A Case Study by Woodside Global Partners
People scattered around the world join forces in a virtual workshop to create a project plan. How do you give everyone a feeling of immediate, live participation? How do you keep them engaged? The answer-structure the workshop around three principles:
- Visualization of ideas: Elements of the project plan are captured on sticky notes and displayed on a flipchart
- Simultaneous participation: All participants generate ideas in real time, as they would in an actual conference room
- Rich experience: Regardless of physical location, everyone is active both through audio and visually
The three principles come into play in a virtual workshop leveraging project management best practices, web conferencing with Cisco WebEx, and an innovative software application. As the participants generate ideas for the project plan, they type them into an application shared on their computer screens and print them locally on sticky (3M Post-it) notes. The notes are then pasted on flipcharts, visible to the entire group-both locally and remotely. The project plan takes shape as the group discusses the ideas printed on the notes and moves them around on the flipcharts. The final sequences of notes are scanned into Microsoft Excel or Project, where they are fine-tuned into a coherent project plan. At the conclusion of the workshop, the plan is distributed electronically to all.
This case study describes a workshop conducted in early 2011 at a division of a major manufacturer of communications and information technology equipment. The purpose of the workshop is to secure broad acceptance of a project plan among a group of thirty project stakeholders dispersed over several locations. The project involves a reorganization of the compensation structure for employees. In order to maximize the active engagement of the stakeholders in developing the plan, the workshop organizers strive to create an atmosphere of face-to-face interaction regardless of whether the stakeholders are local or remote.
Brainstorming teams have a choice of two popular methods.
Method 1 (local team). The team gathers in a conference room. As the participants come up with ideas, they write them on sticky notes such as Post-its. The notes are pasted on a wall or a flipchart and moved around. Once all the ideas have been submitted and ordered into a plan, one of the participants types up the notes in the correct order from the flipchart into Microsoft Word, Excel, or Project. After the typing is completed, the electronic file is distributed to the other team members.
Sticky notes are a simple and effective visual tool to facilitate the discussion at workshops. However, the final typing is easier said than done. Typing up a few hundred Post-it notes is a strain on the typist’s wrists and eyes. Trying to decipher scribbled notes is as little fun as putting them back in order in case some fall off the flipchart. No wonder it usually takes a while before the entire team can see the results of their collective labor arrive in their electronic inbox.
Another drawback of brainstorming with Post-its is that the procedure can be employed only at one physical location. Team members who dial into the session by phone cannot see the notes. This limits their ability to participate in the discussion. This is why teams that collaborate remotely typically resorts to Method 2.
Method 2 (remote team). Team members join a web conferencing session, for example through WebEx. As they speak out their ideas, a delegated person enters them into Word, Excel or Project. The file is shared, so all can watch the entries accrue. But watching is a passive activity. While waiting for their turn to speak or for the ideas to get typed up, some participants disengage to check their email, get the latest stock quotes, or daydream. With the typist inevitably failing to keep up with the flow of ideas in real time, the meeting progresses slowly and the creative enthusiasm is dampened. This is a far cry from the intuitive Post-it technique, where no one needs to wait for their turn to paste or move a note on a flipchart.
The best of two worlds
The limitations of both methods are a factor for the project planning workshop. The participants are dispersed over several locations. A team of fourteen assembles in a large conference room in San Jose, California. Ten others gather in a smaller room in Raleigh, North Carolina. The remaining six are joining from several other places. With so many remote participants, the Post-it brainstorming technique does not seem to be viable. Yet a discussion based entirely on WebEx will not actively engage the team as required. Unless a way can be found to emulate Post-it notes over the phone or Internet, there seems to be no effective way to conduct the workshop, short of flying all the participants in-understandably, not a viable option.
Fortunately, the predicament is resolved through a software-based solution that puts the convenience of Post-it notes in the hands of all the participants, no matter where they are located. The solution is brought by NxtNote, an application for remote collaboration with a capacity to virtualize the physical environment of a local team meeting. With NxtNote, the participants type their ideas-e.g., for project deliverables-into the application. With a click of a button, each idea is then printed on a Post-it note, which is pasted on one of the flipcharts set up in the conference rooms at which the workshop is taking place. This process resembles the way hand-written notes would be handled-with one important distinction. With NxtNote, the notes are typed. This makes them easier not only to read, but also to manipulate. A copy of each note is retained electronically after it is printed.
The electronic copy can be shaped to look just like a paper Post-it. But unlike the paper note, an electronic one can be moved into applications such as Microsoft Excel or Project and shared remotely over the Internet. In effect, NxtNote creates a virtual flipchart on which notes can be manipulated (moved or modified) with a mouse and keyboard on a screen visible to all workshop participants. The virtual flipchart may be edited to mirror the physical one, or it may be the principal flipchart used in the workshop. Either way, NxtNote overcomes the drawbacks of geographical dispersion in that it allows all workshop participants, local or remote, to take the same advantage of an effective brainstorming tool.
The distributed workshop
The workshop is divided into two sessions. In each, NxtNote is used in conjunction with teleconferencing tool WebEx.
During the groundwork session, participants convene in WebEx to lay down the project basics. Since NxtNote is an outgrowth of a project management methodology, it offers best-practice tools for this phase of a project as well. Using the tables provided in Excel spreadsheet, the participants discuss the flexibility matrix, lay down the scope in / scope out definitions, and define the project elements: deliverables, tasks, and milestones.
While everyone is watching on their screens, a designated person enters the data generated during the discussion into the spreadsheet. After the groundwork session is over, the person uses the information to create appropriate settings in NxtNote, so that the application is ready for the next session-developing a detailed project plan.
Project planning sessions
Once the WebEx connection is running and all thirty participants have dialed in, they are divided into two teams, each working on a part (“track”) of the project plan in a breakout session. The first team is physically gathered in San Jose, with a cluster of participants joining remotely. The work on the second track is assigned to the team in Raleigh with another remote cluster. Paper flipcharts and Post-it printers are set up both in San Jose and Raleigh. Sheets of printer paper with Post-it notes color-coded for deliverables (purple), tasks (green), and milestones (yellow) are provided at the two locations.
Each team discusses the work to be completed on their portion of the project. Individual members create notes with deliverables, tasks, and milestones by entering them into NxtNote, print them to a local Post-it printer, and paste them onto the flipchart. Besides the text of a note, its author specifies the end date and the duration of the item, its owner, and its type: deliverable, task, or milestone.
Modification and removal of duplicate or incorrect Post-its are also managed through NxtNote. Since multiple team members can add, modify, or delete items in NxtNote simultaneously, there is no need to wait for one’s turn in order to use the application and print out a Post-it.
As pasted Post-its are reviewed by the team, they are moved around into the desired configuration. Eventually, they are arranged into a project schedule.
Remote participants in breakout sessions participate in the discussion by dialing in. They enter notes remotely into NxtNote and send them for printing on Post-it notes to the San Jose or Raleigh printer. Since the remote participants are not present in front of a flipchart, they cannot touch, paste, or move the scraps of paper. But they can participate and co-direct the action on the flipchart as they watch it through a camera transmitting images from the conference room through WebEx. A standard web cam built into a PC may not have the imaging power to make the details on the flipchart sufficiently visible. To overcome this limitation, higher-resolution digital cameras are used.
At the end of the breakout sessions, each team leader-one in San Jose and the other in Raleigh-scans the Post-it notes from the paper flipchart. A special NxtNote scanner is used for this task. What is the purpose of scanning? When notes are typed into NxtNote in order to be printed on Post-its, they are stored consecutively in the NxtNote history file, in the order of their entry. But during the breakout sessions, the Post-its with the notes have been rearranged on the flipcharts according to dependencies, timing, and other relational information. In order to reproduce the final configuration of the notes electronically, the position of the entries in NxtNote history could be manually adjusted so that it corresponds to their order on the paper flipchart. But the manual approach is tedious and error-prone. NxtNote eliminates it through scanning. While a hand-held NxtNote scanner is passed along the rows or columns of Post-its, the notes-already stored in NxtNote history-are automatically entered into an industry-standard software application in the order of scanning. If the notes are scanned systematically, their sequencing on the flipchart will be replicated in the application in the exact manner. Many types of applications can be used to hold the sequences of scanned notes-for example, Microsoft Word, Excel, Project, or Visio.
Each note in NxtNote carries a unique identifier, generated automatically when the note is created. When the note is printed on a Post-it, the identifier is coded into the bar code appearing in the upper part.
In the project planning workshop, the recommended application selected for scanning the notes is Microsoft Project. The leaders of each track of the project take turn scanning Post-it notes from their respective breakout sessions into a single instance of Project. This process is managed by passing control from one leader to another. After a bit of manual rearrangement at the end, the project plan in Project is ready to be viewed by all the workshop participants as they return to the main session after the breakouts.
In the Gantt chart view of Project, the scanned notes appear as rows of text to the left. In the chart to the right, they are represented as horizontal bars. The color of the bars corresponds to the color of the Post-it notes: purple for deliverables, green for tasks, and yellow for milestones. Watching the chart on the screen shared in WebEx by the workshop coordinator (in our case, one of the team leaders), the workshop participants conclude the project plan as they specify dependencies, firm up the dates, and readjust the duration of the task bars. The process would be quite similar had the teams decide to use Excel instead of Project.
Once the workshop is wrapped up, the final project plan is sent to all the participants.
Despite the geographical dispersion of the team, the workshop has worked like a dream. Its success proved the validity of our assumptions. First, the group discussion was indeed facilitated by the visualization of ideas through Post-it notes. Second, by having the ability to generate the notes simultaneously with any other team member, everyone participated in the brainstorming phase of the discussion fully and in real time. By transposing an effective local tool into cyberspace, the use of NxtNote made it possible to extend the Post-it technique to remote participants. At the same time, it allowed to overcome the limitation of web conferencing, in which the control of the screen is delegated to a single person while all the others are watching passively. Finally, the use of a scanner reduced the manual overhead of retyping and rearranging information. Thanks to the functionality of NxtNote and the structured process it helped establish, a complex program plan was created in a few hours with all the participants actively engaged. The plan was ready for distribution minutes after the conclusion of the workshop.
There was no retyping, no missed items, and no misinterpretation of what has been discussed. A final thought… Even though the workshop described in this study involved a physically scattered group, the efficiencies of NxtNote can also be realized within a local team. NxtNote puts structured project management processes at the team’s disposal, no matter where its members are located. And wherever they are, automatic printing and scanning of Post-its will always beat writing them by hand and typing them up.
For more information, visit Woodside Global Partners at http://beyondpredictable.com/NxtNote.html
Copyright Woodside Global Partners, 2011. NxtNote is a trademark of NxtNote, Inc.