How USAID Brought Co-Creation Online in the Era of Social Distancing: Part III

November 23, 2020

By Emily Langhorne, INVEST Communications Specialist

This is the third blog post in USAID/Mexico’s Virtual Co-Creation Series. 

The spread of COVID-19 and the subsequent social distancing policies made it impossible for USAID’s Mission in Mexico to host an in-person co-creation workshop in Mexico City in April 2020 as planned. However, USAID/Mexico and INVEST partnered with CollaborateUp to launch USAID’s first virtual co-creation.

What was participating in the virtual co-creation workshop like for these attendees?

Dress Rehearsal: Day One, a Co-Creation Preview

The virtual co-creation commenced on Wednesday, April 22, and then continued Monday through Thursday of the following week.

“We structured the first session ahead of time, like a dress rehearsal for a play,” says Robin Young, USAID INVEST Strategic Investment Advisor. “We gave ourselves a couple of days in between the first and second sessions so that we could troubleshoot any issues that arose before the days with activities that involved more intense collaboration.”

Following welcome remarks by USAID, CollaborateUp’s facilitators kicked off the co-creation event with an overview of the technology, including best practices for using Zoom. For instance, the facilitators recommended that participants change their Zoom usernames to include their full names and affiliated organization so that participants and facilitators could identify them.

They encouraged use of Zoom reactions — “clapping” and “thumbs up” icons — explaining that these icons can help ease the odd situation faced by virtual presenters who speak to a large audience without experiencing its energy, witnessing nonverbal responses, or hearing any applause. Facilitators also encouraged participants to use their videos to amplify the human interaction.

CollaborateUp’s team then outlined how the segments of the workshop would operate — plenary sessions for large groups, breakout rooms for small work groups, poll questions, private and group chats, etc. — and reviewed some of the best practices and “new norms” of virtual meetings, such as applying active listening skills, having a prepared work area, and closing other applications.

The facilitators used an ice breaker question — “How has your life changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic?” — to test the breakout room function. The team’s Zoom host dispersed the participants into randomly assigned breakout rooms with three participants. After the allotted time, the host automatically recalled everyone to the large group.

Participants then watched a large group presentation about the findings from a USAID study on financing sustainable landscapes through small producers in Mexico so that all co-creators have the same context and background information before the small group collaboration began.

For large group presentations, speakers used Zoom’s screenshare feature so that the participants could view the slideshow or other important documents. At any time during the plenaries, participants could use Zoom’s group chat feature to ask questions which were answered by USAID staff or aloud by the presenters at the end of a presentation.

The participants were then sent into breakout rooms, each with a facilitator from CollaborateUp and a technical advisor from USAID’s Mission in Mexico, USAID’s D.C.-based environmental team, or INVEST. The participants discussed the presentation, and then the technical advisor used the chat function to share a link to the group’s designated Google Document having granted participants editing access just an hour before. Group members collectively commented in the document, testing out the experience of contributing written ideas while simultaneously using Zoom to discuss them.

After end-of-day reflections from the group, the co-creation facilitation team reconvened to make improvements and adjustments before the workshop continued the following Monday.

Curtain Up: The Virtual Co-Creation’s Four-Day Run Begins

Monday through Thursday the co-creation fell into a comfortable routine. Participants received a calendar invitation on the evening before the workshop, which contained the link to the Zoom meeting as well as a link to the co-creation microsite. Every morning, CollaborateUp’s team set an enthusiastic tone for the day, warmly greeted participants as they logged on.

“With a virtual platform, the personalities of the facilitators matter so much,” says Lauren Zinser, INVEST Activity Coordinator. “By greeting people individually as they logged on, CollaborateUp’s team was acknowledging them, making it a more human experience by making participants feel like they were being welcomed into a room rather than just another box popping up on the screen.”

The days started with a quick get-to-know-you activity followed by a poll to gauge participants’ enthusiasm, both of which progressed throughout the week. For instance, Monday’s get-to-know-you instructed participants to reach out to someone they didn’t know and have a three-minute conversation via private chat; Thursday’s asked them to reach out to someone that they’d like to continue to work with after the co-creation finished. Likewise, Monday’s polling question asked participants whether they were most interested in presenting, getting to know other participants, hearing new perspectives, or having fun and learning. By Thursday, it focused on how participants felt, asking if they were tired and ready to stop, tired but wanting to continue, excited for the day despite the difficult work, or filled with energy and ready to attend another workshop.

Every day also included never-to-be-skipped 15-minute breaks as well as stretching exercises, which were essential to keeping energy up.

“Before the workshop began, there were lots of questions around how to keep the group engaged,” says Karla Toledo Gutierrez, Acting Director of USAID Mexico’s Office of Sustainable Development. “A challenge is tiredness. You need a facilitator who notices changes in moods, can sense when the energy is dipping, and do something about it. That’s crucial. CollaborateUp did a great job at that.”

“You have to put yourself in the shoes of the co-creators,” explains Mari Sierra, a lead facilitator with CollaborateUp. “You must understand that digital attention is not the same as in-person, and you use your resources to bring their engagement back to what is being shared. We use guided group stretches to bring awareness to the body. We all have a body: we’re all suffering from stress in the neck from staring at the laptop, so stretching that out together reminds us that we’re all humans even though we’re on screens. It makes us more connected in that shared experience.”

Implementing their routines and using their digital learning know-how, CollaborateUp’s facilitators eased the transition to a virtual experience.

“They were very personable,” says Young. “Great voices and great smiles, and they were being intentional about keeping engagement up.”

“It’s true: we do pay a lot of attention to ‘making it human’ in our practice,” says Sierra. “We study and practice somatics and involve our body language. For the digital co-creation, we brought that to the center of our design and tried to use our own body language, presence, gestures, tone, the position of the camera, and other factors to keep people engaged in what we were saying.”

However, when energy lagged, they too were prepared to make a change.

“It’s part of our job as facilitators to watch people on the video,” says Sierra. “You can tell when their energy gets low, when they look tired. You make the decision to reset — whether it’s body stretches, an unexpected break, or some other tactic.”

Multiple Acts: The Pacing of a Virtual Co-Creation

The virtual co-creation team structured each day so that it contained a mix of plenary and small group activities.

“Participants need to feel the differentiation of activities even though they stay in one physical place,” explains Toledo Gutierrez. “The switch-up between breakout sessions and plenaries is important to creating that feeling.”

The ratio of plenaries to work groups depended on the daily objectives. For instance, on Monday, participants presented the concepts from their expressions of interest to the whole group over three sections, each punctuated by short small group discussions of the concepts shared.

Tuesday, however, began with a plenary in which CollaborateUp’s team discussed systemic thinking versus linear thinking, emphasizing to co-creators the necessity of moving from a traditional problem-solving mindset to one that considers the interdependent nature of the problem at hand and develops solutions accordingly.

After which, the co-creators returned to assigned work groups, accompanied by their CollaborateUp facilitator and USAID or INVEST technical advisor, to work together to fill in their Google Doc, which had a framework of questions designed to guide them towards defining a problem statement.

“It was important to have technical advisors in the breakout rooms to help the co-creators move in the right direction, to answer their questions, to help them better understand the problem, identify key actors, develop solutions, and overall accomplish what they wanted to achieve,” says Toledo Gutierrez.

Meanwhile, the facilitators gave time updates throughout the small group sessions so that participants would stay on schedule for producing a meaningful outcome that was ready to be shared when they were recalled to the main session. A spokesperson from each group presented the problem statement to the large group. Every participant had the option to contribute feedback on the problem statements by using the private chat to write to the group’s elected notetaker, who would then compile these comments and share with their group during the next breakout session.

At the end of Tuesday’s workshop, the co-creators had the opportunity to pick the group with which they would work for the remaining two days by placing their name alongside a selected problem statement in a Google Sheet.

“We gave participants the option to switch groups so that they could work on finding a solution to the problem statement that most interested them,” explains Zinser. “Most people opted to stay in their assigned group. They’d spent two days getting to know the other members and developing a specific problem statement, so they were invested in it.”

Wednesday followed a similar structure as groups worked towards identifying key actors and creating integrated solutions. However, during one breakout session, each group was joined by an advisor from the private sector. This time with an advisor gave each group the opportunity to refine their ideas based on the opinions and personalized feedback of these private sector experts.

On Thursday, representatives of USAID/Mexico led a plenary in which they outlined the process for submitting concept papers after the co-creation finished. The working groups had been composed of members from different organizations to promote multi-sectoral problem-solving. Following the virtual co-creation workshop, organizations would be able to reconfirm or reconfigure consortia to develop and submit proposed solutions in a concept paper. They could partner with other organizations, and they could submit concept papers addressing any number of the problem statements defined during the workshop.

The co-creators then returned to their breakout groups one last time to develop a possible solution and create a Google slide that outlined their idea, complete with defined problem statement and proposed solution.

“We’d never tried having that many people working simultaneously in the same file before, but it worked,” says Alejandro Solis, ICT specialist.

When the groups returned to the main session, each presented their slide to the whole group as well as external advisors from the government of Mexico and other donor organizations.

Backstage: The Production Work Continues Behind the Curtain

Throughout the virtual workshop, the co-creation team was not only facilitating and advising, but they were on constant alert, anticipating and troubleshooting any problems that arose for participants.

When a participant didn’t have access to a Google Doc or had difficulty logging into Zoom, the team worked to fix these problems quickly. They were available to communicate with participants while solving technology hiccups, and their real-time presence removed the stress of these digital burdens from the co-creators’ shoulders. In other cases, co-creators wanted to switch groups which, given the number of participants, had to be handled centrally by the facilitation team.

One day, heavy storms interrupted or weakened some participants’ connectivity, and even knocked out a facilitator’s internet connection.

“We had assigned co-hosts in Zoom, but we had a team member designated as the main host responsible for sending participants from the plenary to breakouts and back,” says Young. “Then, when participants were in a breakout room, her internet went down. She obviously couldn’t notify us via Zoom or email, so she used the WhatsApp chat to let us know that we needed to pull people back to the plenary and take over the other hosting responsibilities until she came back online.”

Thanks to the multiple layers of planning for just such a scenario, the team could quickly pivot and have another member jump into her role temporarily.

Each afternoon, after the workshop had concluded for the day, the co-creation team continued to plan for and improve upon the next day’s event.

“We tweaked the plan for the next day every night based on how that day had gone,” says Young. “We wanted constant quality assurance and improvement. Because we had a lot of observers and team members, we had a live action feedback loop, so we incorporated that feedback by doing a review every afternoon and deciding where we could improve for the next day.”

At one point the team planned on incorporating more Google Docs, but, because of tempo the work groups had taken in completing these activities, they shortened the number to maximize the focus on USAID’s priority areas. Likewise, experience taught them to put additional structures in place to encourage collaboration in the small group sessions.

“We learned a lesson on the first day because there were a few extroverts in the groups who were quite smart and had good ideas, but they spoke a lot more than others who might not feel comfortable speaking up unprompted and on the spot,” says Sierra. “So we put a measure in place for the next working sessions, where everyone in the small group would now have three minutes to write down their thoughts, and then they would be prompted to share them one by one, before the group discussion of ideas began again. That allowed for a more equal balance of introverts’ and extroverts’ participation.”

“Initially, people were hesitant to write in the Google Doc, so we decided to have a ‘scribe’ for the first activities,” adds Zinser. “But by Wednesday, everyone was jumping right in and dumping their thoughts into the Google Doc, modifying and refining it together. To me, that level of activity says collaboration, ownership, and engagement.”

Curtain Call: The Co-Creators Applaud

As the co-creation wrapped up on Thursday, the overall sentiment was very positive. In the Zoom chat, many expressed that they had learned much from attending. They lauded the workshop, writing positive comments and thanking USAID, INVEST, and CollaborateUp for facilitating a productive virtual co-creation.

After closing remarks, the group participated in one final large activity: a photo in which everyone found and displayed something from nearby their work area that represented their connection to Mexico’s natural landscapes. The co-creation team informed participants that they would be emailing a survey about the experience, which would function as an important metric in determining whether a virtual co-creation had been a success.

The participants would now spend the next three weeks developing their concept papers for USAID, using the learning and collaboration from the workshop to inform their work. The quality of the concept papers would help USAID Mexico evaluate whether the virtual co-creation had accomplished what it was designed to do. The virtual co-creation team would organize follow-on sessions with co-creation consortia to discuss the concepts under development and be available via email to answer questions that arose for participants during this time.

The virtual co-creation workshop had finished, but the co-creation process itself was far from over, and the co-creation team had to await the results — both the survey responses and the concept papers — before concluding whether the transition to virtual had truly been a success.