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Asynchronous Collaboration

collaboration Apr 13, 2022

We spend too much time in meetings!

This has got to be one of the most common complaints of the modern office worker.

And right now, with lots of people returning to the physical office after months and months of working remotely, there’s a very real risk that we go into a kind of “face to face binge fest” - where we spend huge amounts of time in meetings and workshops that might not always be necessary.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m loving the opportunity to be together in the same room again for collaborative events, workshops, offsites and the like. The ability to connect with people between the cracks of conversation; to pick up on the subtle nuance of non-verbal communication; and perhaps above all, the chance to talk without worrying if I am still on mute!

But for all its upside, there’s a useful maxim when it comes to face to face collaboration: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

So, in this video, I’m going to reflect on one of the most useful ideas that I think came out of the pandemic for many of the teams I work with, and that’s the principle of asynchronous collaboration. Which I assure you [have fun with this!] is much simpler and more enjoyable than it sounds! I’m going to share with you 3 really simple ways you can reap its benefits in your team, and if you stick around to the end I’ll tell you how you can get your hands on a very handy list of resources.

Asynchronous collaboration

It might be a mouthful, but I reckon it’s one of the most useful ideas that rose to prominence as a result of our giant forced experiment in remote work (thank you, Covid).

Put simply, asynchronous collaboration is about finding ways to collaborate that don’t require everyone to be in the same room, or online, at the same time.

At its most basic level, the concept itself isn’t new. 20 years ago when I was working as a lawyer, I’d leave a draft letter of advice on my bosses desk, she would then make comments in red pen, I’d incorporate those into the next draft and so on. Asynchronous collaboration 1.0. (Not that we ever called it that!)

What’s changed - thanks in large part to the kind of technology most of us have at our fingertips - is the extent to which that same principle can be adopted as a way of collaborating generally.

Let’s take your typical team meeting or workshop, and break it down by way of example. Let’s say we have an hour or so together. That might begin with someone…

  1. Setting context and presenting background information

  2. Someone then presents a key idea or recommendation

  3. There’s time spent inviting feedback and questions

  4. That’s followed by time generating ideas and coming up with a shared approach

  5. We then need to refine that into a set of clear actions

And that’s all assuming we didn’t run out of time at step 2 - which happens a lot, and which is why meetings can often feel like a wasted opportunity.

If we take that same meeting, and apply the principle of asynchronous collaboration, we start with the question: how much of this can be achieved before we need to come together? Or for that matter, could all of it be achieved without ever needing to be in a room - or online - at the same time?

Now that’s not to avoid face-to-face communication altogether. Far from it. Rather, it’s about ensuring meetings and ‘real time’ communication is reserved for the most valuable of purposes. Where the payoff is at its greatest. None of us should come out of meetings thinking, “surely that could have just been an email!?”

So if you go back to our example. If the first part of the meeting was to set context and present background information, that could be achieved asynchronously by distributing a short video or voice recording in advance. That’s very different from simply circulating a deck of slides, that no one will read or fully understand. The goal here is to find a way to replicate the benefits - if not improve on them - of having everyone in the room.

Let me give you an example: one leader I work with recently jumped on a Zoom call with me to talk me through the background to a new strategy, but as we were talking we decided to record the call as a kind of interview, so that the recording could then also be shared with the whole team in advance of a workshop. We then set up a poll, on a tool called Menti, to capture questions and reactions. The output of that provided a great starting point for the subsequent workshop.

To be clear: this wasn’t just a shortcut. Not just a time saving device. The team really enjoyed the chance to digest the background information in this way. They turned up already engaged, and it gave them time to think before being asked for their reaction. The use of the online poll also meant that the senior leader could respond to their feedback in a meaningful and thoughtful way - rather than just responding on the fly.

Bottom line… this was better than doing it live, in the workshop.

Asynchronous collaboration really requires you to ask: how much progress can we make without a meeting? I like to pose the hypothetical: what if we were all working remotely, and in different time zones and not all available at the same time? How would we get to the same outcome? And is that helpful here?

Now, you’ll get pushback. But that’s because you’re asking people to put in some effort rather than defaulting to what is essentially the ‘lazy’ option of rocking up to a meeting, turning on the firehose of information, and hoping for the best.

So, I guess the first question is - what do you think? How much scope do you think there is in your own team to apply the principle of asynchronous collaboration, as a way of reducing the meeting load?

If this is something you’re keen to explore further, here are 3 great places to start:

  1. Get comfortable with quick and easy ways of recording. You can use your smartphone. Use Loom, which is a free web based service. Allows you to record your screen with a voiceover, with the option of including your own face by camera. Or, you can jump on a Zoom call, have a conversation with a colleague and record it. Use Voice Memos.

  2. Build a culture of collaborating on documents as they’re created. We use Google Docs and the rest of the Google Worksuite as a great way of doing that. You can have different people contributing at different times, as well as having conversations along the way. Make this the norm. For this to work, people need to stop emailing versions back and forth, and instead message each other from within the document.

  3. Thirdly: Choose a tool for collating different perspectives, ideas, feedback and discussion. My favourites are - an online polling tool - and also which is basically an infinite whiteboard complete with post-it notes and flipchart paper. The key is, whatever tool you use, make it enjoyable and easy to use. And while you’re at it, why not use Loom to make a video to show people how to use it (see Tip #1 above!).

Now if you’re keen to learn about some of the tools and resources out there that can make asynchronous collaboration really easy, I’ve set up a *collaborative* space where we can all share our tips. And what’s more I’ve done that on another of my favourite collaboration platforms, and oldie but a goodie, Trello. If you want details on how to get access to that Board, I’ve included them in the description below. (You can access the Trello board here.)

Okay well that’s it from me. If you’ve got some value out of this post, make sure you share it with anyone else who might find it useful. Asynchronously, of course!

Until next time


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