October 7, 2020

The Remote Facilitation Pivot: How Nevada Lane Is Helping Distributed Teams Work Better Together

“Facilitation is the skill of the future if we’re going to keep living on this planet.”

If you think that sounds dramatic, that’s because it is. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that things change, whether or not we’re prepared for it.

This leaves us two choices. We can either let change overwhelm us, or we can adapt and be the change.

Easier said than done, right? After all, positive change — the kind that inspires and transforms — doesn’t happen by accident.

That’s where facilitation comes in. Recently, we spoke with Nevada Lane of Lane Change Consulting about her experience as a professional facilitator and how she pivoted to digital facilitation when the COVID-19 pandemic made her usual way of working impossible.

Nevada Lane facilitating an in-person workshop

The importance of facilitation in the workplace

Let’s take a step back for a moment and talk about what facilitation is. In a technical sense, a facilitator is tasked with guiding strategic conversations in a collaborative environment. It’s most often associated with design thinking workshops, but the fact is, any meeting, workshop, or collaboration session can benefit from a skilled facilitator.

A good facilitator brings stakeholders together in a structured environment — traditionally, a room with a whiteboard — and uses guided visual methods to empower them to solve problems together. This problem solving can come in many forms, from brainstorming and ideating to strategic visioning and project planning.

A great facilitator takes it a step further. They don’t just lead; they co-create. They know how to ignite creativity and tease out a team’s best ideas, consistently and methodically. They help to define and creatively solve the right problems by taking advantage of the team’s combined skills, knowledge, and perspective.

Anyone can (and should) learn basic facilitation techniques, especially in this new, remote-first world, but being a capital-F Facilitator like Nevada is a full-time job. In this way, it’s a lot like project management, or writing, or public speaking. They’re all skills every professional should have in their repertoire, but it takes training and experience to make any of them a career.

You’ve probably heard this nugget of wisdom, which is often (incorrectly) attributed to Einstein: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

For most organizations — global enterprises, NGOs, universities, small businesses, and beyond — the traditional way of working just … isn’t really working. COVID aside, most meetings suffer from common problems like a weak agenda, low engagement, power struggles, or tenuous psychological safety that makes people less likely to contribute. A facilitator, especially when they’re an impartial third party, can solve all of these problems by fostering collaboration and creative thinking while keeping the meeting on track.

Nevada put it this way:

“Facilitation is the skill that's going to get us to the next level of consciousness. We don't need more power over; we need more co-creation and power with. Facilitation skills are leadership skills that each of us has to have to create the world we want to create … Facilitation is the skill of the future if we're going to keep living on this planet.”

The road to becoming a facilitator

Prior to founding her own consultancy in 2008, Nevada Lane forged her own path in the consulting industry. She started her career in marketing before going back to school to get her masters in organization development in 2003. Two years later, she discovered graphic recording and visual facilitation. Inspired by the way visuals can get people energized and aligned in a way that words alone cannot, she started her journey as a visual facilitator.

After consulting for global organizations for several years, Nevada decided it was time to found her own consultancy. That’s how Lane Change Consulting was born. For more than a decade, Nevada and her team have used visual methods to facilitate strategic workshops and coach business leaders at companies like Genentech, Target, and Google, as well as nonprofits and universities.

What does it look like to own a consultancy? Prior to March 2020, a typical week in Nevada’s life might have gone something like this.

  1. Travel to a client’s city to facilitate a two-day leadership offsite
  2. Return to her office to work with her team on a strategy illustration
  3. Manage her team of graphic recorders who have been working with other clients
  4. Prepare for an upcoming visual thinking training session
  5. Attend client meetings and coaching sessions

As we said, facilitation is a full-time job.

Then, the world came screeching to a halt

Things changed for Nevada when COVID-19 struck the U.S. in March 2020. As was the case for many of us, Nevada’s work came to a sudden standstill. The in-person facilitation she and her team relied on to do their jobs became impossible.

“I hadn’t seen an empty calendar in ten years,” Nevada explains. But abruptly and all at once, in-person meetings were canceled for the foreseeable future.

But remember, Nevada is a problem solver by trade. She wasn’t going to let a global pandemic stop her from doing her job. So, she quickly jumped into action to find a way to facilitate workshops and meetings online without losing any of the benefits of visual collaboration.

The solution was not to adopt new techniques or methods, but rather new technology. Nevada selected MURAL as her solution of choice for bringing in-person sessions to the digital realm.

Pivoting to remote facilitation with MURAL

MURAL is a digital workspace for visual collaboration. It allows teams to work on a shared canvas in real time, no matter where they are in the world.

Nevada started playing around with MURAL’s digital whiteboard, templates, and facilitation tools. “By early April,” she said, “it became clear to me that MURAL was going to be my number one tool.”

Prior to March, Nevada was facilitating all of Lane Change Consulting's workshops face-to-face. Today, she coaches others on remote facilitation and is a Certified Virtual Facilitator, as designated by the International Institute for Facilitation. Let’s take a look at how she adapted so quickly and the lessons you can learn from her experience.

Five tips for better remote meetings

Whether or not you’re a professional facilitator, you can use these tips to facilitate more engaging, creative, and productive meetings online.

1. Reframe the challenge as an opportunity

To get in the right mindset, it’s important to view remote facilitation as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. True changemakers embrace the unexpected and use it a chance to build a better world.

Nevada explained the key benefits she’s observed in her switch to remote facilitation.

  • Sustainability: Remote workshops eliminate the need to travel, leading to reduced carbon emissions.
  • Community: We’re all in this together, and right now is the perfect time to connect with a community of facilitators and business leaders who are invested in improving the way we work. Do a quick search on LinkedIn or Twitter for #remotecollaboration or #remotefacilitation, and you’ll find no shortage of conversations.
  • New opportunities: For Nevada, the growing need for remote facilitators opens up the opportunity for her to do online training and coaching.
  • Better asynchronous collaboration: "I'll frequently give a group some work to do in Mural between sessions," said Nevada, "like plotting activities on a prioritization grid, which I would have waited for an in-person workshop to do previously."
  • Wider client base: Opportunities to work with national/global clients

2. Don’t just replicate in-person work; elevate it

At the start of the pandemic, it was most teams’ instincts to simply run in-person meetings via Zoom and call it a day. But the most innovative organizations took a different approach. Not only did they adapt the best parts of in-person collaboration for the digital world, they also took the opportunity to fix some of the challenges with in-person meetings.

For example, in-person design thinking workshops can be limiting due to the size of the room and the whiteboard. When you facilitate workshops online, you can have more stakeholders working together at one time. With MURAL, you also have unlimited space to sketch, write, add sticky notes, create diagrams — without the need to take turns crowding around a whiteboard.

3. Take advantage of free educational resources

Even the world’s greatest face-to-face facilitator will face a bit of learning curve when it comes to remote facilitation. With practice, though, it can quickly become second nature.

Nevada stressed the importance of self-education and offered up some suggestions for getting started. “Backstage Pass was pivotal for me. It helped me take the foundational stuff and put it into action,” she said.

Backstage Pass
is our free, weekly webinar series that gives attendees the chance to watch a real collaboration session happen live and even jump in to get hands-on experience with MURAL.

Nevada was a guest herself on a recent Backstage Pass session on visualizing high-performing teams. She joined us to demo how to integrate a hand-drawn template in MURAL and use it to have a dialogue about team performance. Check it out below to learn how she does it, and explore the mural we used in the session.

4. Use frameworks and templates

Staring at a blank canvas can be intimidating at first, but you don’t need to start from scratch. Use a prebuilt template to kick off your next meeting or workshop.

“Good facilitation is not about bells and whistles, but when people are experiencing serious Zoom fatigue, adding some visual fun can help,” Nevada said.

Take a look at this template she created for a session with 18 team members from three companies to help build empathy for one another's circumstances as they collaborate.

“The idea behind this template and activity is that we often assume we are all sharing the same experience, but often our worlds are actually very different,” she explained. “In this exercise, teams get to share what their ‘planet’ is like — what they're passionate about, what's challenging — and hear from others before they move into collective action planning.”

MURAL planning template

5. Try new things, and don’t be afraid to look silly

Don’t be afraid to try new things, make mistakes, and make it fun. It’s going to feel weird the first few times, and that’s okay. Do an icebreaker to kick off a team meeting, or liven up a mural by giving it a theme, like Nevada did in the example above.

To get everyone engaged during a longer meeting, Nevada uses an energizer to get them up and moving. Energizers are great for reloading energy, having fun, and getting people into their bodies. For example, Nevada will ask everyone to stand up and use their body language to express how they’re feeling that day.

You’ve got this

Facilitators are, by definition, driving change with the work they do every day. Now, in this ever-shifting business and social landscape, they have the opportunity to make a bigger impact than ever.

Facilitation is a skill that will change the world because it fosters creative co-creation, encouraging us all to look at the world from new perspectives and find novel solutions to tough problems. It allows us to envision — and ultimately, create — a better future for business, as well as personally, locally, even globally.

As you build new relationships, processes, and skills, remember that you’re not alone in doing it all for the first time. Nevada put it this way:

“For anyone else out there who has hustled to change, tried new things that were awkward, rethought their business, felt silly, learned, had their Wi-Fi crap out at inopportune moments, created beautifully from chaos, and otherwise made their way through, I celebrate your growth! Let’s keep learning and making work better.”

To prepare for your next remote meeting or workshop, download the Definitive Guide to Facilitating Remote Workshops.

If you’re a consultant who would like to use MURAL with your clients, apply for a free consultant workspace.

Shauna Ward

Shauna Ward is a content marketing manager at MURAL. As a former remote work skeptic, she enjoys creating resources that help distributed teams make collaboration fun, easy, and effective.