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From 40 sets of ideas to one in 20 minutes — A collaboration experiment with the Web Publishing Community

At last month’s Web Publishing Community session, we conducted an experiment in mass remote collaboration. Using a technique called liberating structures, 40 people generated ideas, before sifting through them all and finding the strongest one — all within 20 minutes.

Before the collaboration experiment, I presented about the Service Design in Government conference. You can read blog post versions of what I presented:

One of my three highlights from the conference was the session about liberating structures, led by Mike Press and Hazel White from Open Change.

Liberating Structures is similar in concept to Gamestorming. It is a set of workshop tools and techniques designed to include everyone and generate innovative ideas.

Open Change's Liberating Structures flyer

Open Change’s leaflet introducing liberating structures for service design

Ever since attending the workshop, I’ve been keen to try out some of the techniques myself. Inconveniently, the lockdown began the following week, making it difficult to actually try it out for real.

However, as I’ve outlined before, working remotely is no barrier to collaboration. It just means we have to plan the events a little differently.

Meeting the challenges of collaborating remotely

So I was interested to try an experiment with the Web Publishing Community and attempt to use a foundational liberating structure in a remote event with a large number of attendees.

The format — 1-2-4-all

The liberating structure we used is called 1-2-4-all. It is a more structured version of a staple workshop technique — silent individual idea generation followed by group work to identify the patterns.

1-2-4-all — described on the Liberating Structures website

Our exercise

Topic — working collaboratively remotely

I asked participants to think about their challenges around working collaboratively during lockdown. What has worked well? What has not worked so well? How might we improve this?

Step 1 — individual idea generation

During a 5 minute break, I asked people to jot down some ideas around that topic based on their own silent reflections.

Step 2 — build on ideas in pairs

The next step was to discuss the topic in pairs for 5 minutes. I asked people to compare each others’ ideas, and begin to build on the strongest ideas.

Step 3 — develop ideas in groups of four

Next, I used breakout rooms in the Blackboard Collaborate session to create groups of four. These groups should each be made up of two existing pairs (although in the event this didn’t happen — more below).

In these groups of four, participants again spend 5 minutes discussing their ideas, and continue to build on them. Then they focus on one key promising idea, which they will present back to the entire room.

Step 4 — share key ideas with the whole room

I asked each group to nominate one individual who would represent the group in Padlet, where they would write down the key idea that their group focused on. As the ideas began to appear on the Padlet board, I asked everyone to vote for their favourite ideas.

Mechanics of 1-2-4-all

The theory of 1-2-4-all is to enable everyone to freely contribute their ideas, while the group activities quickly bring focus to the strongest ideas. This helps include everyone, and enables us to unleash more innovative ideas, while working at pace.

The individual reflection is designed to give people a chance to formulate their own thoughts on a topic, before dominant voices inhibit a conversation and groupthink takes over.

The paired activity gives people an opportunity to share their ideas in a relatively safe environment, testing them with one other person before sharing more widely.

In the group of four, you are starting to present your ideas to a gradually wider pool of people. Often, similarities between people’s thoughts and ideas will be emerging at this point. The strongest ideas are combined and developed further.

Finally, those ideas developed by each group are presented back to the entire room. One final activity to vote on the best ideas enables us to identify the strongest ideas.

Within 15 minutes, you can include a very large number of people in a discussion, while efficiently coming to a conclusion.

What went wrong with our experiment

This was an experiment, and I was prepared for something to go wrong. Of course, it did.

Firstly, I was unfamiliar with Blackboard Collaborate and precisely how the breakout rooms would work. Colleagues kindly assisted me in a test the day before, but it was still difficult to know how the event would work for real.

Furthermore, I had planned the event around the 72 people who had signed up to attend. Since Collaborate can only have 20 breakout rooms, we were going to use private chat for the pair discussions.

I’d created the pairs in advance based on the 72 signups. If there were any no-shows, I was hoping to be able to quickly assign new pairs.

The problem was that there were a lot of no-shows, probably because the weather was very sunny. So just over 40 people were present. Most of my pre-planned pairs were now useless. So I decided to at the last minute to deploy the breakout rooms at this stage, where participants were randomly assigned to 20 breakout rooms.

Unfortunately, because I hadn’t planned the event this way, my instructions probably weren’t clear enough. I also realised I’d have to call people back into the main room to explain the next step.

Nevertheless, I painstakingly created the groups of four based on the randomly assigned pairs. This is unfortunately not a brilliant experience in Collaborate and I wasn’t able to keep an eye on the activity itself.

Worse still, when I brought everyone back into the main room, those groups of four I’d spent several minutes creating were completely lost. I had no time (and no way) to recreate the groups, so I had to randomly assign new groups of four.

This meant that we weren’t able to see the full power of the 1-2-4-all technique with people working in gradually larger but familiar groups.

It was also difficult for me to communicate with participants once they were in their groups. When I brought people back into the main room, conversations were abruptly interrupted.

There also appeared to be an issue with Collaborate where some people were unable to join the breakout groups.


Nevertheless, I was still surprised at how well the experiment seemed to work.

From 40 people, one clear winning idea emerged, with a clear second place on a very similar theme.

  1. Getting the right people in a meeting is easier remotely rather than in person. Should remote be the default for meetings? — 9 votes
  2. Remote can be good! Opportunity to use tools like Miro that have been around but not always had opportunities to use. Easier to get hold of people and actually have meetings. No angst about room bookings! — 6 votes

A cluster of ideas also had 4 votes each, with other themes emerging.

Firstly, a theme around the difficulties balancing work and childcare:

  • Online meetings can be helpful but need advance notice — especially with childcare etc.
  • Hard to get a balance of work and childcare that works — you end up working in the evening. Should there be more flexibility in the working day away from 8am–6pm?
  • Teams meetings — Much more effective than expected. Good for idea sharing. Less time wasted moving from meeting to meeting. Because it is real time, it can be difficult for team members who have things like childcare to consider.

The other contribution with 4 votes was:

  • Productivity can increase when working remotely — There are fewer disruptions and risks of having to attend to ad-hoc work (the workload can be managed better). Virtual working can be a positive thing.

See the results in full on Padlet


In summary, participants seemed largely positive about the benefits of working remotely.

People are positive about the efficiency of remote meetings, to such a degree that many people are interested in remote meetings being the new default. However, there should be plenty of advance notice and consideration for those with childcare commitments.

My thoughts on the experiment

There were difficulties faced in organising and running the session, and one or two people were unable to participate because of the hitches. Despite this, feedback from participants seemed to be positive.

In particular, people appeared to appreciate the opportunity to meet others in the University rather than just passively consuming presentations. Hopefully we were able to introduce a bit more of the networking opportunities we had at the coffee breaks during the physical Web Publishing Community sessions.

I was very impressed that, despite the fact we were unable to follow the 1-2-4-all format to the letter, some surprising and strong ideas emerged, enabling us to draw clear conclusions from an activity involving 40 people in about 20 minutes.

This gives me further hope that our current remote working environment doesn’t mean we have to stop collaborating or adopting new techniques.

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