How to organize a virtual team summit

After a 3 years long tradition of in-person team summits, to retrospect, brainstorm and plan the work of the team, while having fun together, we had to switch to an virtual team summit format. Here the key learnings worthwhile sharing.

One format doesn’t fit all

Core insight: the experience of a team, may not perfectly apply to another one.

Every team is different. In order to have a successful virtual team summit, it’s important to consider some team characteristics. Like number of people, familiarity of the team members, team culture, etc.

For example, if a team culture doesn’t support a collaborative environment and open discussions within team members, chances are very low a brainstorming activity can be successful. In person, even less online. The same goes for a team with several new members. The less people are familiar with each other, the less they’ll speak in team-wide discussion tables. In this case, smaller group discussions, 1:1, and a final moment of sharing, may work better.

As a reference, my summit targeted a team of 12 people, with a minority of new team members; mostly on the same time zone (within the +/- 2 hours range); already familiar with feedback oriented and collaborative activities (like retrospectives, brainstorming, etc.), but in an in-person setup only.

And this is the agenda we used:

  • Day 1, morning
    • 90 mins: icebreaker + welcome + activity 1
    • 30 mins: (social) break
    • 60 mins: activity 2
  • Day 2, morning
    • 90 mins: icebreaker + activity 3
    • 30 mins: (social) break
    • 60 mins: team fun activity

Why this format? Let’s explore the main reasons:

The importance of energy level

Core insight: several mornings are better than one of two full days.

It could be tempting to run an entire day of virtual team summit, or even more days. From my experience, it works well with in-person summits, but it’s not really the best for a virtual summit. When you work from home, life happens, and you need to leave space for it. Cook the meal, take care of family members, bring out pets, etc.

In addition, online collaboration drains more energy than in-person collaboration, so people need more time to recharge.

My suggestion is to spread the team virtual summit across different mornings, or to the closest possible scenario allowed by time zones. Morning is when, generally, the energy level is higher, and attendees can start the summit with a fresh mind, so more focused.

Alternatively, use the mornings for collaborative activities, and reserve the afternoons for reflective and individual activities. So people have more flexibility to arrange their time and work in the way they prefer.

Activity blocks duration

Core insights: start with a 90 mins block, then 30 mins break, and a final 60 mins block.

After observations, my favorite format is to have two main “working blocks”: 90 mins, followed by another 60 mins, with a break of 30 mins in between. 

It’s hard to remain plugged and productive for 90 mins, twice. Plus, a 3.5 hours (90+30+90) block is hard to accommodate in a “morning”, when the attendees cover slightly different time zones.

Blocks of 30 or 45 minutes are generally not optimal for virtual summits, for what was said previously (context switch, ease of getting lost, etc), unless there is a very specific and short activity to run.

Of course, the time slots allocation really depends on the kind of activities to run:

  • 90 mins seems OK for time boxing a brainstorming-like session: there is time to explain the challenge, diverge, discuss, converge. If the challenge is very complex, it’s possible to explain, diverge and discuss in the first 90 mins, take a breath and detach during the break, and then use the following 60 mins to converge and close the activity.
  • If there are lot of presentations, it’s better to have 25 mins slots (20 mins for the presenter, as per TED talks rule, 5/10 mins for Q&A) then 10 mins to break, where attendees have time to absorb what was said, before jumping to the next presentation. Avoid very long (+45 mins) presentations, or a 60/90 mins continuous alternation of different speakers: it’s the best way to kill audience attention, and attendees will quickly turn to do something else.
  • Hackathon-like activities would require the full morning / day slot, with teams auto-organizing their time.
  • A Design Sprint could even be run in a day, with Map, Sketch and Decide phases during the morning, and Prototype and Test phases for the afternoon, or in the following morning.

Social breaks

Core insights: 30 mins to detach completely, potentially alone.

Breaks should be 30 mins. It’s enough to move away from the personal working area, have a bio break, detach a little bit. And also prepare something to eat and/or drink, as we don’t have the luxury of catering service.

Create a different Meet/Zoom/Teams appointment, called “[Optional] Social break” for people that wanted to chat and gossip during the break. And make it very clear that it’s optional to attend, that setting separated chat groups is OK too, or even spending the whole time “away from the desk, and alone”. This is a 100% attendees truly reserved time: they should have freedom in choosing what to do with it.

Team Fun activity

Core insights: have fun, together. Contextualized to the attendees group.

Having a dedicated moment for fun is an important part of every summit. It bonds people together, allows for serendipity, helps to recharge batteries, etc. It’s even more necessary now, where we haven’t seen each other in person since a long time.

In addition to some short ice-breakers (5-10 mins max) at the beginning of the other slots, I dedicated an entire hour for a specific fun activity. At the end of the second morning, as a way to celebrate together the achievements of the summit, and to relax the pressure. There are millions of fun activities to run, and it’s important to select something appropriate for the audience.

In a just formed team, having the fun activity at the beginning of the summit could be a better choice. It could help to build the initial “social infrastructure” that will favor collaboration and interactions for the rest of the event. For a longer virtual team summit (3-4 mornings) it could be run in between of the days, to take a break.

Set summit goals in advance…

Core insight: well defined deliverables, in advance.

I’m a supporter of setting and communicating in advance what should be the desired outcome of a team summit. A tangible set of deliverables, everyone can measure the progress toward. Even more for a virtual team summit.

While in person it’s easier to be agile, and pivot and replan part of the activities in a short time, this is generally more difficult for virtual summits. In person, it’s possible to quickly identify where the team consensus is going, if some attendees got lost, the overall group emotional status, thanks to many non-verbal communication elements. Also “implicit peer pressure” exercises a strong influence (if I perceive that several attendees think this is an important topic to discuss, probably it should be important also for me). In a team virtual summit, because of the lack of many non verbal elements, the same is not always true.

Creating and sharing the agenda in advance, avoids this problem. Through iterations, 1:1s and feedback, it is generally possible to reach a wider team consensus about the goals to achieve, and how, before the summit.

A well known agenda also fosters engagement. It helps attendees to approach the different summit segments with the right expectation, a more appropriate mindset and, generally, come more prepared.

… and don’t overcommit

Core insight: less is more, because of focus and energy.

It’s easy to stuff a team summit with many desired goals, we all know. The real difficult, and valuable task, is to trim them down to very few deliverables, and run specific activities to reach them.

Context switch puts an important burden while working from home. At the end, we’re physically alone. So, it’s easier to lose track of where “the rest of the team is”. Or get distracted by “the rest of life” as soon as there is the feeling of not being able to keep up with the speed of the team.

In addition, for a moderator it’s really hard to check if attendees are “present and aware”, or if something else is competing for their attention. Again, a video/audio only interface cuts out a lot of non-verbal communication elements. 

Few deliverables help to keep the attendees focused, provide a sense of fulfillment once they’re reached, feeding engagement (we’re all happy to be an active part of something that works).

The right tool for the right session

Core insights: carefully match an activity format with the most appropriate tool to run it.

A Google Doc or a Google Sheet can be the jack-of-all-trades for plenty of collaborative activity formats. But they may not always be the best tools at your disposal. Maslow said: “[…] it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.UX matters, and I personally consider it valuable to spend (a reasonable amount of) time to find, or even create, the right tool for the right activity format. Attendees will benefit from this attention. The more they are, the bigger the benefits.

For example, here my screen setup while running a brainstorming activity:

My computer desktop while running a brainstorming activity during the virtual team summit

From left to right: the “virtual whiteboard where we collected our ideas” (a Google Drawing doc, resembling a whiteboard with sticky notes and voting dots); the Meet window, so I always remained in visual contact with the summit attendees; a countdown I used to time bound activities: the doc where the note taker took notes about the discussion. And yes, I really love my ultrawide monitor :)

Ask for feedback, and iterate

Core insights: we’re all learners, and we need quality feedback.

Surveying attendees about the “Overall summit satisfaction, on a scale from 1 to 5” is the bare minimum. Asking them why, what was the best part of the summit, the worst, and what they missed (a start/stop/keep doing/best approach), provides good insights. To really learn and improve, ask detailed feedback for each activity.

Include the feedback activity in the summit agenda. Reserve 5 mins, before closing the summit, for the survey. It will be an awkward moment of silence, but the completion rate will skyrocket (up to 90%, even more). Share the feedback with everyone. Attendees will appreciate the point of view from others, and they can always learn something. If it’s not possible, share the core insights obtained from the feedback. And use them to adjust the next virtual team summit activity. 

Best practices to manager remote-forced teams

The pandemic imposed to work from home on the majority of us, forcing entire teams to a remote-only setup. A new scenario new for many of us. During this talk, I shared my 8+ years of experience in working (and leading) a remove-first team, with focus on team culture, communication, new members onboarding, etc.

Slides

(ItalianCoders, April 23 2020)

How to Be an Effective Manager of a Community Builders Team

(This post was originally published on CMX Hub blog, I’m adding it to my blog to keep everything in order)

A lot of community builders are working as a one (wo)man band, doing everything on their own to support their beloved communities. Far less common is the situation where you have a team of community builders working together on the same community program. As a manager of a team like this, how does one build, sustain, and grow it?

Luckily, a lot of the existing culture surrounding team management can be applied with success. I like to think about Tuckman’s stages of group development as a good starting point. It describes the inevitable phases in order for a team to grow, face up to their challenges, find solutions, and deliver results. What are specific elements and suggestions to consider, within the frame of a community builder’s team?

Phase 1: Form

In this phase, a new team is created. Its members join for the first time, start to think about the common project, and the reasons to work together. They also begin to get to know each other, both professionally and personally. There are three essential key responsibilities for the team manager: establish the vision, hire team members, and connect them.

No one more than the team manager should know the reason for such team to exist, why the company needs the community. And this reason should drive the hiring process too: there are plenty of resources on how to hire good community managers and builders, but just the right skills are not enough. It’s important to identify someone who shares the same vision and is motivated by the same whys. Initially, that vision will be a strong first element of commonality among team members. Subsequently, it will help everyone to have a clear understanding of their part in the journey. Over the long period, this alignment will provide a major boost to members’ spirit, productivity, and happiness.

Once there is a common goal among team members, another manager’s core responsibilities during the Form phase is to shift the newly formed group mindset from “me” to “us,” increasing as much as possible the many:many relationships inside the team. Think, for example, about engaging members in some type of collaborative effort, so they can motivate one another and hold one another accountable. When the shift happens, the team unleashes its real potential, obtaining results that are more than the mere sum of people’s individual contributions.

Phase 2: Storm

Once team members start to collaborate with each other, sooner or later, the vast majority of teams will go through a phase of conflicts, where the focus is on the differences among members, more than on what unites them. On failures, more than on successes. On conflicts, more than on collaborations.

To successfully deal with this stage, the manager should address areas of uncertainty and foster collaborative discussions with positive outcomes among team members, to contrast that “conflict element.”

Among those areas, two of the most important are the definition of success and the community strategy. Connected with the aforementioned team vision, identifying what success for the community looks like, and the tangible returns the community should provide, helps the group to understand how the community can serve the company, and concentrates energy and resources in one common direction

Once the definition of success is known, the manager should ensure the team creates a proper strategy to pursue it. Tools like the community strategy canvas can help to lay down a clear path to follow while leaving space, at the same time, for diverse set of contributions, added values, and creativity every team member can bring into play. The canvas should be reviewed time to time by the team, to adapt to changing factors and to tackle new challenges in pursuing success.

Another common source of conflicts in a team of community builders, is when there are divergences on the appropriate behaviors community members should have. To avoid countless discussions, the manager can help the team to find and articulate a community tone. Once decided upon, these guidelines can both reduce conflicts inside the community and, for the ones that still happen, team members can find an easier way to solve them by following the tone.

Phase 3: Norm

This phase is where team members really cooperate together, all working toward the common goal, knowing and accepting each other. Despite lot of positive elements, a good manager knows the major risk of this phase lies in the inability of the team to challenge the status quo. The community is a living organism, always changing; a team that blindly sticks to outdated models to support itself could potentially represent a problem.

Investing in member training can prevent that. Participate in conferences on community management, organize recurring lectures or brown bag sessions about books or the latest articles on the matter, encourage folks to actively participate in a community of community builders, and much more. Whatever is useful to broaden views and expertise of the team and to bring fresh new ideas, you should be doing it.

Once these new ideas are found, it’s important to provide team members a protected space to test them. Especially for mature and big communities, the fear of a small spark, generated by an error of a community builder, becoming a wildfire damaging the community with a negative impact for the company, can prevent the team from introducing changes. So, the team manager should first set a culture where small and controlled failures are not only tolerated, but there is acknowledgement they are needed to improve, and then allocate resources to perform tests in a protected environment. For example running focus groups, or creating a special group of early adopters inside the community, etc.

Bringing an external point of view can also help: someone outside of the team could easily identify areas of improvements for the community, without being “emotionally connect and involved” with the rest of the team members, and the community itself. Once spotted, the manager should work to create a plan to solve these issues, and follow up on its execution.

Phase 4: Perform

In this phase, the team performs at its peak. Autonomously, well connected with company’s goals, and with very little guidance needed. Thanks to that, the manager can collect the most substantial fruits of their labor and has more time availability. How can one reuse both of them wisely?

For example, one way would be trying to grow visibility internally into the company and to obtain more resources, in the form of a budget increase, more team members, and so on. Even if reports that show connections between the community outcomes and the company needs have to be available since the first day of the community, in this phase there is more time to increase their accuracy, deepen the analysis, extend the long-term contribution measurement. All of this should be done with one main goal: show how indispensable the community is for the company. And the team manager has to be the spokesperson of this bond, more in this phase than ever, to guarantee a bright and long-term future for their team.

Alternatively, the manager can start looking for new company challenges to address, connected either with the community-related skills team members possess, or with new needs the community can solve for the company. Has the community, initially born to provide scalable support, proven to be a good source of ideas and product feedback? What about integrating it in the creation process for new products, or new versions of them? Has the community, born to mobilize a group of people toward a cause, proven to be a source of inspiring stories and loyal customers? What about morphing it in a place for brand ambassador? Creativity is the limit.

Just a final thought to recap: every team is like a small community, and it changes over time. While the main manager’s duty always remains to connect it with the rest of the company one side, and to serve it and allow team members to thrive on the other side, knowing the most typical phases of a team can allow the manager to be more prepared, and more effective, in fulfilling their duty.

(This post was originally published on CMX Hub blog, I’m adding it to my blog to keep everything in order)

Team management practical wisdom, Codemotion Rome

Being a team manager is a big responsibility, regardless of team size. What are the best practices to make the most out of this role? Where and how management and leadership converge? How to manage difficult moments and decisions? A brief history about what I have learned, errors included, with an eye to technical teams.

Slides

(Codemotion Rome, 22 March 2019)

Team management practical wisdom, Codemotion Milan

Being a team manager is a big responsibility, regardless of team size. What are the best practices to make the most out of this role? Where and how management and leadership converge? How to manage difficult moments and decisions? A brief history about what I have learned, errors included, with an eye to technical teams.

Slides

(Codemotion Milan, 29 November 2018)

Google Developers community management culture

Working with communities, at scale, means working with a decentralized team of people in different geographies, with a similar, but diverse, professional background and expertise level. One of the few working strategies to keep all of us aligned on main goals, while fostering local ideas and adaptive strategies to better fit the local ecosystem, is to define and maintain a common team culture. Recently I was asked to present what is the Google Developers community management culture and key insights in front of our team of community builders, people like me in charge of supporting tech communities all over the world that want to share knowledge on Google technologies during their activities. Here a list of my main takeaways.

Why we do what we do and what is our role?
Dev communities help to solve the growing complexity of the technological landscape, adding a very unique social flavor. So, as community builders, we accelerate learning, cultivate culture and collaborate with communities on a shared mission and goals. We help them to be more successful because, ultimately, this helps Google dev products to be more successful. And because we love communities.

Community leaders first
We should already be used to the “User first Google’s philosophy principle. In our case, it translates to “community leaders first“. They are our primary focus, and should be treated with respect. We have to build a two-way and mutually useful relationship. All the rest follows.

Embrace goal diversity and work on the sweet spots
We have to recognize, and acknowledge, community leaders are driven by their own goals and reasons, and our company goals cannot be pushed to them. Instead, to keep this relationship prolific and sustainable in the long period, we have to base it on collaboration and independence, searching for overlaps in goals and build on these sweet spots. And we should be the first ones doing that. Sooner or later, opportunities will come.

Be a transparent and servant community builder
Community leaders know very well we don’t do this for charity. Like any trust-based relationship, it’s important to be transparent with them and communicate openly. We’re here to serve them, and not the other way around, as communities can exist without Google support, but we cannot exist without communities.

Treat them equally, as the ecosystem is our highest value asset
Some communities are more mature than others, some are quicker to execute, some able to have a bigger impact. It doesn’t matter, because what we value the most is a healthy growth and development of a vibrant community ecosystem. So they all are our beloved community leaders and we need to support all of them in the mid-long term, regardless of how they could help to reach our goals in the short team.

First save their time, then ours
In case we need to make a choice between saving our or their time, pick theirs: we’re paid to do this job, they volunteer their time. First, we need provide a coherent system maintained by a culture to interact with us, avoiding community micromanagement: in the long period, it will save a lot of time on both sides. Then, we can always optimize something: write easy-to-read, timely and useful communications, avoid asking data useful only to us, etc. Finally, if they don’t know about our initiatives, or they missed something, we assume it’s our fault.

Be data driven and restless student
Getting meaningful data out of communities is hard, but it doesn’t matter. A better knowledge of the community ecosystem helps us to make more informed decisions. We can be brave community builders, trying new things to improve our culture of community management one step at time, relentlessly, for the good of our communities and for a better collaboration with them. Every time we collect a new learning, positive or negative, we should share with each other.

Have fun
This job keeps a consistent part of our life busy: make the best out of this time, having fun while cultivating our passions.

If you’re curious about my life in Google, there are other posts to read.