Remote Ideation Workshop using G-Suite

We’re in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown, which for me and many other change professionals, means adapting a lot of our workshop techniques to make them work remotely. Here, I’m sharing a remote ideation (idea generating) workshop I facilitated in early April, with some some key takeaways for virtual workshops.

Challenges

I’ll be looking at three challenges I faced as a part of this workshop:

  • Less improvisation being possible,
  • Items that are hidden from you but are in your participant’s view,
  • Being unable to have separate chats with people in the group.

Challenge 1: Less Improvisation Possible

Virtual workshopping means you have less flexibility. There’s tech to consider and your participants’ technical/virtual skills. You can’t just grab post-its and put them on a wall in the way that seems best at the time (unless you’ve already set up a virtual wall with virtual post-its). This makes workshop planning more important. Run-throughs, testing tech and of ease of use are all things to consider. How can you lessen the brain burden of dealing with tech so that your participants can focus on the topic of the workshop?

Planning Tech

When working remotely, you and your participants are always going to be reliant on some virtual tools, so it’s worth thinking about which tech to use and then to set up as much as possible and test it ahead of the session. I chose the Google Form/Sheet combo as I have years of experience using it and I knew my participants did too, so I could focus on facilitation in my first fully remote session, rather than worry about how to use the tech.

I also only have one screen, which means when screensharing, I can’t do anything else on my laptop, such as look at notes. I ensured I had notes written down on a separate piece of paper which I could refer to at any time.

Two post-it notes with a sketch of a workshop plan.
I had the idea for this workshop, just as I was trying to get to sleep on a Friday night. In order to actually go to sleep, I had to get up and scribble these ideas on some post-it notes and stick them on the door to the office.

This post-it note is the plan in a nutshell. This is what it means in neat bullet points:

  • Warm-up: “Uses for a Brick” game (here’s a link with a few good warm-up ideas, including this one).
  • Gather data using Google Forms
  • Ask participants to pitch their ideas
  • Dot vote on ideas

Tech Used

Our company uses G-Suite, so from this collection of apps, I used:

  • Google Forms and Sheets
  • Google Meet

Rehearsal

I wrote up the plan a number of times on paper and played the workshop through in my head to make sure it all made sense. There were a few areas where I missed the rehearsal, such as timers on stop watches, and this was a bit of a fumble during the workshop, so it’s worth being very detailed with this.

Ease of Use

As well as picking tech which I knew all participants would be familiar with, I also sent around slides before the session as a rough guide for participants on what the session would involve, as well as explaining things like dot voting, in case they hadn’t come across it before. This had links in, so that when it came time for participants to navigate to these places, the links were available for them to click or for me to copy into the group chat.

Throughout the session I made sure that whenever we navigated somewhere new, everyone had made it there too, pausing for anyone who’s internet may have been a little slow.

Challenge 2: Hidden Items

You don’t know what’s in or not in your participants space. Whether they have tabs or IMs open. The key with this is setting out parameters and rules. Ensuring participants have pen and paper before the session, creating strict time boxes and limits are all ways of doing this without coming across as patronising. Making participants input as much as possible digitally is also helpful but can also inhibit creativity if they would prefer to draw and don’t have drawing tools available. This issue was most prevalent during the warm up.

Warm-Up: Uses for a Brick Game

In this game, participants have a longer-than-comfortable timebox to come up with uses for a brick. This sparks creativity and is normally great fun to do as a facilitator, because the really wacky ideas are always a giggle and get the team in a great mood for the rest of the session. Normally, we’d do this on post-its and put all the ideas on a wall, but as we were virtual, participants just wrote their ideas down on their notepads.

Why I Love the Uses for a Brick Game

  • Gets everyone engaged and into the workshop mindset
  • Sparks creativity
  • Normally great fun to facilitate and have a giggle.

How Hidden Items Became a Problem

This warm-up took ages – about 25 minutes overall. Normally, I’d ask participants to write their ideas on post-its which would be stuck on the wall, then as facilitator, I could run through them at any speed I liked. As they did these ones in the comfort of their home, I asked people to read their ideas out themselves. Each participant had a lot of ideas, so getting through them all took much longer than anticipated. This made it hard to ensure that everyone had time to speak and be treated fairly whilst trying to move the workshop on.

What I’d Do Differently

Either ask people to pick their top 3 ideas, or find a way to collate the ideas and group and present them quickly like you can with post-its. In this instance, it probably would have been better for them to say their top 3 ideas, as I collated a load of ideas later, which involved a lot of tech co-ordination and planning. By making this small change whilst limiting the amount of planning needed, we would have gotten through the warm-up quicker, in a simple and low-tech way, saving the co-ordination overhead for the main event.

Other Tips for the Uses of a Brick Game

This is one of my favourite workshop warm-ups. Whether you use it virtually or not, here’s some key takeaways:

  • Show participants a picture of a brick to help the visual thinkers of the group (see slides above). If the brick is interesting it will spark more ideas – I’ve spent a surprising amount of time on Google looking at pictures of different sorts of bricks! Engineering bricks have been best so far, but feel free to try other types.
  • Timebox how long people have to think of ideas. 5 minutes is normally a good amount of time as they will normally reach a point about halfway in where they’ve thought of all the normal ideas. Minutes four and five are then when the more wacky ideas begin to be thought of, and the more creative brain juices start to flow.

Challenge 3: Separate Chats During the Gathering Data Phase

A key component of many workshops is to gather as much data as possible, and then to converge these later on, either by grouping or ranking. You see this in Design Thinking, as well as the classic Agile Retrospective structure. Normally participants are asked to do this work either individually or in small groups so as to get lots of divergent ideas, as opposed to them working together to create one single, detailed idea.

In a real-life room, whilst people are generating ideas, you can walk over to one specific person and help them think of ideas, encourage them if they aren’t sure if their idea is valid or good enough or help them to refine what they already have to make it more succinct and easy to understand. With virtual meetings it’s like you’re all sitting very close with knees touching one another, unable to get up and separate from the group without coordination. In this setup, having a quiet chat with someone which isn’t broadcast to the entire group is a bit tricky. Here’s how I went about the Gathering Data phase and the options I could have explored for separate chats.

How I Designed the Gathering Data Phase

For gathering data, I made a simple Google Form with the How Might We question at the top. Participants inputted one idea at a time and email addresses were automatically collected – this would be important later. I timeboxed this section for 10 minutes which was plenty of time.

I also started this section with a few ideas of various quality to communicate that we were more interested in quantity over quality (one of these was “Let’s have a flashy light show, Parks and Rec style“).

The Options I Had for Separate Chats

In all honesty, I hadn’t considered the separate chats issue prior to the workshop, so I didn’t have anything prepared to tackle the issue. In hindsight, due to my workshop set up the only option I had would have been sending individuals an instant message in something that wasn’t the group chat. This approach is a bit of a faux pas however, as any good participant will be trying to keep their distractions to a minimum and not be looking at any new messages during the workshop.

Since this workshop, I’ve done a few other sessions where I’ve given everyone in the group their own document/slides to fill in, which I could access but other participants could not. Whilst it prompts many comments about being treated like 12-year-olds, as you and the participant are the only ones who can access their doc, you can monitor what they are writing and put comments if you see them getting stuck, which none of the other participants can see – hey presto, a separate chat!

The other alternative is to ask questions to the group at large such as “how’s everyone getting on?” This can be a bit vague and is unlikely to prompt introverts to open up with their problems in front of the whole group. If the group trusts each other, this would be fine.

Wins from the Rest of the Session

The final two sections of the workshop ran very well. These were:

  • Pitching – everyone explaining their ideas in 30 seconds. Google Forms worked very well for this as I could see who had suggested what.
  • Dot voting on the best ideas. Sheets was great for this as I could total and sort the votes really easily.

Pitching

Google Forms allows you to see responses in two ways – either in the edit form window or as a separate Google Sheet. I screenshared the Sheet. As I had collected email addresses in the Form, I could see who had inputted each idea. I told the participants they would have 30 seconds to pitch each idea and then went through the list in the order they appeared in the sheet. I also asked participants to skip their idea if it had already been said. This would make dot voting later easier.

I used a 30 second timer on my phone. This was not the easiest to use in a pinch and participants were unable to see a countdown timer, so I often had to interrupt them when they were only half expecting it. It might have been better with a visual timer, however it did afford me the flexibility so that if they only took 20 seconds we could move on rather than wait 10 seconds. If I wanted a floating timer for participants, I’d need to test that it worked whilst screensharing (often the lag makes timers a bit clunky, and it would have to appear in front of the sheet at all times). With this in mind, I think the timer on my phone was fine, but I could probably do with a little practice using it (see the rehearsal section).

Dot Voting

I had a slide prepared which explained dot voting, which I ran through:

I included a visual – this is how dot voting normally looks like in a workshop

I then shared the Sheet link with all the ideas in the video chat so that everyone could open it with edit access. I had prepared the Sheet ahead of the workshop so that each participant had their own column in which they could type the number of votes they wanted to cast next to their preferred ideas. Doing this on Sheets was really simple, easy and effective as I had set this up and tested it ahead of the workshop which meant that the new Form responses didn’t mess it up.

Whilst they were voting I made a new row to total votes so that people could see how far along they were. There was also a total column to sum which idea had the most votes.

At the end I sorted the ideas by total votes, went through the top four voted ideas and wrapped up by thanking them and explaining that we would prototype these in the future to see how they might work.

Final Points

In general, the workshop was a success and was a good first try at fully remote facilitation. A couple of final points:

  • That as a facilitator, whilst screensharing I couldn’t always see people’s contributions, which made it difficult to direct at times (Google Meet is particularly bad with this when it comes to screensharing as there isn’t a separate hovering camera view, like you get in Zoom and Skype. Instead you have to have Meet in a tab in your browser, so once you flick away, you effectively become a blind facilitator unless you have a separate screen you can keep this open in).
  • Being virtual makes it much more on you as facilitator – not being able to see each other’s body language and there being more risk of sound issues means that people who may normally try to help facilitate and communicate are less likely to as they can’t see what everyone is feeling at any given time. This could be a positive or a negative depending on the help being given!
  • As participants had been working remotely for a few weeks, they didn’t need much instructing on how to use the tech, however it’s always worth making sure participants have all the knowledge and resources they need before starting.
  • There’s a lot less clean-up at the end – no hurriedly taking post-its down from the meeting room walls whilst the next meeting is waiting to start!

Please let me know how you’re getting on with facilitating your own workshops – any ideas, tips or discussion points would be greatly appreciated in the comments below.

Cost-Benefit Analysis as a Way to Assist in Decision Making

Also featured on the OVO Tech Blog.

One of the key competences of business analysis is to be an adviser, and a key moment where this matters is when a decision needs to be made between multiple options.

Before we jump into one of the most useful and long-lived tools in the BA kit, it’s worth noting that before we get to this point we’ve hopefully had a chance to ideate with stakeholders and prototype different ideas to test their viability. To learn more about this, here’s a video on ideation and prototyping. Sometimes the time-frames restrict the suitability of this work however, and you’re left with some options, a tight deadline and a critical decision which needs making. In this situation, conducting a Cost-Benefit Analysis is a great way to help decision makers see which option is most likely to succeed.

What is a Cost-Benefit Analysis?

Put simply, with each available option you list all the costs, benefits and risks which may occur as a result of picking this option. I tend to put all options in slide deck. Here’s an example of a summary slide of a Cost-Benefit Analysis.

A grid with 4 options and a few benefits, costs and risks listed for each

Cost-Benefit Analyses can be very lengthy, and it’s often tricky to lay it out in such a way which is easily digestible and which makes it easy to compare between options. In my experience, slides has been the best solution. Here’s my reasoning:

  • You can have a summary page (as above) and then break this down in more detail by having one option per page in the rest of the slide deck. If you keep the format the same for each option, stakeholders can see at a glance that the list of costs or risks is much longer for one option than another. It’s also easier for them to print these (if required) and compare them side by side.
  • Flexibility – where multiple decisions need to be made or diagrams need to be shown, the slides format allows you to adapt your document to the needs of the decision maker.

How can I found out about costs, benefits and risks?

Ask lots of people of course! Doing lots of stakeholder analysis on who might be affected by the change is a key starting point, and then any time you speak to someone, ask them “who else should I speak to about this?”

Three Stakeholder
Hopefully you’ll keep your stakeholders smiling!

Stakeholders

As always in business analysis, a holistic approach should be taken – different stakeholders have different concerns, and it’s important to get these all documented and verified.

Key business areas may be:

  • Finance/Commercial/Sales
  • Legal/Regulations/Compliance
  • Brand/Marketing
  • Technology/Product/Data
  • HR/People/OD
  • Customer Services
  • Operations
  • Supplier Relationship Managers
  • Project Management
  • Anyone who has worked on something similar in the past

Where any estimates can be made, ask the subject matter experts (SMEs) to make the estimations. You may be a maths genius, but there are bound to be things you don’t know, for example hiring costs, average number of customers gained per year, seasonal peaks and troughs in revenue, etc. By asking the SMEs to calculate these for you, these estimates are bound to be more accurate.

Lastly remember to get your work reviewed regularly by people with lots of experience in your business so they can help spot any gaps.

Three Dollar Signs

How do I list the costs and benefits?

With costs and benefits, it’s important to bear in mind that some benefits are tangible (you can normally associate a monetary value to these) and intangible (difficult to measure). Normally stakeholders care more about the tangible benefits as these often directly relate to company goals like revenue and gross margin. Another way of looking at it is by this “hierarchy” as laid out by Ward, Daniel and Peppard. Their ordering goes:

  • Financial. The stuff you list first: money that can be made/saved by the option. E.g. 200 extra sales will mean added revenue of £200,000 per year.
  • Quantifiable. These are measurable costs/benefits for which we have an estimation. E.g. Adding a manual process will increase FTE (full-time employees needed per week) by 2.
  • Measurable. These are measurable costs/benefits for which we have no idea of the return. E.g. Advertising on buses may increase visitors to the website.
  • Observable. Subjective costs/benefits which are not measurable. Normally “increased/decreased reputation” goes in this category. These are often listed last as they are quite woolly and less likely to sway the decision.

While this is a standard hierarchy, it will always depend on the project and stakeholder as to what the more important costs and benefits are. If for instance, you are in a company which has a strong reputation, it may be more important to keep that reputation than to do something that is seen as unethical, even if it makes the company more money. The short term benefit of the increased revenue may be offset by long term scandals and loss of customer confidence and trust, so it’s important to make stakeholders aware of all these costs and benefits, even if one may be seem more important than another.

What’s the difference between a cost and a risk?

Put simply, a cost is something we know we will definitely have to pay in order to do the thing, whereas a risk is a cost which may happen, but is not a certainty. It’s sounds very simple, but it’s easy to accidentally put some risks in the costs list, where we assume they will definitely happen if we take a certain action. This is particularly the case when there are areas of the business that are very worried about that thing happening, for instance in legal, regulations and compliance. The risks these departments talk about are normally very important to consider, and there’s often evidence to suggest that the bad things will happen (e.g. fines issued by regulators to other companies), but it’s tricky to say for absolute certainty that they will happen.

Why is this important?

It depends on the company, the situation and the decision maker. Some businesses may have a high risk appetite; they have to make risky moves in order to stay competitive in aggressive markets. In this instance, the decision maker has the right to make a gamble, if they think the benefits are worth it. Other businesses like those in the public and 3rd sectors are very risk averse, but they still may have to make tricky decisions – think about patient waiting times, where a long wait may contribute to a patient dying. If the decision is on tech which is proven to be life-saving but may be time consuming, the decision maker needs to know if longer waiting times is a risk or a certainty in order to make the right decision.

A Shrugging Man
Stakeholder be all like “What should I do?”

The ‘Do Nothing’ Option

Doing nothing is always an option and should always be included in a Cost-Benefit Analysis. Normally the risks and costs incurred for doing nothing are pretty high, otherwise our decision maker would probably not be asking for help to decide how to change things. This said, sometimes ‘Do Nothing’ can be the most beneficial option, where a change doesn’t actually have to happen and may even be more effort than it’s worth. The Cost-Benefit Analysis will help to highlight that this is the case and may help to reassure stakeholders that the company is doing the right thing already.

Recommending an Option

Hopefully your stakeholder will have the time to look at all this wonderful, thorough analysis you’ve conducted, but sadly this may not be the case. Given that you have pulled the analysis together, you should be in a pretty good place to recommend something, and even if you aren’t sure, the recommendation can act as a starter for ten, which enables decision makers to decide if they agree.

Conclusion

Cost-Benefit Analysis is a great tool, which is useful for all kinds of decision making. From business work to personal admin, a Cost-Benefit Analysis can give you a great basis for a logical, well thought-through decision.

Using the tool? Let me know how you get on!

From The BA Story: “Be brave, keep putting yourself out there, learn from mistakes and keep the RAID log up to date!”

Link to original – Lee very kindly asked me for my BA story, and so we put this together in October 2019.

In this interview we speak to Eleanor Stowe, a Business Analyst from OVO Energy, who gives us the story of her operatic beginnings, a gradual move into Business Analysis and recent presentation at the Business Analysis Conference Europe.

A picture of me

Can you give a brief summary of your career path to date?

My first career was actually as an operatic soprano. I studied at the Royal Welsh Conservatoire of Music and Drama for my undergraduate degree in “Voice: Soprano”.

Towards the end of my degree I realised I didn’t want to go into the performing career so after I graduated, I tried a few different jobs including events management, teaching (singing) and sales, but none of these really fit me and my talents. I wanted something a bit more generalist as I had always been good at a large variety of interests, but I had never been able to be exceedingly good at just the one discipline, so in order to succeed, I argued, I needed to find something which drew on as many of my skills as possible.

In 2016 I started my first tech job working on websites, first as a front-end developer and then as a support analyst. I was beginning to find a career which enabled a lot of customer interaction but was balanced with problem-solving. I was studying UX Research in my spare time, and moved on to business analysis once I realised this was like UX research on steroids and I was hooked!

From that point onwards I worked hard to get a full-time BA role through online courses, the BCS certifications and small projects as the opportunities presented themselves. I had a bridging role in the NHS (Support and Business Analyst) which allowed me to understand and work on complex systems and then I moved to a Business Analyst role with OVO Energy in March 2018. In November 2018 I completed the BCS Diploma in Business Analysis.

In OVO, I’ve mostly been involved in regulatory change and improvements to our vulnerability processes. Energy is an incredibly interesting industry – everyone needs an energy supply, regardless of whether they can afford to pay for their energy so a lot of work goes into ensuring that those less fortunate are given ways to pay or grants, etc., and as much as possible is done to ensure they can keep the lights and heating on. This said, energy is also a highly competitive, risky business (the weather literally makes a huge difference to our profit and loss) so striking the balance between doing what is right for the customer and making profit can be very tricky, but also an extremely interesting environment for a BA.

Recently, I spoke for the first time at the 2019 BA Conference Europe. It was really good fun and I look forward to next year’s!

In your view what is the core role of a Business Analyst within an organisation?

I often feel like the mortar between the bricks. Each area of expertise or “piece of the puzzle” has great value in itself, but by joining these together we can make something bigger than the sum of the parts.

This applies to all levels of a project, whether that’s ensuring the right projects are initiated in the right way through understanding of all the affected parties, or ensuring that everyone is release ready.

What would you say is your proudest achievement so far?

Firstly, speaking at the 2019 BA Conference Europe was an amazing experience. I shared a part of my story of “life with anxiety”, as well as some tips and tricks for dealing with anxiety.

The response I got was more than I could have imagined – people who I have followed for years on Twitter when I was trying so hard to break into the career came to see it and shook my hand afterwards. People shared their stories and those of their loved ones with me. I really didn’t think it was such a big deal but it seems like so many of us have suffered with it at some point in our lives that it struck a big chord. It’s made me realise how powerful and important it is to share these stories and let others know that they are not alone in their suffering.

A picture of Eleanor speaking at the BA Conference Europe 2019

Otherwise, sitting here typing away, I’m looking back at those few years when I knew I wanted to be a BA and fought tooth and nail for it. I wasn’t given many opportunities and I was quite timid so it was a lot of studying in my free time and continually putting myself out there when I thought I didn’t stand a chance (and often didn’t).

Have there been any low points in your career and how did you deal with those?

Energy is a high-risk, fast moving industry. The stakes can be pretty high, time and resource can be a challenge and sometimes it can be difficult to deal with.

While OVO is great and does not have any kind of blame culture it is in these moments that it’s really easy to blame yourself for something you could have missed or mishandled.

The way I’ve dealt with these moments are:

  1. Always remember the prime directive of retrospectives and apply it to everyone, including yourself:

    “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”
    –Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review
  2. Often, the issues you experience are due to something you had no influence over, such as resource allocation, challenging time frames or just simple unknowns such as technical debt, etc.. No project is without risk and it’s not doing yourself any favours if you blame yourself for not being some kind of superwoman/man (see point 1).
  3. Be brave, keep putting yourself out there, learn from mistakes and keep the RAID log up to date!

What do you think are some of the particular challenges that a BA faces in today’s business world?

One of my challenges is trying not to take on too many roles in a project. The issue with having such a generalist role is that it normally means you are able to do some of the others roles in a project, particularly when you become an SME in the subject area.

Whilst having all these skills is great, it means you can sometimes end up spending vast quantities of time dissecting data or project managing, because it’s easier and quicker just to get the job done than to fight for resource.

This then sets a precedence for you to be doing work outside of your role which may set that expectation in future projects and ultimately leads you to being unsupported and losing out on the work you should actually be doing. Setting reasonable boundaries is tricky but absolutely necessary for yourself and the success of your projects.

Do you have any career aspirations for the future that you would like to share with us?

I achieved a lot in a really short space of time, and that wasn’t without it’s sacrifice. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone time and again to further my career, and although I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved, I think now is a great time to develop my strengths and lessen my weaknesses rather than to hit arbitrary goals.

Other than that I just want to keep learning! Whether that’s more about my current industry, a new way of working or a new workshop technique, there’s always more you can fill your brain with and it all counts towards making you a better BA.

What advice would you give to anyone who is early into their career as a Business Analyst or considering a move into the profession?

Learn as much as you can and keep putting yourself out there. Udemy do great courses, often heavily discounted and they’re mostly video based so you can watch them on the bus or train if you don’t have time in work. There’s loads of great blogs and books about self-development and careers so devour them.

What about your life outside of work, can you tell us a bit about that?

I still sing a little and I’ve started running a lot!

Picture of Eleanor running