When meeting face to face isn't better

Have you ever done affinity diagramming? That’s the brainstorming exercise in which each participant in a conference room is given a pad of sticky notes and asked to write as many ideas as possible about an issue or solutions to a problem on them, one idea per sheet. After a few minutes, the meeting facilitator invites participants to arrange their notes on a board or a wall, placing similar ideas together. After a few minutes of elbowing and toe stomping and dropped bits of paper, the stickies end up clumped together and some major answers emerge. It’s a very powerful technique for thinking as a team.

If a geographically scattered team can’t meet in a conference room, a remote meeting tool with a whiteboard can be used for affinity diagramming. On a shared whiteboard, all the remote participants can add their input to the screen at the same time. The facilitator on the meeting’s phone conference can invite participants to choose a personal text color to identify their input for later discussion or let everyone use black for anonymous input. Participants write their ideas, one idea per line, and use the mouse to drag similar ideas together. Even a team that hasn’t done this before can pepper the screen with ideas in no time.

Affinity diagramming on a whiteboard isn’t almost as good as being in a conference room. It’s better. No elbows in the ribs, no dropped notes, no illegible scribbles. No time wasted milling around. The ideas are easy to read and easy to drag into categories. Everyone can read all the ideas at once and participants can skip ahead if what they just thought about is already on the screen. Team members in the office, working from home, or dialing in from overseas can all have equal visibility for their ideas. A team with a little practice can get dozens of ideas written, categorized, and grouped in under five minutes.

Recording results in the conference room is sticky business. Tiny piles of notes or wadded sticky-covered flip chart pages must be transcribed into a document that sort of records what the team said, but, well, you really had to be there, you know? Saving a remote whiteboard as easy as “click.” The image of the actual diagram makes a great memory jogger for the graphically minded who remember that the really big breakthrough was the comment in green kind of near the bottom.

In a pinch we’ve done this in the office, with people who sat so close together that they could hear the echoes of one another’s real voices over the phone conference. Still the team agreed that shared whiteboard worked better than using sticky notes. When teamwork is that easy, though, why not work from home?

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