What We’ve Learned from 10 Years of Working Online

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As a global organization, “working online” is in Creating the Future’s DNA. Our board, community, and action teams meet online. All our education programs, including our immersion courses, happen online.

For 10 years now, online is our home.

We’ve therefore asked our faculty for their key learnings, as you move your own in-person meetings online. You won’t be surprised that those learnings are all rooted in questions!

Focus FIRST on Outcomes
In 2015, it became clear that our in-person immersion courses (five consecutive, in-person days) were no longer serving our needs. On the one hand, the content had outgrown people’s ability to absorb it in that compressed timeframe. Just as importantly, that setting limited the number of people who could learn these approaches to leading change.

As our faculty met to design the new online experience, Catalytic Thinking made clear that we were not simply porting our in-person immersion to an online class; we were creating a more effective experience, period.

Instead of asking, “What will it take to move this class online?” we asked, “What do we want this class to accomplish? What needs to be in place for students to accomplish that?”  From there, we could easily answer, “What can create that experience in an online setting?”

Now more people are taking our classes than ever was possible, and their experience has been more effective. Changing the questions, once again, changed everything.

Catalytic Thinking questions for creating outcomes:

  • What do we want this gathering to accomplish – for the participants, and for our mission?
  • What conditions will lead our participants to accomplish that? What do those participants need to know? What do they need to be assured of? What do they need to feel?
  • What actions can we take to create those conditions for our participants?

Focus on Relationships
Watch our online meetings and you’ll see people who like each other, trust each other, build upon  each other’s wisdom. It’s easy to forget that most of these people have never met in person, often residing thousands of miles apart.

While encouraging trust relationships is important overall, it is even more important when working online, where subtle cues and other elements are missing from the environment. It is therefore even more important to build relationship-building into your online meetings.

Watching Creating the Future’s meetings, you’ll see us checking in first as humans. We ask about what’s exciting in each other’s lives. We ask how folks are feeling. We ask for reflections when a discussion is over, providing time to think quietly, separately and together.

Importantly, we focus our “together” time on interacting and discussion, by providing important content beforehand – to read or watch a video.

As the saying goes, “Change happens at the speed of trust.” And your online meetings can absolutely  create that level of trust and relationship.

Catalytic Thinking questions you can ask at your meetings:

  • How are you feeling about life today? How are you doing?
  • What’s been exciting / meaningful in your life since we last were together? 
  • What is standing out to you in this conversation?

Focus on People vs. Tools
When it comes to people working online, questions quickly focus on tools. Should we use Hangouts or Zoom? Slack or email or Google docs?

The tenets of Catalytic Thinking remind us that whether things succeed or fail, it is always about the people, never about the stuff. The most important questions will therefore be about your needs as people, not about bandwidth and webcams.

When new people join our online work, Creating the Future team members reach out to those individuals with one goal: that they feel comfortable BOTH with the technology AND with the tech team. Why the tech team? Because people need to feel comfortable asking for help if they need it! During those initial conversations, folks are told repeatedly, “Our goal is that you feel comfortable with all this.” That is very different than, “Our goal is that you know what you’re doing.” Focusing on COMFORTABLE is about how each person feels as a PERSON.

You might provide a tip sheet. (See the great tip sheet devised by Creating the Future instructor Susan Detwiler.) If students will be meeting for several weeks or months, we mail them a physical kit, including koosh balls and other tactile toys to occupy their hands while their brains are working overtime in class. We ask how each person learns best – reading the content? Watching videos?

This all comes down to showing people, “We see you not just as a student or meeting participant, but as a person!”

It is also important to remember that sitting still in online meetings can lead to stiff necks and tired backs. As Creating the Future instructor Nancy Iannone puts is, “Be intentional about breaks. Encourage people to create conditions for their physical comfort, including food and drink.” The kinder we are to our bodies, the better our minds will work.

Catalytic Thinking questions to focus on people vs. tools:

  • What would our participants need to be assured of, to participate in comfort? What would they need to know?
  • What questions can we ask our participants ahead of time, to let them know we want them to be at their best as people?
  • And what will it take to create those conditions for them?

What You’ll Notice
As you focus on creating conditions for success for your participants, you may begin to see that conditions for success online are also conditions for success in face-to-face meetings. Trust, relationship, focusing on people as people, creating conditions for people to be at their best – all meetings could benefit from that focus.

As you put these into place, we hope you will share in the comments what you are learning – and the results you’re seeing, so that we can all continue to learn together.

Creating the Future owes deep gratitude to our faculty members, present and past, for the wisdom they have infused into our work. Ifeoma Aduba, Susan Detwiler, Hildy Gottlieb, Rebecca Hurd, Nancy Iannone, and Gayle Valeriote – your wisdom and insights continue to make our online interactions both fun and productive. Thank you all!

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