Disco Lights, Hybrid Facilitation & Early BA Engagement

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In college, I bought a set of disco lights.  They were fairly basic by today’s standards, essentially consisting of a box with four coloured bulbs that would respond to the beat, flashing in a fixed pattern.  However, they helped to create a real party atmosphere. There’s something about colourful flashing lights that just invites people to dance.  Throw in cheap beer and Britpop and you’ve got a classic 1990s house party.

Although I bought the lights to use at my own house parties, I found that owning them had an unexpected (but positive) side effect.  It meant that I got invited to more parties too.  We could perhaps question the motivation of those inviting me (did they really value my presence, or was it just that they wanted to borrow the disco lights?), but back in those days I didn’t really care: a party was a party, and once you were in the door you could meet people, dance and have fun.  And generally when people realised the lights were yours, you’d get invited to another party….

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I’d stumbled upon a really important lesson: Some things are seen as highly desirable, but expensive to obtain and are only used occasionally.  It makes no sense for everyone to invest in them, but those that do will be in constant demand from a string of different people.  In this example it was disco lights—at the time they seemed hugely expensive (I had to save up for them), were fairly scarce (there were only a few shops you could buy them from) and it just wouldn’t make sense for everyone to have their own set. 

Zooming out, we could say that this pattern holds true of many other things too, including skills and competencies.  Properly mastering a skill takes time, and nobody can be a master of everything. Skills that are essential or highly desirable can sometimes be a way of getting a ‘foot in the door’ with stakeholders that might not otherwise engage.  This becomes interesting for those of us that practice business analysis.  I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where stakeholders have involved us too late.  Perhaps having our own (metaphorical) ‘disco lights’ is the way to gain earlier engagement.  But what would those ‘disco lights’ be?

Sharpening Up Hybrid Facilitation

Facilitation is a core skill for business analysis.  It is hard to imagine how any BA could function without conducting different types of facilitation amongst a community of often conflicting stakeholders.  Facilitating in a virtual and hybrid environment is nothing new, I suspect many people reading this will have worked in dispersed teams for years, but the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 have changed the expectation of what ‘work’ will look like.

It seems likely that for many organisations, some form of hybrid working will become seen as more normal.  Some people might be in the office, some might work from home, and perhaps some in a co-working space.  People might convene in offices for major meetings, but work from home at other times.  This changes the expectation of what a ‘meeting’ or ‘workshop’ will look like. Will people travel to be collocated for a 2 hour meeting in future? If there is a viable alternative, this seems less likely.

With hybrid working comes hybrid facilitation.  As well as ‘fully virtual’ and ‘fully in-person’, This involves being prepared for other situations such as:

  • Hub and spoke: Some people are in a room, others are in their own individual location (e.g. 6 people are in an office meeting room, and 4 are connecting from home)
  • Petal: Everyone has travelled to their local office and booked a meeting room.  However, those meeting rooms need to be connected so collaboration can take place (e.g. there are 3 local offices, each with 3 or 4 people present)
  • Mixed:  There are multiple offices, each with one or more people in a meeting room. There are also some people connecting individually (e.g. there are 3 local offices, each with 3 or 4 people present.  There are also 3 people connecting individually from home)

Each of these models creates a different set of technical and facilitative challenges.  As a facilitator it’s important to have ‘presence’ and ‘gravitas’ and create the conditions where collaboration can happen.  It’s important to create an equality of experience so that people don’t feel left out.  Twenty years ago the reality of ‘dialling into a meeting’ often meant being an anonymous voice on a black ‘spider phone’ in the middle of the table who couldn’t see what was happening in the meeting.  That kind of inequality of experience just won’t cut it in 2021, so we need to think about what tools and techniques translate well into these environments.

Fundamentally, rather than ask “how can we translate a real-world meeting into a hybrid meeting” we need to ask “how can we use our skills, tools and techniques to design an awesome hybrid meeting”

There will be things we can do in a hybrid environment that were harder in a real-world environment.  Virtual whiteboards provide opportunities for synchronous collaboration that was more difficult in a physical environment (it’s easy to have 20 people on a virtual whiteboard… ever tried that with a physical one?!).  They can also provide real anonymity if that’s required, helping to alleviate the concern that the highest paid voice will lead the conversation.  Of course there are many considerations besides this, but I’m sure you get the gist.

Hybrid Facilitation Could Be Our “Disco Lights”

If we accept that hybrid meetings are likely to be a part of the next normal, then it stands to reason that those who can facilitate them really well will be in demand.  It takes time to learn the skills, to evaluate the tools and techniques, and to reach a level of competency where it seems flawless.  Many people will need to have basic skills in this area, but those that really hone them will be in the minority, initially at least.
Yet executives in organisations are going to need people who can do this. As BAs, it’s a skill we’ll need for our daily work, so it’s something that we’re likely developing anyway.  Why not offer it as a more general ‘service’ to stakeholders?  If executive stakeholders need a facilitator to help them prepare and run a strategic planning session, why not offer to help?  A common challenge for BAs is being engaged too late in change.  Could hybrid facilitation be part of the puzzle that gets our ‘foot in the door’ to earn the early engagement that we seek? Time will tell!


What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!

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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com

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