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August 16, 2022 // Paul Sears  //       //  Opinion

Ideas from Everywhere all at Once

I used to think I was a brand strategist.  Now I’m starting to think I’ve become an IT guy.  In other words, I’ve always believed brand is a team sport, but in a hybrid workplace just putting that team on the field now involves really hard tech challenges. And with everyone everywhere, it’s crucial that when we collaborate, technology actually helps us get the lean-in and buy-in we need to build a powerful brand.

In the simple times before COVID-19 changed everything about the way we work, I’d stuff my suitcase with good-old analog cards and sharpies and fly off to in-person workshops. Every now and then a client would ask me, “Bob wanted to see if he could dial-in instead.” There are no bad questions, but we’d always find a way to get Bob in the room. To be fair, we tried just about everything to accommodate remote joiners, and nothing worked. And when I say everything… we tried a dedicated staffer standing there pointing an iPad at the cards on the wall. We tried real-time photos and transcripts in a Google Doc. We tried the big, expensive IT installation with microphones in the ceiling. But folks on the phone couldn’t hear, they couldn’t see, and they couldn’t participate. We needed to be together. 

Flash-forward, hybrid is now the rule, not the exception. Bob, Mary, Chris and Larry are in the room, but everyone else is remote. Yet it’s still just as mission-critical to hear, discuss and consider their viewpoints. We still need open-hearted collaboration, or the brand strategy we co-create simply won’t work for the business.   

Through the ups and downs of the past two and half years, we’ve learned a few tips and tricks on how to make those hybrid workshops actually work. 

Interrupting is good: 

The right technology makes or breaks a hybrid work session. People must be able to see, hear, interact… and interrupt. There needs to be the same natural, off-the-cuff dialog and rapid-fire discourse people have when they’re face-to-face. Five seconds of lag-time completely un-levels the playing field. And an un-flat workshop means the phone attendees likely won’t buy-in and use the end product, and neither will their teams. 

Our brand strategy team has grown to like the Meeting Owl Pro for A/V. While it’s not perfect, it does have some nice features: 1) The camera fairly quickly tracks to the person speaking. 2) Multiple microphones distinguish various voices around a table. 3) Remote attendees can hear cross-talk. 4) A remote attendee can assertively (and, of course, constructively) interrupt to ask a question or share a sudden spark of an idea. Of the tools we’ve tested, I feel it does the best job of allowing something close to in-person dialogue. 

We also really love apps like Miro and Mural as virtual whiteboards. In the hybrid environment, there are no physical cards on the wall. These tools replicate the physical, tactile experience of writing and hanging cards, while capturing the conversation visually. 

See it, Hear it, Touch it: 

A mentor once taught me about VAK processing styles. It stands for Visual (65% of people), Auditory (30% of people) and Kinesthetic (5% of people). Picture a triangle with the letters VAK each on a corner… most people actually sit on a line between two corners. I’m Visual and Kinesthetic - I skim magazines for the pictures only, and I fidget constantly. Lean-in happens when we achieve all three, but hybrid makes it harder. 

Making it participatory helps a lot. People often find it’s comfortable to “lean back” and toss in ideas verbally. The extroverts more so than the introverts. Thirty minutes in, half the group has tuned-out, and the talkers have taken over. Instead, set a timer for five minutes and have everyone write silently on sticky notes. Then discuss what’s on the board, calling on individual contributors to speak up and provide more context. Each person gets the Kinesthetic from writing and sticking, while also getting the Visual and Auditory from the other stickies and discussion. The trick is to not let any Luddites have their way (there is always at least one in every workshop). Train and coach them until they’re comfortable hands-on.   

Everyone everywhere all at once: 

Group dynamics are a crucial part of any co-creation session, regardless of the setting. And they’re even more important in the hybrid environment, where it’s harder to give equal airtime.  Find out in advance who’s in the session, their goals and viewpoints, biases and expectations…and craft the session around their needs. If Jo is very direct, while Carlos avoids conflict, cater the agenda, roles, exercises and breakout groups to their communication styles.  

At A+P, we always say good ideas can come from anywhere, but GREAT ideas MUST come from EVERYwhere. To that end, we aim to make co-creation sessions highly inclusive: cross-functional, cross-level, cross-geography and diverse. We want horizontal and vertical slices of the org and broad perspectives across genders, races and regions. This leads to considerations, such as languages, time zones, work styles and communications preferences.  In this area, hybridization actually really helps by reducing travel costs, time commitments and jet lag-induced brain fog - allowing sessions to be a lot more diverse, and productive, than they were before. 

Running co-creation sessions involves a little science and a lot of art. Just like any digital transformation, the move from in-person to hybrid takes a smart combination of people, processes and tools. We’ve learned a lot over the last two years, and it points toward the upside. Creating and building a brand will always be a team sport, but with the right approach, a global team can now share the same field together.

Paul Sears is Managing Director, Brand & Engagement Strategy.  With nearly 20 years in advertising, brand and marketing strategy, Paul spends most of his time helping clients sharpen their strategic focus – at the brand level or for individual products and campaigns.

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