How to run The Solution Room online

run The Solution Room online

The most popular of the in-person sessions I design and facilitate is The Solution Room (here are some testimonials). The 90 – 120 minute session, for 20 – 600 people, engages and connects participants, and provides just-in-time peer support and answers to their most pressing professional challenges. These days, wouldn’t it be great to run The Solution Room online? Well you can!

I’ve described in detail how to run The Solution Room at in-person meetings in my last two books: The Power of Participation & Event Crowdsourcing. The latter has the most up-to-date instructions, but either book should suffice. (Don’t have a copy? For the price of a sandwich you can buy either ebook.) So this post covers just the changes you’ll need to make to hold this highly rated plenary session on an online/virtual platform.

Resources

To run The Solution Room online you’ll need:

  • An online platform with seats for all attendees, plus a private/breakout room for each solution table. In this post I’ll use Zoom to illustrate. The number of breakout rooms will depend on the table size (typically six to eight people; see the book). For example, to run The Solution Room with 100 people and a table size of seven, you’ll need 15 breakout rooms.
  • A Solution Room facilitator, plus a couple of staff to assist with table groupings/support, and timing announcements.
  • If you’re dividing participants into heterogeneous groups (the best choice in my opinion), a method of capturing the number of participants and each participant’s number of “years of experience”. You can use a shared Google Sheet for this, like the embedded one below. 
    The above sheet includes a formula that automatically counts the number of people who have entered their name, making it easy to determine how many breakout groups will be needed. It also calculates participants’ grand total of years of experience. Feel free to use a copy for your session, enlarged if necessary.
  • A way for each participant to create a mindmap or other illustration of their current professional challenge that can be shared with the other members of their table. For example, you can ask participants:
    • To have some paper and colored pens on hand to draw their mindmap. This is the simplest and safest option. The resulting drawing can be held up to the camera during the table breakout.
    • To use any drawing program on their computer to create their mindmap. Participants can then share their screen window with the drawing when it’s their turn for a consultation.
  • Campfire and jungle images for the comfort level spectrogram, open in windows for sharing on your online platform.
  • If you’d like to display participants’ before and after comfort levels with their challenge and/or the likelihood they’ll work to overcome the challenge they shared, you can use an online polling tool like Poll Everywhere. Note that you won’t be able to do the dramatic before/after move comparisons online.

How to run The Solution Room online

Opening the session

The Solution Room facilitator follows the “How?” section of the relevant chapter in The Power of Participation (Chapter 34) or Event Crowdsourcing (Chapter 23) with the following modifications.

In advance of the session, ask participants to have available a method of creating a drawing to share with their small group. Provide detailed options, so they know how they’re going to create their drawing and how they’ll share it.

Before starting, have your staff check that every participant is displaying their name in the participant list.

Introduce The Solution Room, and provide the link to the shared Google Sheet years-of-experience sheet (here’s my sample Sheet). Ask participants to think of their challenge, and then enter their Zoom name in the column headed by their number of years of experience.

Once everyone has entered their years of experience, your staff can calculate the number of breakout rooms needed. While you continue, staff pre-assigns participants to breakout room tables using the information in the Google Sheet.

An example of table assignment, using the sample Google Sheet

The sample Google Sheet contains twenty participants. So if we are using a table size of seven, we will need three breakout rooms. Your staff will, therefore, go through the Sheet from the left, down each column, and then to the right, assigning each participant a number between 1 and 3. F0r the example, the three tables will be:

#1: Julio Melia, Marvin Brentwood, Elizabeth Strong, Gurdeep Mac, Liliana Hoffman, Ivor Rennie, Zahrah Valenzuela

#2: Harold Kormann, Fergus Roth, Khi Suliman, Bayley Sims, Arian Faulkner, Alayah Hurley, Adrian Segar, Tyriq Kenny

#3: John Smith, Mario Fernandez, Selina Hatherton, Malaika Byers, Inigo Tyler

Each table contains a mixture of years of experience, from novice to veteran.

The comfort spectrogram

Run the comfort spectrogram, sharing your campfire and jungle images at the appropriate times. If you have a polling instrument, ask each participant to rate their pre-exercise comfort level on working on their challenge on a scale of 1 (extremely uncomfortable) to 10 (perfectly comfortable) and to enter their rating. No polling instrument? Simply ask them to remember their rating.

Running mindmapping

While everyone is still together, give the mindmapping instructions and give participants a few minutes to create their drawings. Ask participants to turn off their camera, raise their hand, or provide some other signal that they have finished. Tell them they can use private chat with the facilitator or staff if they have any questions.

When it’s time for table sharing to start, provide the instructions for table sharing. Answer any questions, and then move participants to their breakout room tables, or tell them their table number and have them move themselves.

Use broadcast messages to provide the midway, two-minute, and time’s up announcements. At the start of the last sharing round, remind tables with one empty seat to use the time for additional consulting.

Ask everyone to thank their table colleagues for their advice and support. Allow a couple of minutes for this, and then bring everyone back together.

Running the closing spectrogram(s)

Display the jungle and campfire images and run the second comfort spectrogram. If using a polling instrument, compare the pre- and post- comfort distributions. Otherwise you can ask people to raise their hand for three options in turn: their comfort level increased, stayed the same, or decreased.

If desired, run the likelihood that participants will work to overcome the challenge they just shared.

Finally, if you have time and the inclination, take some sharing about the exercise, using an appropriate “who goes next” protocol.

That’s it! If you run The Solution Room online, please feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

Please don’t call them virtual meetings

I’ve been noticing a strange trend, ever since COVID-19 caused just about all bread and butter meetings to vanish. Suddenly, people are calling the meetings we’re holding these days virtual meetings.

In the immortal words of Bob Newhart.

Stop it!

Virtual

I’m sorry, but when I think of a virtual meeting, this comes to mind…

virtual meetings

…together with content like this…

virtual meetings

Now, before I get a storm of protests from dedicated Second Life fans, let me be clear that I’ve nothing against anyone who enjoys time in virtual worlds.

And if your meeting is using holographic telepresence to bring in a presenter or two, perhaps virtual is the right term.

Otherwise, I think there’s a better word to use. But let’s explore using virtual for a moment.

The two relevant definitions of “virtual” in the Oxford English Dictionary [OED account required] are:

“Not physically present as such but made by software to appear to be so.”

“That may be so called for practical purposes, although not according to strict definition; very near, almost absolute.”

I can’t really quibble with the application of the first definition, but the second reminds us that virtual also means “almost”, with the unsaid connotation that “virtual” isn’t so good.

Why the rise of the phrase “virtual” meetings?

I think meeting industry people are using “virtual” to describe Zoom/Teams/BlueJeans/WebEx meetings these days because we are upset that our traditional meetings, together with our livelihoods and useful expertise, have largely disappeared overnight.

We were and are proud of the meetings we created and ran. “These internet-enabled meetings just aren’t the same!” (And we’re right, they’re not.) And we’re feeling a mixture of grief and anger that they’re gone right now.

As a result, it’s tempting and understandable to use a term like “virtual” to describe what’s taken their place. We feel a little better, because “virtual” meetings aren’t really quite as good as the face-to-face events we’ve been holding for years.

What’s in a name?

Various event industry folks have discussed this terminology, like Dennis Shiao, who puts those early days of “virtual events” in a historical context …

‘I wish we came up with a better name. The dictionary definition of “virtual” refers to something “simulated or extended by computer software,” while I associate the word with “that which is not real.” The “virtual” in “virtual events” makes the category seem mysterious. When something is mysterious, it’s easy to put it aside or pay less attention.’
—Dennis Shiao

… and a recent thread on MECO with Mike Taubleb, Rohit Talwar, me, Sue Walton, Naomi Romanchok, Michelle Taunton, MaryAnne Bobrow, and Gloria Nelson.

The term I think we should use

First choice: Online

Let’s (continue) to call them Online meetings! I say “continue”, because currently, online is the most popular adjective used on the internet (~1.5 billion Google hits). Everyone knows what online means: Zoom or Teams or BlueJeans or ON24 or …

Second choice: Digital

Digital is pretty descriptive (and is the second most popular adjective used: ~1.4 billion results), but to me it feels a little ambiguous. Digital could stand for Zoom or a Slack channel or Second Life or …

Not my favorites

I’d like people to stop using virtual, for the reasons shared above. (It is also less popular than the two previous terms: ~1.1 billion hits.)

Also, let’s avoid livestream for meetings that involve any interaction. I think to most people, livestream means one-way communication (think streaming a movie or music), not something that’s interactive. If you’re hosting an interactive online event, “livestreaming” seems misleading. If, however, you’re broadcasting a meeting without any interaction from the online participants, livestreaming is an appropriate description.

And what should we use for traditional meetings?

If you’re actually meeting in a room with people (let’s hope we get to experience that soon!) I prefer in person, in-person, or face-to-face. What’s the difference between the first two? “In person” is an adverb, and “in-person” is an adjective. So we hold in-person events in person. Get it?

Oh, and let’s not forget hybrid

Finally, hybrid is a useful and specific descriptor for meetings that have both in-person and online components. We’ve had hybrid meetings for years, and I predict their popularity post-pandemic will only increase.

Conclusion

The grammar police don’t always win! My opinion may make no difference — but at least I’ve shared it. What do you think? Share your favorite meeting adjectives in the comments! 

Virtual photo and description attribution: Flickr user Lilith