating remotely, we are in danger of seeing only the odd tree, plant or mushroom, not the trees, not the woods, let alone the landscape!
4. Responsibility for analysis and critical thinking can be more dispersed in round the table groups, where every member of an online team has full responsibility for a strong level of critical thinking ability.
With all the best file sharing and white boarding options available, online groups still seem to be at a disadvantage when looking at multiple sources of data simultaneously compared to round the table groups.
This means that each person looking at incoming data has the responsibility for sense making, and developing insight that can be shared to the group.
A set of sales figures remains numbers until someone can interpret, for example, seasonal trends, and suggest new initiatives to move in the direction expressed by the mission or strategy. If the overarching purpose is to maximise sales, then an interpretation might be that marketing for off season times might be different to peak season. On the other hand, if the overarching mission is to maximise efficiency, then the added insight might be that operational capacity might benefit from a reduction to match resources to when production is highest.
To continue this example, further implications for seasonal trends might be something the group can discuss together. The individual player’s work is done when they have contributed the ‘so what, so that’ part, i.e making sense of the data accurately and thoroughly in the context of the wider purpose. This turns data into information and insight that can inform decisions.
People round the table looking at data are able to offer multiple perspectives and generate understandings together fairly comfortably. A few people can share and use information quickly and easily; building ideas together from multiple sources and with more opportunity to construct vital interpretations, insights or connections.
However online, the onus is pushed far more onto each individual to synthesise and evaluate information in front of them accurately. Without the capacity of higher order thinking skills in each person, online groups risk missing valuable connections when problem solving. This suggests that there is less tolerance for any weaker link in the team. If one person is having an off day, or simply chooses not to engage, their information is lost to the whole group, and they can comfortably dip out of putting in effort to the team.
According to ideas about social loafing, this is more likely when people don’t see themselves as part of a team, and don’t recognise the significance of their contribution. It is possible that this sense of cohesion is harder to acquire online than when a team is physically present.
5. Emotional responses are less likely to be in taken into account when teams work online.
Removing emotionality could be really useful to a group looking to make the best decision for a given situation when only the facts matter, but research indicates that affect, or emotion, does contribute to management decision making and reduces bias.
It is likely we are short changing ourselves online by not having access to body language that indicates emotions, including the small changes in facial expressions potentially obscured by poor screen quality, and images of faces to small to discern nuance. These potential subtle cues for exploration into what might being felt, although not said, are lost.
Even looking into the eyes of someone, those windows of the soul, is compromised as often we find ourselves looking at the screen rather than the camera, particularly when group video conferencing. Natural conversation and emotional connection, even engagement are restricted if we cannot talk so that someone else can look into our eyes. Its also more tiring.
We are cognitively busy shifting between two positions: firstly, looking at the camera and giving eye contact which looks much more natural and real, but which ironically is inauthentic because we are no longer looking at the person speaking, or secondly, looking at the person speaking on the screen to receive eye contact if we are looking to fully engage in what the other person or people are saying. This results in the familiar, but not particularly attractive, lowered eyelid ‘look’ that clearly no longer presents the eye contact we associate with making an emotional connection.
In addition, emotive dialogue is more likely to be constrained by on screen self consciousness, and subject to less of our engagement as we endure long hours of online meetings.
Emotional responses and reactions are more difficult to see on screen. Our on screen presence tends to be restricted to head and shoulders, with low visibility of the face and very little arm movement especially if using keyboard/trackpad.
These all add up to a potential loss of subtle language and nuance that may reflect significant information about the impact of a decision on a person, especially when such information is not ready to be articulated verbally. Non verbal signals, a grimace or quick eye brow raise perhaps, that could prompt “you don’t seem so sure” comment in person have far less chance of being spotted and followed up online. Without these interventions we lose the opportunity to elicit further useful perceptions, and surface significant issues.
6. There are pitfalls for online remote teams. There problem solving process can be hindered by slow discussion, and distorted when there is less inclination to explore and more inclination to jump to a decision early.
Pauses in communication and occasional technology freezes support more reflective time. In turn this enables more self regulation (or even self censorship), also less prattling or grandstanding. This is more likely to occur in groups who are very familiar with each other, and paradoxically groups who are newly formed and impression conscious.
It is the groups who fall between these that find themselves in early stages of group development. For example, they could be listening to the same few voices without much being added to getting the task done. They could still be unclear who is leading, or how to make decisions. For groups who are still finding their way, it seems that problem - solving online takes longer than in person, occurs at a slower pace, and doesn’t always benefit from the additional time groups use, nor the steadier pace of discussion.
When working through a problem solving process online, it can take much longer for groups to organise shared information and to allocate tasks. A coordinator or leader helps facilitate both, but can still be slower. The most notable difference between online and in person groups is the amount of time spent in exploration and evaluation stages.
Fig 2 above is a general representation of a problem solving methodology. It doesn’t matter which methodology is used, or whether it is sequential or holistic. Generally, there will be time spent:
1) defining problem, or objective identification stage followed by
2) exploring, opening up discussion dedicated to investigating resources, information, and viewpoints. Linked phases might include option generating,
3) evaluating, narrowing down to a decision point by a process of evaluation.
4) planning and implementation.
For online groups still learning to work together, it seems that nuances and different perspectives, even crucial data, can easily be overlooked in a race to get through an exploring stage, with areas of information remaining unexplored, to a far greater degree than similar groups working round the table.
It's not hard to understand why analysis and exploring to uncover more is more likely to be reduced online. We seek cognitive ease. Its hard wired in us to want to make life easy for ourselves, particularly if our cognitive resources are being stretched. So our response to complexity when we are tired or stressed, or both, is to simplify it.
When information is crying out for more exploration, probing questions to be asked, hypotheses proposed for knocking down, tweaking, or making forward leaps, we will naturally seek to streamline the data rather than expand it. This can mean jumping onto the first viable looking idea that makes some sense. It can mean a covert understanding that ‘we’ve done enough here, lets take that forward’. Not only does this gain the support of our ‘tribe’ by not challenging, it promises an end to the angst. In this way, the whole team misses out spending crucial time in the middle stages of problem solving: exploring and analysis to generate more information, insight, connections and possibilities, followed by a critically considered evidence based evaluation to identify best options.
Casualties of this oversimplification can include missing vital information or perspectives. Also the reduction in time and energy holds back the discovery of new ideas and information. All of which might re-frame the problem, stimulate more possibilities to shed light on the issue, and encourage more options or solutions.
We are closing down early. Rather than widening our lens, seeking to connect dots, and finding patterns we are susceptible to jumping onto the first viable looking option.
Part 3 Conclusions
At a simple level, online working through video conferencing can potentially constrain the pace and depth of work, particularly when it comes to parallel working i.e where sub groups are working separately and no longer in contact with other groups.
In addition, it seems that critical thinking thinking, a cornerstone of collaborative problem solving, has taken a real bashing when it comes to online groups working together. The higher order thinking skills such as evaluation and synthesis have proved to be harder, although not impossible for groups working online. Groups who have been most successful have worked together before, have a clear sense of values, recognise each other’s contribution to the the team as a whole, have more awareness of each other and less self consciousness around each other.
Synthesis and integration of information into new meaning requires us to draw widely on all available signals and connections that we can draw together around us. This almost visceral quality is missing in the 2d world of screens.
Looking ahead - to the future of collective intelligence and collaborative online working - then skilful work, practice and strong team development are more important than ever to access our team’s critical thinking and emotionality.
1. To promote both trust and efficiency when using break out rooms, set clear expectations of:
- how and when groups will reconvene,
- that they will update each other fully and
- also how they will do this.
2. So that people can hit the road running, invest in time articulating values and accepted working practices so that people, particularly those new to the organisation or team, have the opportunity to grasp how work is done, decisions are made and what is important to the team. This will be especially important if you have times when people are working on their own for extended periods of time squandering energy wondering if this is the ‘right’ way working out how things are done now, or done in this team rather than being able to focus on the task.
3. Match tasks to people or sub groups, as you might do in face to face situations, so that everyone can make a unique contribution, feel that their part of the work matters and remain more engaged.
4. Maintain curiosity and promote exploration of possible connections when solving complex or ambiguous problems. Look backwards to similar situations, and to sources of current data and information. Look for gaps, what is missing, patterns, linkages, relationships, correlations.
5. Include time and space for measuring emotional responses. Check out your impressions of how other people are feeling. Be prepared to change tack if you detect negative signals. That will give an indication that you value input that may be led by the heart rather than purely by the head.
6. To improve eye contact, look at the camera! This works better if you can move your own screen thumbnail or ‘pip' to a position next to the camera. If not, sitting back from the screen works in desk top situation better than laptop, and can be tweaked if you can adjust the digital zoom of the camera to bring your face closer without physically moving.
7. Invest in your team’s thinking skills. Get to know where the analytical, intuitive, and evaluative strengths lie. Who will look at information rigorously, question ideas and assumptions rather than accepting them at face value. Who will identify inconsistencies? Seek supportive evidence? Push for options? What do you need to work on personally? as a team?
8. Use, and keep a check on where you are in a team problem solving process, so that you can spend enough time at each stage. Build your own process, or use your organisation’s approach. It doesn’t matter as long as they have appropriate stages for the level of complexity you are dealing with. Research and experiment with different ones.
9. Help the group develop greater understanding and spend more time exploring by asking questions.
- How might these ideas work together?
- How could these relate?
- What don’t we know yet?
- What questions do we need to ask?
10. Promote more critical thinking by asking questions
- What makes you say that?
- Whats at the core of this?
- Whats really going on?
- How does this fit with what we know/are doing/are looking to do?
11. Encourage high quality summarising, reporting back the main points and also implications. (the ‘so what..’). Take turns to summarise the discussion so far - some people have a talent for this.
12. Be aware of the nature of the problem - whether straightforward or more complex and ambiguous. In the case of the latter, much more time and effort will need to be available for a successful outcome, and a close adherence to ensuring challenge and questioning as discussed in Part 2.