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March 1, 2022

How to Run a Radically Collaborative Meeting in 3 Easy Steps

By Matt K. Parker

Radically collaborative companies have recently doubled in number and now comprise 8% of corporations around the world, according to the HOW Report. They achieve superior results in their marketplaces, out-competing their hierarchical competitors on practically every financial dimension. They run the gamut from massive appliance manufacturer (Haier) to the fast-growing prosperity-for-all cryptocurrency startup (cLabs). They are built on paradigms of partnership and equality, and they are filled with passionate and engaged colleagues.

You might think, “That’s all well and good for those lucky enough to work within a radically collaborative company—but what about the rest of us?”

You don’t have to work within a radically collaborative company to experience radical collaboration. Every time your team meets, you have an opportunity to work together on a basis of partnership and equality. You don’t need anyone else’s permission to collaborate with trust and respect. You can think together candidly and vulnerably, in a way that leads to collective inspiration and innovation.

In this post, I’ll show you how to run a radically collaborative meeting in three easy steps: 

  1. Generation
  2. Dimensionality
  3. Prioritization

Here’s what you’ll need if you are meeting together in person: 

  • A whiteboard and multi-colored whiteboard markers 
  • Sticky notes (one pad per person, all the same color)
  • Sharpies (one per person, all the same color)
  • Blue painters tape

If you’re meeting virtually, then you can use virtual whiteboarding tools like Miro or Mural, which provide digital equivalents of all of these materials. 

Two Roles of Radically Collaborative Meetings

A radically collaborative meeting has two roles: facilitator and participant.

The facilitator‘s goal is to help the group achieve an outcome. Whether the outcome is to prioritize a backlog, root-cause a problem, or map a value stream, the facilitator is there to choose and then facilitate a series of activities to help the group get there. The activities are the facilitator’s domain of authority. Although participants can suggest activities, the decision-making power over what to do and when to do it (and when to stop doing it) lies solely with the facilitator. 

The participant‘s job is to offer their ideas, insights, and sentiments to the rest of the group, openly and candidly, while still conforming to the rules of whatever activity is being facilitated. 

Although the format of the activity is determined by the facilitator, the content is determined by the participant. The content is the participant’s domain of authority. The format, for example, might require participants to write down their ideas on sticky notes (instead of speaking them out loud). However, what a participant writes is entirely up to that participant. No one else can tell that participant which ideas or insights (i.e., what content) to write. 

These two roles, facilitator and participant, are mutually exclusive. Facilitators refrain from participation, and participators refrain from facilitation. Although they each have their separate domains of authority, they are roles of partnership and equality, not hierarchy.

Step 0: The Setup

Imagine your team has just achieved a significant milestone and would like to look back on the work in order to identify areas for improvement. This is a perfect opportunity for radical collaboration.

Before you meet, identify someone to play the role of facilitator. If someone on the team has had prior experience with radically collaborative (RC) facilitation techniques, then they might be an obvious choice, particularly if this is the first time your team is experimenting with radical collaboration. If not, don’t worry—you just need someone willing to try their hat at RC facilitation, and reading these blog posts will be just enough to get them started. 

Once chosen, the facilitator should carve out a decent chunk of time to get everyone involved together. In this imagined scenario, I’d block out two to three hours. 

Step 1: Generation

Once everyone is assembled, physically or virtually, the facilitator should begin with an activity called silent generation

They’ll begin by asking, “When you look back on our work in achieving this milestone, what stands out to you as significant pain points? What could have gone better?”

Then they’ll put ten to fifteen minutes on the clock and ask everyone to silently write down pain points on their sticky notes or online tool—one pain point per sticky. They’ll also give everyone a sticky minimum. For example, they’ll say, “Everyone must write down at least ten pain points. That’s ten sticky notes.”

This process of silent generation immediately eliminates the tendency for hierarchical power structures to emerge within the ideation process. Every participant in the room, whether they’re a CEO or an intern, has equal authority to contribute. They all have a sharpy and pad of sticky notes. And they can all write whatever they want. 

Giving everyone a sticky minimum helps everyone contribute—even if they’re shy or nervous. 

And lastly, by making this process silent, we avoid the scenario in which loud or opinionated people drown out everyone else, or worse, lead everyone into groupthink.

This process can generate an impressive amount of ideas and insights. In fact, if there are more than five or six people in the meeting, you can generate more stickies than the group can reasonably accommodate in the remaining amount of time. In this situation, the facilitator can choose another helpful activity: self edit

The facilitator will say, “Time’s up. OK, everyone, I want you to imagine that you could only show five of your sticky notes to the group. Pick your top five and put them in one pile. Then take all of your other sticky notes and hold them up in your left hand.” 

Once everyone has picked their top five stickies and are holding up their rejects in their left hand, the facilitator will say, “Pass your reject stickies to the person on your left. Now, rip up whatever was just passed to you.” 

If this is the first time people in the room have experienced a self edit, you’ll discover a mix of reactions. Many will giggle and laugh. Some will feel upset. It’s important to explain to everyone why a self edit was necessary: “You all did a great job generating ideas. However, it’s not really possible for us to collectively work with every single sticky. There’s just too many ideas. So we had to force everyone to really think about what’s most important to them. And for those of you worried that something important may have just been ripped up: don’t worry. If it’s really important, it will come back to us.”

This completes the initial generation phase of your radically collaborative meeting. Now that we have a subset of stickies to move forward with, we can cultivate dimensionality, the next step in a radically collaborative meeting.

Step 2: Dimensionality

The next activities are designed to add depth and dimension to our understanding of the ideas generated in Step 1. Dimensionality is a necessary precursor to prioritization. The generation step gave us the necessary space to think alone. But dimensionality makes it possible for us to think together. 

Silent Read

The first step in dimensionality is an activity called a silent read. Everyone begins by taking their stickies up to the whiteboard and spacing them out randomly. When everyone is done, it shouldn’t be obvious which sticky belongs to who. We’re interested in the ideas themselves—not in the roles or titles behind the ideas.  

Next, the facilitator gives everyone five to ten minutes to do a silent read—in which people stand at the whiteboard and read the stickies silently. They’ll begin to encounter each other’s ideas, but in a way that feels safe and secure and that separates the idea present on the sticky from the person behind the idea. 

Sometimes a sticky won’t make sense to someone; if so, they can write down their question on a new sticky note and attach it to the sticky in question. After the silent read is over, the facilitator can go through any stickies flagged with questions, read out the sticky followed by the question, and ask the creator of the sticky to clarify. 

Affinity Grouping

Now that everyone has a basic picture of the ideas in the room, the facilitator should lead the group through a collective activity called affinity grouping. The stickies on the board will likely fall into a handful of categories. Some of the stickies will represent the exact same pain point, like “Flaky tests.” Others may represent a related pain point, like “Incomplete test coverage.” All of these stickies could be grouped under a heading like “Test Suite Confidence.” 

The important point about this grouping activity is that it is collective. Everyone stands at the whiteboard and everyone starts grouping the stickies together. The facilitator simply encourages participants to speak out whenever they create a new affinity group or need help figuring out what category a sticky should land in. 

Affinity groups are the next dimension of understanding for the group. It adds the depth of connection between ideas. It also gives the people in the room the opportunity to discuss, in small groups, a particular grouping. For example, the facilitator can designate areas of the room that people can go to discuss the issues raised in a particular affinity group. (If the meeting is virtual, they can use “breakout group” functionality in popular video conferencing tools like Zoom and Google Meets).

The affinity group has no specific goal, other than to talk with others who are also interested in the grouping and hear different perspectives on the issues represented by their affinity group. It’s best to keep the breakout groups small—ideally three people per affinity group. In most groups of three, everyone will feel like they have enough space and time to talk, and the conversation itself can be casual. 

Step 3: Prioritization

The third step of a radically collaborative meeting is prioritization. Our aim here is whole group prioritization while avoiding the gridlock of consensus.

We can begin by plotting the affinity groups on a 2×2 grid. If you’re working at a physical whiteboard, take some blue painters tape and make a large cross on the board, representing a Cartesian coordinate plane, with an X and Y axis. Label the left end of the X axis “more effort to improve” and the right end “less effort to improve.” Label the top of the Y axis “more painful” and the bottom of it “less painful.”  

Now, write down the names of the affinity groups on stickies (one per sticky), and have the group place them within the 2×2 grid by verbally guiding your hand, starting with the Y axis placement. 

For example, if you’re placing the “Test Suite Confidence” sticky, you would ask the group, “How much pain does our flaky, incomplete test suite cause us? Is this creating a lot of pain and heartache for us? Or just a little? Somewhere in between?” People will offer their opinions, like “very painful!” or “ah, it’s not so bad,” and eventually the facilitator will find the right location for it along the Y axis.

As more and more stickies are added to the board and plotted along the Y-axis, the facilitator will likely need to adjust the placement of some of the stickies. In the end, the stickies are being plotted relative to each other, and as people begin to see all of the stickies place onto the board, they may begin to change their mind about their relative placement.

After all of the sticky notes are placed on the Y-axis (the pain access), the facilitator then walks through the team placing it along the X-axis, using the same approach. “How much effort will it take to improve confidence in our test suite? Tons of effort? A little effort? Somewhere in between?”

After all of the stickies are stretched out along the X-axis (the effort axis), the team can step back and ask themselves what the placement means. The top right quadrant is the “no-brainer” quadrant. These stickies represent the most painful problems facing the team that are the easiest to solve (relatively speaking). The top left quadrant is trickier. Stickies that fall into this quadrant represent very painful challenges that will require a great deal of effort to improve. The bottom left quadrant is the “ignore” quadrant. These are not very painful, yet hard to improve. And the bottom right quadrant is the “Trap” quadrant. These are easy to improve, but not actually very painful (and thus not very important) to solve relative to the other stickies.

A team can’t solve all of the problems at once. They need to choose a single problem to start with, iterate on, and learn from. But how? The facilitator has a couple of options to start with:

  1. Choose the problem farthest to the top-right. This problem is the most painful problem, and also the easiest to solve.
  2. If no obvious candidate stands out, ask participants to dot-vote the top-right quadrant (or even the top right and left quadrants). Tell everyone they have three votes (three dots they can draw with a whiteboard marker), and that they can use all of their votes on a single sticky or spread them out as they see fit. Top dot-voted sticky wins.

Conclusion

Through these three steps—Generation, Dimensionality, and Prioritization—the team was able to collaborate together on a basis of partnership and equality, and collectively hone in on the most important problem to solve. They didn’t have to wait for a command from on-high to wait to take action—they’re taking responsibility for their own continuous improvement themselves. 

Keep in mind that not everyone may have fully agreed with the problem that was prioritized in the end. That’s okay. This isn’t about consensus. It’s about working together with the spirit of learning and experimentation. After solving this problem, they can come back together, talk about what they learned, and run this whole activity again. 


Matt K. Parker is the author of A Radical Collaboration: Pioneering the Future of High-Performing Organizations. Learn more about him and his book here.

- About The Authors
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Matt K. Parker

Matt K. Parker is a writer, speaker, researcher, and third-generation programmer. Over the last two decades, he's played a variety of roles in the software industry, including developer, manager, director, and global head of engineering. He has specialized in hyper-iterative software practices for the last decade, and is currently researching the experience of radically collaborative software makers. He lives in a small village in Connecticut with his wife and three children. You can contact him by visiting mattkparker.com.

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6 Comments

  • Steve Pereira May 12, 2022 2:37 pm

    I run a lot of these workshops in Mural, which allows for anonymous participants, but it's not foolproof! You have to be a bit careful to ensure people don't give themselves away or end up revealed by deduction.

  • Brent Fisher Mar 8, 2022 4:46 pm

    I'm beginning the organization of a community of practice here, and I'm really nervous. I'm starting small and plan to try this with the 8 or so folks who volunteered to participate. I agree that many of these concepts seem like a repeat of what many folks familiar with agile practices do. I'm surprised though by how much I was trying to prescribe or come up with myself around how we'd build and operate the community of practice. I feel a little less stressed out thinking about the participants coming in expected to engage in building their own community to serve them! Thanks for your article!

  • Melissa Gordon Mar 7, 2022 9:02 pm

    I run retrospectives all of the time, but I still appreciate the nuanced breakdown of how to remove the authority aspect and increase participation. It would be helpful, given the *dramatic* increase in remote work to provide examples that transcend the in-person work environment. Everyone loves to talk about sticky notes, but they are surprisingly difficult to duplicate anonymously in the virtual environment.

    • Steve Pereira May 12, 2022 2:37 pm

      I run a lot of these workshops in Mural, which allows for anonymous participants, but it's not foolproof! You have to be a bit careful to ensure people don't give themselves away or end up revealed by deduction.

  • Nilesh Thali Mar 5, 2022 3:55 pm

    I can’t imagine anyone with the slightest experience of working in agility not facilitating meetings like this, save the superficial embellishments of having people giggle about tearing up rejected ideas. Also This is collaboration 101. if we think that one prescriptive way of facilitating meetings is radical collaboration, we have an issue.

    • Simon Mar 7, 2022 11:07 am

      So true @Nilesh. It sounds like a slightly modified retrospective. Seems like that format is not yet well known enough. Reason enough to write a book about it. And let's not forget: it's not the idea but how it is presented that makes the change. No selling, no impact.

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