Running a virtual kick-off workshop

In my career as a delivery manager I’ve run countless workshops – retrospectives, process, training, culture, you name it. Being in a room with the participants, a slide deck, a stack of Post-Its and a handful of Sharpies brings me energy and excitement. I mean, I’m fairly tired at the end of it sometimes, but I love the warm’n’fuzzy feels of a good workshop that people enjoyed. 

Last week I needed to run a kick-off workshop for the Platform API project. This would be the first time that the project team from Hackney would come together with the team from Made Tech. But right now we’re not in a normal situation. As many people as possible at Hackney Council are working from home – indeed, we’ve gone to great effort to ensure our colleagues don’t have to come into the office unless they absolutely need to.

So it’s not possible to run an in-person workshop. How best to run this entirely online?

Fortunately we have a lot of tools at our disposal. At Hackney we use G Suite, which includes Meet videoconferencing, and the Hack-IT delivery team has a few extra tools like Ideaflip and Trello. In the end, I decided to keep it simple and designed a shared slide deck in G Suite that people could fill in as we went along, like an exercise book, with everyone attending by video. 

I broke the workshop into three one-hour sessions. I’ve noticed over the last few weeks that spending lots of time on video conferences is really tiring for some reason, and so I didn’t want people to feel mentally worn out. Planning breaks is just good practice anyway, but this gave people plenty of time to stretch legs, get lunch, etc. 

We started with a Futurespective. This is like a reverse retro, an opportunity for the team to define what good looks like, and to discuss hopes and fears. For “Defining Nirvana”, we broke into pairs and used a chat app to work on a sentence that defined what good would look like, then after a short period of time we all came back to the conference to share thoughts. I then noted commonalities to devise a shared sentence later.

Hopes and Fears was a little easier. I set up a series of blank slides for the team to type directly into, with “+1” put next to things you agreed with. This actually worked really well, it really was like using Post-Its and dot voting. We could have used Ideaflip for this and achieved a similar result, but using another tool introduces complexity – something I wanted to avoid in a virtual workshop. We talked through the Hopes and Fears like you would in a normal retrospective. 

In the second session we focused on our stakeholders and our principles. Now I hate stakeholder mapping; I find it a bit artificial and it’s easy to forget which quadrant you put someone into, especially when they act like they’re in a different quadrant and how dare they, they’re Keep Informed! 

However I love using Emily Webber’s Team Onion concept as it’s much easier to understand. In short, you define your stakeholders as Collaborators or Supporters, much in the same way as you might think of your family and friends – people that you’re closer to, or the extent to which people are involved in your life. It was noticeable how quickly we were able to list our stakeholders when we thought of them in this new way – and considered groups we might have forgotten about otherwise. 

The Principles section was aimed at getting a Team Charter of sorts. Like for Hopes and Fears, the team had a series of blank slides to type into with liberal use of +1.  Unlike the Hopes and Fears section, I highlighted five or six similar clusters for us to discuss – why was this important to us? What did it mean in practice? We also got some good process stuff out of this, things that reflect how we should work together rather than the culture of the team. 

We broke for a few hours at this point, to give people time for lunch and other work, before reconvening to plan our first sprint. This was pretty much the same as any other sprint planning I’ve been in, where the team discusses the goal and breaks that down while one person (me, in this case) writes it all up in Jira. 

You can read the output of the first two sessions in this consolidated deck. This is not significantly different to what I might expect from a session where we were all in the same room. 

What have I learned? Well it’s perfectly possible to run a kick-off session using online tools, and in fact we might have been a little quicker. With everyone being remote, it’s more difficult to go off-piste, or have side conversations, little anecdotes or general fun. At the same time, this is what can make a workshop fun and interesting, so it’s a hard balance. 

What might I do differently? Possibly change up the activities; definitely make more use of the highlighter tool in Google Slides! One mistake – if that’s the right word – was that I was working on a single-screen set-up. Because I needed to have the presentation open at all times, I couldn’t look at the video conference to gauge engagement. I was also conscious that I was talking a lot, and some of the team perhaps weren’t heard as much as they should have been. It’s a good learning point. 

That said, after the workshop I got some really good feedback on the session – so it is possible to get the same warm’n’fuzzy feeling even when it’s a virtual conference!

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