When it comes to collaborating and teamwork, it can be challenging when there are lots of different thinking styles, backgrounds or viewpoints to consider.
And, when in-person workshops were forced online in early 2020 because of COVID-19, I was forced to adapt my workflow. But it led to a discovery.
Early on I decided never to take an in-person experience and simply replicate it online (‘I’d like to attend an eight-hour video conference’ said no one, ever!)
What happened instead: I broke up eight-hour workshops into three online sessions across a week, each with a short, friendly welcome film from the facilitator, an individual prep work task to do before the session, and expectations for reflection tasks between sessions. I found Zoom was the best because of the ability to see all participants easily (cameras are always on in our workshops) and for ease of breakouts.
I also used the power of asynchronous communication better. No need for people to turn up live from different time zones to watch someone present for an hour – instead we pre-recorded and edited down all one-way presentations via Loom and asked everyone to watch in their own time. Live meeting time was not wasted on passive listening – debate, discussion, and idea generation was prioritised instead.
Finally, to make the journey seamless I created beautiful mural boards that people visited before, during and after the session, collecting and curating everyone’s expertise in one place.
Previously, an in-person, day-long workshop was run in a central city location that people travelled to get to. These intense sessions favoured confident, centrally located, senior, English-speaking extroverts with travel budgets.
By contrast, online workshops meant we benefitted from far greater diversity of participants, because people who could previously not join due to location, budget, first language, time zone and thinking style were included fully and equally for the first time.
But what happened next was truly a surprise. Online workshops became far more productive and creative, and were more commercially successful than the best in-person sessions had ever been.
Why? Because for the first time I was able to include truly neurodiverse participants properly.
There is both an ethical and a business case for meeting the needs of neurodiverse people better.
Ethically, if we exclude neurodiverse people, we could be excluding up to 15% of the population.
But it’s not just neurodiversity. Exclusion based on thinking style (including introversion) meant we were missing out on the full human potential of our teams.
I began to look at the strengths of neurodiverse people, helped by training from my non-profit partners Adjust Services. They helped us to understand the strengths neurodiverse people bring to workshops.
We found that people with ADHD are passionate, creative and hyper-focused on outcomes, and people with autism can be dedicated, loyal, participants with attention to detail and unique problem-solving approaches.
Those with dyspraxia are often excellent at idea generation and creativity, and people who are dyslexic tend to be innovative thinkers and have brilliant verbal and people skills.
In the local community, my company leads workshops with people from different education and socio-economic backgrounds, people with physical disabilities, people from different faith groups, people who speak different languages, and people from different ethnicities.
Whether neurodiversity, or simply diversity, the wider the range of people in any workshop, I have seen time and again that we create better solutions.
I have learned a lot in the past about designing and leading truly diverse workshops, and no doubt we still have a lot more to learn.
Here are the seven things I’ve learned about getting the best collaboration, ideas and outcomes from a diverse group of people:
When inviting people, make the main details clear (not just a calendar invitation but an email explaining in detail).
Beyond arrival times, Zoom links and pre-reads, talk about the types of ideas they will be discussing, how many people will be there, where the other people will be from, and how the day will run, and how the day will feel.
Welcome people inclusively and set the tone of the event, either by sending a two-minute, self-filmed Vimeo from the facilitator, or scheduled as a short meeting.
Ask people to tell you (in person, via voicemail or via email) how you can make them feel comfortable in the session, including understanding anything they don’t want to do, such as introduce themselves in front of the whole team or work in a large group.
Offer to talk to people individually in advance to overcome any concerns they might have.
Clearly explain why each person has been invited and the value they will bring.
For example, “we’ve invited you because we want to learn about your personal experience on this issue. There are no right or wrong answers, and you don’t need to be an expert – it’s your honest opinions we want. There are nine other people from different backgrounds who will also be there, and you will all get a chance to share your thoughts when you feel comfortable.”
Ask people if they have a neurodiversity or thinking style they would like you to be aware of, and whether there are any ways in which we can support them to make the experience as positive as possible.
Some people like to have all the materials and slides in advance, or a live audio description or transcription during the session to refer to.
Others ask for fonts to be larger, materials to have specific colors, or simply timed breaks they can rely on.
Some people prefer to think overnight before they are asked to evaluate an idea.
Being put on the spot to answer a question can be very stressful, so send in advance any questions you are likely to ask, even how you’d like people to introduce themselves, so people feel comfortable and prepared to answer.
Let people digest as much information in advance as they can, in the style they prefer, so they feel confident when they join.
This goes for any and every workshop, no matter who your participants are. If you’re briefing an exercise or instruction, keep it short and simple, one task at a time, never a long list of steps.
Give examples of completed answers, so that people know exactly what they need to do and don’t feel pressured to understand or humiliated if they don’t. Make all instructions written and verbal, never just one or another.
Let everyone know that all slide and ideas will be shared afterwards, so people aren’t worried about writing notes or how to explain it afterwards to someone else, so they can relax and participate fully.
Try to always play to peoples’ strengths – being neurodiverse just means you think differently, and different thinking makes workshops better.
Diversity of background, opinion or experience is valuable because different people will see solutions that others can’t, so long as you invite people to problem solve in a way that feels comfortable for them.
With careful and respectful planning we can all harness creative and diverse thinking so that our workshops become spaces for learning, collaboration and relationship-building.
Being kind and considerate with people’s worries and concerns is not only easy, it makes sessions more enjoyable and successful for everyone, including people with neurodiverse ways of thinking.
Article originally published on the 25th January, by Unleash