Since 1993, we at CBI have engaged with tens of thousands of stakeholders, helping them address complex challenges together through collaboration. When we started our work in the 1990s, the majority of engagements took place in person. In past years, we shifted to a blend of in-person and online interactions. Now, thanks to COVID-19, all of our work is moving to online platforms and tools. Our colleague David Plumb has just written a blog post Public Participation in the Throes of Coronavirus reflecting on some of the most important qualities of interaction that we are trying to translate into our virtual interactions. 10 Tips for Improving Our Online Meetings from our colleague Gina Bartlett gives great guidance on online meeting facilitation.

In this post, we offer more specific tips about the kinds of online tools you can use to generate participant input, both when participants are online together, and over time. First, we present general principles.

Select tools that support your meeting design

Think through what you want to accomplish in meetings, what forms of engagement you need (large group discussions, breakout conversations, polling, chats, etc.), and what technology provides you with functionality that supports your meeting design. When evaluating tools, consider the number of people you need to engage (some tools are better suited to small/large groups) and wireless Internet connectivity requirements (bandwidth in some areas and countries is poor, for instance).

Create an interactive environment

Choose a platform that allows for multi-directional interaction, not just a webinar format where participants are muted and the facilitator runs through a slide deck. An effective platform allows you to see, hear, and engage with participants, just like you would face-to-face. CBI’s platform of choice is Zoom, but there are many other great options out there to explore. 

Taking these principles as a starting point, we offer examples of how to use virtual collaboration tools and platforms to help with three common kinds of group work:

  • generating and organizing ideas,
  • getting feedback, and
  • using breakout groups. 

Generating and organizing ideas

There are many free or low-cost options for collaborative brainstorming and ideation that you can employ – Mind Meister, Web Whiteboard, or IdeaFlip, to name a few. Key considerations when choosing a platform include how many people need to participate in the activity and how you would like to export the results of your session (e.g., as an image, PDF, or Excel file). CBI uses a variety of brainstorming tools to provide a visually engaging way to share ideas and co-create in real-time.  

CBI recently used IdeaFlip to facilitate a brainstorming activity with 40 participants attempting to strategize engagement with national policy influencers and decision-makers. This tool allowed participants to identify important stakeholders and their relationships visually, and to prioritize stakeholders for possible future engagement. We also employ Web Whiteboard frequently for quick brainstorming exercises, supporting both in-person and remote participants in actively contributing ideas for further discussion. Another tool we’ve utilized is Stormz, a virtual facilitation software with structured workshop templates for collaborative exercises, like brainstorming and problem solving, that can be used during online and in-person meetings. CBI used Stormz recently to help a group successfully generate, refine, and rank a host of choices for how key actors across the U.S. can help sequester carbon. 

Getting feedback: In the virtual room and offline

Polling is an effective way to solicit feedback from participants once issues and options are clear. Applications like Poll Everywhere and Slido provide instantaneous polling results. Survey Monkey provides a helpful and more sophisticated survey tool to gather detailed feedback on preferences in between meetings. Key considerations for all of these tools include what kinds of questions you want to ask (e.g., ranking, multiple choice, open-ended), how you want people to access the platform, and how you want to present and export results. 

CBI often uses SurveyMonkey as part of a stakeholder assessment process at the beginning of a collaboration effort. Stakeholders are asked a series of questions about substantive issues and the process; their answers help inform the collaboration design. We also use SurveyMonkey toward the end of processes to solicit preferences and identify areas of agreement and disagreement. For instance, we are surveying members of a municipalities working group on their zoning preferences for a resilient zoning process in a thriving but vulnerable city. CBI also employs Poll Everywhere to help participants propose and rank priorities; the results are presented live and reflect the level of agreement within the group on specific topics. As a best practice, CBI also polls participants, via Zoom, at the end of every online engagement to learn what worked (and didn’t work) for them in the meeting and which online tools they found the most useful. This feedback helps us structure future online engagements.

Full group and breakout groups: organizing and managing participants online

Many videoconferencing platforms not only provide spaces for large-group interaction, but also offer breakout rooms for smaller discussions. Zoom, one of CBI’s videoconferencing tools, offers up to 50 breakout rooms that enable participants to discuss a topic or task in small groups as part of an online meeting. We have used these rooms to break groups of 30 or 40  into small work groups to produce more detailed, specific draft work products, such as research concepts and best practices.

All of the outlined tools above have helped CBI present effective, inclusive online meetings, enabling both large- and small-group discussions. We hope these strategies and tools will help you shift to online meetings as we all work from home over the coming weeks. We will keep posting our technology suggestions and experiences, and we welcome your ideas and insights as well.