Pivoting From In-Person to Virtual Transformation When That’s the Only Option


Image Credit: Ian Schneider

Author: Becca Lehner

The pace of change accelerated across organizations over the past year, perhaps even more so across the government, given the previously limited telework capacity and available resources for robust virtual collaboration (as reported by Nicole Ogrysko, Federal News Network). This post focuses on lessons learned while taking a high-engagement, in-person, transformational change method into the virtual world to support the Census Bureau’s effort to design a 21st-century organization.


The Story Behind the Story

In early 2020, MITRE began partnering with the Census Bureau to launch a team of representatives from across its directorates as part of an agency-wide transformation effort. Our task? Planning large-scale engagement workshops to bring together 200+ people in three in-person workshops as well as the entirety of the Bureau in a series of mini-events.

We launched the team by doing a multi-day, in-person simulation of the three workshops only to be thrown into a fully virtual environment a mere two weeks later. For months, the question plaguing the team and Census Bureau leadership was whether to wait on transformation…or not to.

As the summer drew near, we knew that we’d need to remain confident that we could all lean in—and lean in we did. Over the past six months, the MITRE and Census Bureau teams—The Transformers—have worked tirelessly together. With Dick and Emily Axelrod, developers of The Conference Model® (2010), we’ve created a comprehensive virtual experience to support Census Bureau leaders and staff in designing their future organization. And we’ve made the experience as close to an in-person experience as possible.

To date, we had ~2700 participants join us at these events. Beyond this, Census Bureau leaders have shared that proceeding with transformation in the virtual world has increased their staff’s connection to one another during a time when feeling connected is difficult. They’ve seen a marked increase in participation in directorate meetings and events and, following the workshops, directorates have started to take action on small commitments they’ve made throughout the workshop cycle to move the transformation process forward in ways that have never previously been done.

By this point, you’re thinking: “This is all well and good, and what do the rest of us Transformers have do to support organizational change work in the virtual world?”


How to Take Large-scale Engagement Virtual in Your Own Environment

We hope that our learnings will save you time and deepen your insights.

Platform Can Make or Break You—or Sometimes Both

It is critical to select a virtual platform that will ensure maximum participation—both functionally speaking and practically speaking. Of the platforms we explored that also met FedRAMP standards, only Adobe Connect had the capabilities for in-depth collaboration at the time of procurement.

To create a robust virtual experience, it is important to have:

  • Customizable layouts, virtual flip chart pages, a Q&A space, countdown clocks, announcement spaces, music/video sharing
  • The ability to move content between the main room and the breakout rooms and back again
  • Integrated polling functionality with more than just single select options
  • A virtual whiteboard or the ability to draw on slides real-time

Each platform has its bugs, and if the platform does not have at least two of these features, participant engagement will be severely limited.

Bottom line: Focusing energy on finding the right platform to create the environment for generative thinking is worth the time.

Riding the Virtual Design Loop

Design, test, iterate, deliver, conduct lessons learned, repeat. When creating a virtual experience, the only way to know if it may work is to find a captive audience and try it out, gather feedback, and try again. This approach has helped our team to fail faster with some of our design ideas. For example, in preparation for the first workshop, we had 38 iterations of our workshop design by the first day of the workshop. By the first day of the second workshop, we had 23.

By testing our designs first with up to three different teams, we’ve been able to develop an experience in which participants have both the boundaries and the space for generative thinking.

Bottom line: The first design is never the best design.

Overcoming the Confusion Factor

In the virtual world, barriers abound. We’ve come to call this the confusion factor. In our current environment, distractions are ubiquitous—they draw attention away just long enough to leave a participant feeling completely lost. And, once you’ve lost someone, it can be very difficult to get them back. So, how do you get them back (or never lose them in the first place)?

Repetition, clear roles, and support are of the utmost importance. Participants are encouraged to appoint a discussion leader, a timekeeper, and a recorder/reporter while in breakout groups to actively guide themselves (Axelrod, 2010). Prior to sending participants off to do a task, we repeat the instructions at least twice—once before providing an opportunity for questions and once after.

Additionally, when breakout groups are involved, it is critical to have a robust support team. This support team is trained on the platform, the tools, and the session content. Each support team member is assigned a group to support throughout the activity. Support team members do not facilitate the group or contribute to the group’s work. They are there to help the group launch into the activity, help ensure the platform and tools do not become a barrier and minimize confusion.

Without these individuals, our testing has shown that groups enter into breakout rooms and waste the first 5-10 minutes attempting to understand the task before starting. With such packed agendas and with attenuated attention spans, there is no time to waste.

Bottom line: Repetition, clear roles, and a trained support team with guidance and materials is critical to session success—particularly when breakout groups are involved.

From Markers to MURAL

Remember the good ol’ days when you could pack up your rolling bag with markers, sticky notes, voting dots, and flip chart paper, toss it all on the table, and get to work? Well, those days are (temporarily) over. It’s still possible to achieve the highest level of collaboration and top session results in a way that feels tactile for participants.

The best tool that we’ve found for virtual collaboration and reporting out is MURAL. The tool is adaptable, relatively easy to set up, and has a smaller learning curve than many other tools. MURAL makes it easy for session guides to show/hide content at the ready and for breakout groups to get creative as if they were in person with their flip charts and stickies.

We’ve found that setting up practice spaces and providing short, video demos for participants and support team members has increased comfort, decreased the start-up time in sessions, and enabled incredibly robust and creative outputs.

Bottom line: Virtual design spaces can provide broader opportunities for creativity if set up well.

Connection Before Content

We live and thrive by the adage, “connection before content…without relatedness, no work can occur (Block, 2009).” What this means is that in each interaction, we strive to connect with individuals as people and help individuals connect to each other prior to getting into the task at hand.

Silence on the other side of the line usually signals insufficient connection. Intentional connection to each other and the task at hand at the beginning of a session creates space for both introverts and extroverts to contribute successfully. It enables individual reflection and early collaboration. Without this priming, it is more difficult for individuals to come together quickly to do generative thinking and create shared ownership (Block, 2009).

There are a few very simple ways to create connection, engagement, and a safe space to contribute:

  • Collectively set meeting norms. Prior to a key session, send out a survey regarding the meeting norms/ground rules that people feel are most important to them. The group votes and identifies additional norms/ground rules to bring into the session.
  • Invite people to respond to a Question of the Day. This could be a fun question or a question specific to the meeting topic.
  • Send out a reflection prompt and start with a breakout. Provide participants with a pre-work reflection prompt specific to your session topic. Toward the beginning of the session, send participants into breakout groups to introduce themselves, discuss their reflections, and highlight any insights to share out with the group upon return.

For example, if you’re looking to spark innovative thought, task participants with bringing to the session an object from their house or an image of an object that represents innovation. In small groups, participants then described their symbol of innovation and discussed their conception of innovative thinking. This type of interlude helps participants to connect with one another, get comfortable working together virtually, and shift into the innovative mindset necessary to complete the tasks at hand.

Bottom line: Connection before content. It works.

Smile and Keep Going

Countless times during these virtual engagements, 200+ people and I have looked at one another from opposite ends of the platform, while the you-know-what has hit the fan on the backend. During these times, I smile and reassure everyone that everything is being taken care of—that we’re working on a solution as we speak.

Do I get upset when technology fails us? You bet. But I don’t need to let my worries derail the concentration of the participants or their faith that we are there for them in all possible ways.

I remind them and myself: “You’re experiencing the heart of transformation as we speak.”

Bottom line: It’s as if pretending everything is okay actually makes it okay. And, to be honest, it mostly does in the eyes of participants (It’s true! The surveys say so!).

Large-Scale Engagement Principles on a Smaller Scale

It may feel like virtual sessions can only be done on a grand scale with a large effort—we’ve found that this is not the case. These keys to success can be applied at the smallest scale each day as we engage in a virtual world. Even without the ideal platform, or the best tools, or the largest, most well-trained support team, we can still focus on creating the connection and the space for generative thinking to thrive.

May we all find ways to increase engagement, connection, great design, and generative thinking in the coming year.

Special thanks to the creative teammates who have worked tirelessly and with immense passion throughout this effort.

Becca Lehner is an Organizational Change Management consultant at MITRE, where she provides strategic guidance to federal government clients undertaking major enterprise change initiatives. Becca has also worked in the non-profit and higher education sectors to develop organization strategy, design programs, enhance internal capacity, build fundraising networks, and manage marketing communication and brand development. Becca holds a Master’s Degree in Organization Development from American University and a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh in Political Science and Public & Professional Writing.


Axelrod, R. (2010). Terms of Engagement: Changing the Way We Change Organizations. Berrett-Koehler, Incorporated.

Block, P. (2009). Community: The Structure of Belonging. Berrett-Koehler, Incorporated.

© 2021 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. Case number 21-0993.

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Apr 12, 2021


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