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Global Flipchart #18



April 2020

On Virtual Meetings, Jazz and COVID-19

Héctor Villarreal L. 


The reason that most of us are in lockdown at the moment is because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It wasn’t a surprise, but still, we weren’t ready. Our society wasn’t ready, however, here we are. Trying to go ahead and continue to work, to live, to survive.

It is in this environment, with a mixture of uncertainty and even panic, that leaders and their teams need to continue generating results. Despite the distance, the technology they haven’t yet mastered, and everything else.

And we, as facilitators are going into this trip with the same conditions. Workshops cancelled, sessions postponed, routines destroyed. We facilitators need to adapt, and fast.

To top it off, the increasing number of tools available for facilitators make it a daunting task to transfer their skills into the virtual environment.  Here you can see a very good classification of collaborative software from my colleague Steve Bather.

Working remotely is definitely not an easy task nowadays, some even state that COVID-19 has not made anything good in favour of remote work.


It is here that I would like to contribute a little to the discussion, not only of my fellow facilitators who have been sent to the deep end of the pool without even floating aids, but also to everyone who begins their participation in virtual meetings.


Jazz has a key characteristic: improvisation. It is the capability that each member of the band is given to use the melody as a base and from there improvise and create according to their inner guidance. They say that no two jazz concerts are the same, and there is a lot of truth in that.

What many do not identify is that behind this apparent chaos, there is actually a fairly well identified structure. There is an introduction that then gives way to a melody, which then allows later a moment for each of the soloists to play their role. Here we enter the exquisite improvisation space where the designated instruments allow a moment of ephemeral creation to exist. Finally, the band returns to play the melody and the closing of the piece.

And it is that- in a meeting- especially a virtual one- we can find these same elements clearly and we can learn some tips on how to be more effective and even enjoy them a little more in the spirit of jazz.

Let’s NOT be afraid of not controlling the whole process, let's embrace it with the joyful and fun spirit of jazz players!


In a virtual meeting, the facilitator must make the introduction, and establish the melody, that is, the structure on which the collaborative process must work. It must generate a rhythm (just like the bass or the drummer) so that the participants can emerge and share their ideas and abilities with others.

However, you should be aware that many novice participants may not have much experience in virtual meetings and therefore must generate introduction processes for both the platform to be used and any other tools to be used. Only sending the link to ensure that they connect is not enough, the facilitator needs to verify they know how to use the chat, update their name and that they can use the software at a suitable level of competence for the activity.

In my processes, when I work with a new group, I offer half an hour of free tech orientation before the meeting to ensure that people can come in early, try using the platform and make sure they feel comfortable for the discussion to take place. You have to consider this as a part of the design of the session structure.

This helps slow down the uncertainty levels of the participant as well.

In jazz, soloists participation is encouraged and planned. It is the same in the meeting, you have to be flexible but with a key central structure.

Just as jazz improvisation seeks to bring out the best of each artist, the facilitator seeks contributions from participants to help bring the team closer to the desired result, and in the process allowing them to shine and take center stage.

Sometimes the discussion may not go where the facilitator thought it would go. And here I would ask the facilitator to remember, "calm down, everything will be fine". As a facilitator you need to let the group do the work in the route the participants consider it appropriate, as long as they go in the general direction set out from the beginning (and the deliverable).

And in this case the central structure will be the objectives of the meeting and the deliverables, although sometimes even these may change in the course of the meeting, when the participants deem it necessary.


Something caught my attention from jazz more than thirty years ago when I heard my first jazz idol Chuck Mangione's trumpet (I highly recommend you enjoy these four minutes of pure joy); that feeling of freedom. That feeling that repeats itself when a group is free flowing with ideas and multiplying the connections between its members.

There is a big opportunity that rests in every facilitated group engagement. Either in a virtual or in a face-to-face environment, we as facilitators have to focus on the opportunities and the aspects that can help us build the conversation.

In virtual environments we need to understand that as in jazz, a well-crafted introduction (with an ice-breaker not only used as a time-filler) will induce a melody that can get the conversation going.

With a precise use of audio and visual resources where the facilitator of the example creating rapport with his body in front of the camera; and with the patience of knowing that although not everything will turn out exactly as we planned, the appropriate conditions will allow the team to thrive.