Can you shape a high performing team – online?

Dear friends,

Over the last decade at sum people we have facilitated 1000+ High Performance Team (HPT) workshops in 40+ countries on all continents (with the exception of Antarctica; even though Tasmania, Patagonia and South Africa got relatively close). During all these experiences we developed some core beliefs on critical success factors to shape high performing teams:

  • High performing teams need to address all three dimensions of the It-We-I framework
  • Off-site workshops allow to take distance from day to day operations
  • Inspiring nature venues support openness and connection
  • Varying formats with high level of interaction and small group work keep the energy level up and foster mutual understanding and trust
  • Early morning yoga or Tai Chi strengthen the We-experience and bring the body into the workshop
  • Walk&talk is an energizing after-lunch format that is very suitable for a visioning exercise
  • Dinner exercises in a mountain hut or private room allow for vulnerability, fun and connection within the group
  • Creating deep experiences leads to bonding and cohesion in a team.
These core beliefs have brought us to spectacular locations and have inspired numerous leadership teams on their journey towards high performance.

The COVID19 situation brought our intensive travel activity and workshop schedule to an abrupt stop. We were forced to challenge our approach and core beliefs around the need for physical workshops as the premier format for high performance team journeys.

Over the last weeks the sum partners developed a virtual HPT format that came alive during three half day virtual sessions that blew my mind. I wanted to share some of the experiences and lessons learned with you.
  • How can you manage the energy level during a virtual workshop?
    Not so dissimilar to a physical workshop you need to work with varying formats. You can start with a check in round (to offer a space for the I-dimension); note that during COVID19 a lot has been going on on people’s I- and We-dimension, and yet most of the video conferences focus on crisis management and It-topics.
    Make sure to use the break-out function of the videoconferencing platform for small group work. The sub groups can discuss how their teams are dealing with the crisis (on the We-dimension); you could brainstorm on radical ideas in the spirit of ‘never waste a crisis’ (on the It-dimension); or you could create a space on the I-dimension where people share high lights or low lights during the crisis.
    We would recommend that a virtual workshop sessions should not go beyond 4 hours, with 30’ break in the middle.

  • How can you assure interaction and depth?
    This was our biggest challenge; and yet similar to the physical workshop it is about creating intimacy.
1. Pulse check screenshot
  • The pulse check where everybody gets a specific question (typically along the It-We-I framework) can be replicated online. The technical coordinator puts people in pairs and they interview each other in brief sessions and then are moved on to another colleague. At the end they summarize their findings on a virtual flipchart (see more on this tool below). The feedback exercise in speed dating format works similarly; the technical coordinator puts us in pairs for five minutes, and switches to a new pair every five minutes. The questions are posted in the chat room: what are two things that really impressed me about you during the crisis? What would I like to see more of you going forward?
    Another way to go deeper is to invite people to share their emotional landscape during the crisis: how did they experience anxiety, themselves or around them? How did they experience anger, themselves and around them? What has helped them to gain serenity?
2. Embodiement
  • Is there a way to create body experiences online?
    One of the sum partners from New York is a coach in the performing art sphere working on presencing and body experience. He offered short physical or breathing exercises to provide a body experience balancing the long hours in front of a screen. It feels a bit strange at the start, in particular as you somehow feel observed through the camera, but people easily relaxed and enjoyed the body impulse. It can also be a great introduction into a creative brainstorming module.
3. Walk&Talk
  • Quite a breakthrough experience was the walk&talk exercise, a classic of our physical workshops. After a short lunch break people were asked to go for a walk, and have a facetime conversation with a colleague to a specific topic, e.g. the strategic priorities coming out of the crisis or bold ideas you want to bring up. After 15’ you can switch to another colleague. We got some fresh air, some movement and some inspiration from our colleagues.
4. Technical check-in
  • How can you make it personal?
    Like in any other physical workshop the space for the personal and vulnerable sharing needs to be prepared and kept safe. At our virtual session participants were asked to send to the technical coordinators a picture from their childhood and during an icebreaker exercise we had to guess the names.
    The feedback and walk&talk as mentioned above can get very personal. As well as the sharing of ‘my ideal company’ or the reasons why I am with this company. We clearly experienced that depth and ‘making it personal’ is less a question of virtual or physical, but of creating the space and offer relevant questions.
  • Is it possible to create ‘magic’ in a virtual workshop?
    ‘Magic’ happens when people connect with their deeper self and/or with others. When participants allow vulnerability, share some concerns or sorrow, humanity shines through the formal business surface. We were all surprised how many touching moments happened in the course of the workshop, even without the physical connection.
5. Journal
  • How do you capture the results?
    There a several apps and providers out there; we have worked with miro, which you can imagine as a gigantic virtual flip chart. All participants can co-create using sticky notes, symbols, or design their own slide. Others can build or comment on it. Different participants might use different colors. It takes a bit of practice but progress is fast and encouraging.
    • What type of technology platform do you need?
      There again, several apps and providers are out there, more are coming, and they are getting better and safer every day with new versions. From our perspective the most critical function – and unfortunately most underused in corporate settings – is the breakout function. 15 people sitting in a conference call, one leader rushing through the agenda of It-topics, the usual suspects repeating their typical comments while others keep quiet or do something else is a sad but rather concrete reality in today’s videoconferencing. The breakout sessions with guided questions and a technical coordinator managing the transition are ways to avoid the energy drain of the typical format.
    If you asked me ‘can you replicate the physical HPT experience in a virtual space’ I would still make the case that some deeper connections in particular in the early stage of a forming team are preferably created in a physical off-site workshop format. However, I have become a lot more enthusiastic and curious about the possibilities of using technology and co-creation platforms to support and speed up the HPT journey. It requires quite some preparation, e.g. for the specific tailored breakout questions, the energy management; and it requires the masterful management of the technical platforms, ideally done by a technical coordinator. Allow me to ask you some questions about your virtual experiences:
    • Are you addressing the We- and the I-dimensions in your videoconferences?
    • Do you do check-in rounds in your calls??
    • How actively are you using the breakout function in your videoconferences?
    • How personal do your sessions get?
    • Have you been surprised about personal connections during these calls?
    • Have you been courageous enough to introduce some body experience into a virtual session?
    • How happy are you with the virtual co-creation space that you are using?
    • Are you longing for a physical workshop?

    We wish you to stay healthy during these special times.
    We invite you to be bold and not to waste the crisis. Now is a good moment to push through some topics that only 6 months ago seemed impossible to implement or even propose.
    And we encourage you to experiment with the virtual formats and creating space for all three dimensions, the it, the We and the I.