In January 2020, our organization (Paciolan) was starting to experience the thrill of conducting inceptions (i.e. product kickoffs) for every team. It was a great investment in helping our teams succeed. We valued in-person collaboration and were fortunate to have 85–90% of our teams be collocated to make this a reality. We also believed that the energy of inceptions was best felt in-person and could not imagine it otherwise.
If you have never attended an inception before, you’ve got to see the way our organization conducts it. We pride ourselves in building a platform for meaningful collaboration.
In March 2020, the whole world changed overnight with the pandemic. Our organization was just starting to build a culture of conducting inceptions for every initiative & setting our teams up for success. Alas we were in a pandemic — we could no longer bring teams into a physical room, fly in remote team members, use the walls to hold our giant post-its, brainstorm using physical sticky notes and whiteboards & get aligned.
How were we going to conduct inceptions remotely? How were we going to continue to set our teams up for success? We had no clue!
What happened next — is something I would have never imagined. I would like to share a reflection of how things played out over the last 2 years — our journey, experiences, learnings & where we are headed.
Why are Inceptions so critical?
Shared understanding & alignment are the objectives of collaborative work. While it is important for participants in any meeting or workshop to come out aligned, the stakes are higher at inceptions. When you are conducting an inception, the team is about to start a new initiative & this is your opportunity to set them up for success.
There is a lot of preparation that needs to happen before coming into an inception. In addition, the team needs to be mindful of conducting themselves well & communicating diligently to get aligned.
As a facilitator, the outcome I aim for in every inception is aligned autonomy. It’s this magical state when the participants walk away with a shared understanding of the topic, have the freedom to continue to explore & creatively problem solve to get to desired outcomes.
Facilitating aligned autonomy is — bringing teams together into a space, aligning them to their purpose, so they can generate great ideas & collaborate magically!!
Our Immediate Challenge — Remote Inceptions
So now that you know why it is important to conduct inceptions well & how it can help your teams, let’s rewind to March 2020.
I still remember how this felt; the fear and uncertainty that came over me on that fateful day in March. We had an inception scheduled in 2 days & our organization was asked to work remotely until further notice.
Not only was I new to the inceptions process, I had to now figure out how to facilitate this remotely along with my leader. A consultant who worked with us suggested we use Jamboards as a way to facilitate discussions online. Brilliant! It was free & easy to use so that was a bonus. But, we still had to figure out how to create an experience & mimic our in-person activities remotely.
The next few days of our first remote inception was challenging to say the least:
We were struggling as facilitators to hold space in a remote setting.
We felt that the participants were disoriented and did not know how to meaningfully contribute remotely. This was a new phenomenon for all of us.
The pandemic & the uncertainties surrounding it did not help.
Additionally the team was not as prepared for the inception so the discussions were taking longer on top of the logistical challenges.
It created an unpleasant experience for most & it was disheartening as a coach and facilitator. It was not all bad however — since the team did eventually get to desired outcomes & created space for all the conversations they needed even though it took longer than expected.
As a facilitator, I was apprehensive about the journey ahead.We had a few inceptions lined up back to back for several teams, so I had to figure out how to make the process better — quickly!
Did we have to mimic our in-person activities & flow ? Or did we have an opportunity to re-imagine what remote inceptions were going to look like?
Our Next Challenge — Hone Remote Facilitation
I had to get over the fear of facilitating inceptions remotely. I had worked with a lot of distributed teams in my journey, however conducting a multi-day workshop like an inception is not something I had experience with in a remote setting.
The next few months were about diving in, learning & adapting:
Focus on my intention: I started with setting my intention of getting better as a remote facilitator. This had to be my primary focus.
Learn & tune into available resources: I leaned on experienced remote/distributed coaches in the industry and started tuning into their insights. I took a remote facilitation course with Mark Kilby in a small cohort that gave me a good starting point.
Adapt: After all, distributed organizations had already figured this out. I needed to tune into this way of being & make it part of who I was.
Easier said than done! However as with anything, if you set your intention— action always follows. I had an aha …
Using different tools is one thing, but you also have to pay attention differently when facilitating remotely. For example — There is an element of exhaustion you have to keep in mind for participants in remote meetings. This means you have to take more frequent breaks to keep an engaging environment.
The way you facilitate changes if you’re in person or remote.
The Need for Better Tools — MIRO to the Rescue
Now that I was paying attention to remote facilitation, I was in search of a better tool than Jamboards to make our inceptions better.
I attended a conference in June 2020 & experienced the flexibility of an online collaboration tool — MIRO. Some members from a community of practice (COP) that I was part of, also raved about this tool.
Now I had to put it to the test right away.
A weekend of frustrated moments, creative fun & plenty of learning resulted in the following:
Built a new shell: I used a free MIRO account & created a new inception layout design. This was exciting & I could put my creative skills to good use.
Iteratively improved the shell: I collaborated with my COP members & we improved the shell incrementally with facilitation tips & activities. This became a focus for our COP for months, since we were all figuring out how to do this better in a remote setting.
Tested the tool with the next inception: Within 2 weeks I got to test out the new layout with MIRO in a live inception. It was hands down a better experience than Jamboard. There was lots of scope for improvement, but it was a good start & we were off to the races!
After using it for a few inceptions in July 2020, our organization invested in MIRO & we now use it actively across the product engineering organization.
Using MIRO has been a game changer & helped us meaningfully collaborate — synchronously or asynchronously.
Our Fruitful Journey — Last 2 Years
Today is almost 2 years on our journey of facilitating remote inceptions. We are proud of the experience we have crafted since it helps our teams achieve aligned autonomy.
I would’ve never imagined our journey being as rewarding as it has been. Everyone has stepped up to the game to help our teams succeed — our product team, engineering team, business team, leadership & facilitators/coaches.
The experience of a remote inception is so enriching that we have collectively decided to keep it remote, even as we transition back into the office. We don’t think we will ever get back to in-person inceptions. And yet, before March 2020 we could not imagine it otherwise.
Our teams appreciate our remote inception experience for the following reasons:
We are building an equitable platform: In a remote inception, everyone starts & ends together. The process is transparent & everyone is part of it. This creates team safety & enables contribution.
We are being inclusive: We take great care to invite diverse perspectives and create an environment where everyone feels comfortable to share — irrespective of style & mode of communication. This inclusivity makes collaboration fun.
We are designing thoughtful activities: Using MIRO & our pre-built toolkit we can navigate from activity to activity without too much overhead. We are also able to adjust the types of activities quickly based on the maturity of the team. This “fit for purpose” type approach enables better flow in an inception.
Where we are Headed
We are currently conducting a meta reflection event for inceptions with our organization. The outcome is to appreciate how far we have come, look at habits we have built along the way, set our intentions for the journey ahead and continue to invest in elevating our inceptions.
We have collectively succeeded in creating an experience where our teams can come together & align on outcomes in a meaningful way. We learn from every inception & adjust our mindset, toolkit and approach. Today ideas on how to improve inceptions come from everyone — product, engineering, business & facilitators.
Most of all it’s a journey not a destination; and we are all in it together & that is what it makes joyful!
Sometimes I sit down & wonder if we could have imagined a remote inception experience without the limits the pandemic set for us. Is it the limits that helped us become limitless?