Mural: Running Virtual Workshops with Expert Facilitators

07/13/2020
Mariano Suarez-Battan
Mariano Suarez-Battan is the co-founder and CEO at MURAL, a digital workspace for visual collaboration. Global enterprises including IBM, USAA, E-Trade, Intuit, SAP, Atlassian, Autodesk and GitHub have adopted MURAL to align their teams, plan in real-time, speed up decision making, reduce travel costs and accelerate a culture of innovation. Mariano has led the development of the platform since day one, which now connects 40% of Fortune 100 global enterprises.
Mural: Running Virtual Workshops with Expert Facilitators

MURAL: Running Virtual Workshops with Expert Facilitators

The future of work is here and it’s redefining how and where teams collaborate. In this episode, Paul speaks with Mariano Suarez-Battan, co-founder and CEO at MURAL, a visual collaboration workspace for modern teams. Mariano, a three-time co-founder and an inventor by trade, is on a mission to inspire, enhance, and connect imagination workers so they can collaborate and problem solve, building what he calls the imagination cloud.

Connect with Mariano:

Transcript of this episode

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

When it comes to the big deployments, start small and also make sure that you select the 20-25 people that can become these professional facilitators, that can jump around in between meetings and guide others. And templatize a lot, not because we need to industrialize the process necessarily, but as I said, people need to practice, practice, practice and learn a new language.

Introduction:

There's a revolution taking place right now. Talent and intelligence are equally distributed throughout the world, but opportunity is not. The talent economy, the idea that at the center of work is the talent, is the individual.

Paul Estes:

Companies today face a global war for talent, and high-skilled talent is demanding flexibility around the way they work and the way they live. This podcast brings together thought leaders, staffing experts, and top freelancers to talk about the evolving nature of work and how companies can navigate these changes to remain competitive, drive innovation, and ensure success.

Welcome to The Talent Economy Podcast. I'm your host, Paul Estes. Today, my guest is Mariano Battan, co-founder and CEO of MURAL. Mariano's mission is to inspire, enhance, and connect imagination workers so they can collaborate and problem solve wherever they may be.

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

Hello, my name is Mariano Suarez-Battan. I'm the CEO and co-founder of a company called MURAL.

Paul Estes:

Thanks so much for taking time to talk with me today. I think everybody has started to experience remote work together, and the tools that you hear the most are Slack and Zoom. And MURAL is one that - actually we'll talk about in a minute - I had an experience with, and it is a pretty transformative way to collaborate. But before we get into that, I want to just get a little bit about your background: growing up in Argentina, moving to the States, and getting into technology. Take me through that journey and what makes you passionate about this space.

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

So, yes, I grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina. My dad worked for IBM, and I was fortunate to always have access to PCs, right, they were part of, I guess, their compensation strategy. We'd have access to computers, and I played a lot of games growing up, and I tinkered with computers and so forth. And that's how I got in love with the possibility of technology.

In 1992, also because of IBM, we were assigned for a year in upstate New York, where headquarters are, and they took a professional development year for him. And I was able to not only, again, keep on being in touch with technology, but have my first experience in 1992 talking over the internet, which was not an internet yet, it was the IBM network, with my friend who was also the son of an employee of IBM. And that was amazing, the possibility to have a conversation online in 1992, with my friend back from home. Yeah, the love for technology has always been there.

Paul Estes:

Now, you've co-founded three companies, one of which was acquired by Disney, Idea.me, and now MURAL. What wakes you up every day and keeps you pushing to get your ideas out into the world?

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

So, I guess I'm a curious guy and inventor by trade. But in general, it's because I see people using our software and get excited about it. But I also see the glass half-empty and see all the possibilities that are out there. So I don't really know, to be honest. But I'm also a little obsessive about getting it better and better and better, and I don't forget about the little things that are still not there. So I don't know why, I'll probably have to go to a psychologist at some point.

Paul Estes:

And you'd figure that out. Well, let's talk about your current company, MURAL. How did the company come to be? And tell me a little bit about the offering for people that may not know about it.

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

Sure, so MURAL at its core is an online whiteboard, an online canvas that is very approachable, very visual. You can draw icons and pictures, and ultimately make what we call alignment diagrams, which are representations through shapes and visuals about reality, or future reality. So like understanding what a customer might be feeling, or the journey that they go through to purchase your something or whatever allows you to understand, to think, and most importantly in the context of a global multidisciplinary world, or for your team to also understand and align based on the same things, because sometimes I might say "ball," and you interpret it as a tennis ball, and I say it's a soccer ball. When it's visualized, it's simpler to understand what it is.

So that's a principle and the baseline, visual thinking and visual collaboration in a very flexible canvas allows you to think with the technology, but also combine with a layer that allows you to run better workshops. You experienced it last week yourself, but there's the possibility to work anywhere that we provide, but also the possibility to facilitate the conversations, the collaborations, in a better way. We believe that collaboration should happen anywhere, but also that facilitation, as a core competency, it makes collaborations much better. And these guided methodologies that have become very popular around design thinking, design experience, agile, and so on, in a way are frameworks that allow everybody to be able to work in this, a way that has been super-productive for a lot of people. If you go to mural.co, you can test it out yourself.

Paul Estes:

Well, let me tell you about my experience last week. I am part of an organization called Open Assembly, which brings together all of the people working in the talent economy, in the freelance space on the platforms. And we're working on a project and we had a facilitator, who was amazing, and these were people from all over the world. It was 50 people from all over the world, so there was never a chance that we'd all get in the same room, even if we weren't in the pandemic. And everybody was able to contribute to the idea in an anonymous way. And then we had breakout rooms where we walked through and then connected and then came back and did that. And for about an hour and a half, we really moved the ball forward on this idea that we were working on.

It was just better than any experience I've had in the 20 years of putting sticky notes on whiteboards. What are your customers saying as they start to try MURAL? Because the big talk about remote work is, oh you can't collaborate, right, you have to be in the same room to collaborate. I have to be able to see you in person to collaborate, and this is very different.

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

Let me just share a story with you. This guy works in the CIO group in a big Fortune 10 company, and he was telling me two weeks ago, he said, "Well, before the pandemic, we didn't believe that it was possible to run a good workshop remotely, period, so we never even tried it. But then this thing happened and we were brute-forced into doing it or else," they say, "They helped us survive." But what's interesting is that in that context of brute-forcing and having to do it in this way, because there's no way out, they also like an unlearning and relearning process. And they pointed out that they were able to do seven workshops that week instead of one, that they usually could do one in the real world. And they said, "Well, this is not going to go away."

And of course, there's a component of not needing to travel, that allows you to be more productive in running the meetings. But there's also a lot of learning that happens with people that go through the process, realize things like, I don't know, we should be able to do some, the unbundling of the workshops, we don't need to be together eight hours to something that's not productive. So maybe there's some preparation they can do in advance as in chronically so that when you get together we actually do work on things that you need collaboration on, and of course, there's a mini-group or breakout rooms that you can do.

So people are learning fast how to better run these meetings because, and there's nothing else to do also. So yeah, it's fantastic, and the other thing that's happening is that people are templatizing these best practices in a digital format. So the nice thing is that people are going to be able to copy those best practices and those templates and so on because everything else digital can be copied. So I'm very bullish on boosting productivity because of this pandemic, regardless of if we go back to the office or not.

Paul Estes:

This technology allows you to get input from people that you may not have been able to get input, like you couldn't do this over a voice teleconference, to have somebody try to call in and contribute, and it's a really interactive process.

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

And the other thing is one of our guys, Mark Tippin, says, "With video conferencing, I see you with MURAL, I see what you mean." I guess it's not just about like adding the sticky note, but it's also like the way that you display things visually have a meaning too. So after you add your concept, there might be connected to something else or there might be a prioritization exercise, a revolting exercise that needs to happen. So it's not just about posting up but also finding the patterns and so forth. And that generally, that's why the sticky notes in the real world got so popular because it allows you to do a computer-like UI on a wall. Where you could like, yes everyone can post up, but then it's about the arrangement of the ideas or the observations that it's super-interesting too.

Paul Estes:

I wanted to get into two things that you said: one is the importance of facilitators and templatizing it. Tell me a little more how MURAL is not only a software product but you're starting to bring a community of expert facilitators into the product so that customers can be hyper-productive.

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

Yes, as I say, we believe that we started designing this as a very peer-to-peer type of software because that's [what] the original insight was. Myself working with my team in Argentina, I was in Swarthmore most of the time, on this new game idea, our last company that got acquired by Disney ultimately. And I needed to clarify with them on this complex concept that I was trying to put together. So that was the original insight on the first pass of this, but then through observation, we realized that certain meetings I've been educating on one end of the spectrum were also like advanced workshops. The roller facilitator was super arrogant, someone that would prepare the meeting, would guide the conversation, would ask people to think laterally, would call out on people that were maybe not participating, and facilitating conversations, collaborations to achieve the desired outcome.

And as we've been building functionality and know-how around running better meetings and if we were to use it as we were, but there's a very simple celebration feature. I like verse confetti or a timer functionality, or a possibility to have people follow you in a virtual space, which by the way our murals are very big, so you need to use a Zoom or interface to be able to navigate it, so like again. So all of those little functionalities are used for people that get it that have been in rooms in front of people and need to help them navigate. So we've been having a big community of people, and people that are professionals or spend a lot of time facilitating meetings, really appreciate that on having following. And we put together a little ebook, for example, The Definitive Guide for Facilitating Remote Workshops, so you can get for free at mural.com/ebook, and of course a community.

And in that community, we're starting to disclose people that we call playmakers, so folks that have invented methodologies and templates and they're offering some of them openly to the public, and that eventually, we're experimenting with this, you will be able to hire them. And hire them not permanently, not for a project, but even hire them for a three-day workshop, a two-hour meeting on demand. Because the beautiful things are it's going to be digital, so they don't need to travel because sometimes it’s really hard arriving. First of all, where do you find a good facilitator? How do you know they're good or not? But then if they come in three, like you, you're in the Seattle area, I mean the Bay area.

We'd coordinate logistics, maybe seater trip, and so forth. With this thing it's like, okay, first of all as I said before, you can make more work in less amount of time. I say two, three hours, four hours per day, and then execute on that by becoming someone that can guide the group through this, DVD and remotely, on demand with someone that does this for a living that's really, really good at this. So I think that's an interesting exploration that we're going to be pursuing the next year.

Paul Estes:

The facilitator that we had was extremely important to helping us, not only navigate the software but to the methodology. That brings me to the second point we talked about: design thinking and agile and all of these different methodologies that have been created. MURAL is actually set up where it kind of builds on and uses those methodologies that people may want to go through. Tell me a little bit more about... there's a lot of companies that are just doing plain whiteboards... tell me a little bit about your journey from just a big canvas to being very specific to these methodologies.

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

So, of course, there’re the methodologies, there're a lot of steps, and people call understanding customer's problems from an ethnographic point of view, they call that in different ways, and there are different ways to approach that. So we don't say that this is their way, we are not opinionated on which are the methods they should be using, we welcome them all because who are we to decide what's the right way. What we do say that there are principles that we believe in like so these guided methods are important, but I see innovation as music.

It's really hard for someone that doesn't know how to play the guitar to just go ahead and improvise. So first of all, you need to learn the basics and maybe play some sheet music. And so that's where we bring in the templates. Play some sheet music, get good at this, practice, practice, practice. And what we see people, as they get more mature in their methodologies and in the collaboration space, digital spaces, is that they start to improvise. It's not necessarily that they need to go through that very structured approach. And then what you describe is very important.

So there's a professor, Jeanne Liedtka from Darden, and she's been studying the impact of the same thing, and we did a few webinars with her, she's great. And one thing that she found out is that it was important for teams to have someone who was an expert, but most important was that there were no rookies. They saw that it wasn't necessarily for everyone in a team to be an expert in agile, expert designers, experts in design, they just needed to play along and then have someone in to lead the way in the conversation. So the methodologies that you describe, in a way, thankfully got popular so that more people can participate and more people cannot detract others versus necessarily lifted up. And the facilitators also, their job is to pull people into a level playing field so that they can all collaborate with each other.

Paul Estes:

I think one of the things that's really important that you bring up is really helping people not start from a blank slate. Not just saying, "Hey, here's a whiteboard, now let's go start putting things up and taking people through that structured process." I've been a part, in my career, of a ton of design thinking, air quotes, off-sites, and they could have benefited from an expert facilitator, not just somebody at the company who had maybe read a book or was trying their best.

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

Yes, and people get experts and decide to get upset, and design thinking is not for everybody and, well design is definitely not for everybody. I cannot personally craft a beautiful UI, but I more or less can understand which are the customer needs and guide the designers to approach that in a different way maybe. The same thing is not a book, it's not something that you follow, but some of the principles in there are important for everybody to use, and some of the methodologies, as you said there, are important to be part of our visual language.

We should all be in coming into meetings and say, "Oh yes, you're doing a customer journey out there, I get it." Right, so these are the steps that someone is taking, these are the feelings and anxiety or not that they are going through, these are the blockers, these are frameworks that should be standard in modern work, and that's something that we appreciate from design thinking and agile and lean for what's worth like with combine and so forth. People should know these methodologies the same way as they know English and the same way as they know how to present.

Paul Estes:

Talk to me a little bit about your partnership with Microsoft and the Surface Hub and Teams, and some of those amazing technologies.

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

We believe there's a missing base in the digital workplace. There's great video, there's great texts, there's great document authoring, there's great task managers or work managers. But there's something in the middle, and project room, whiteboard, type coloration. But also some things that people do in PowerPoint, some people doing Excel that should be done as something tailor-made to help you with what we call your imagination, your thinking, your strategizing, abstract work that is super-important. And that's where we play, coining the term, we're trying to build the imagination cloud. It's like a reaction to the creative cloud from Adobe because it's things that happen before, it's not about crafting a UI, it's about defining the problems and agreeing on the problems that we need to go after and deciding together and so forth. So, that's where we want to play, and there's a lot of work to be done there because it's relatively new.

So we rely on other things that are already there so that we don't need to reinvent the wheel. Videoconferencing audio and so on is one, we have pretty tight integration with Microsoft Teams, that as they keep on doing more progress with their API and SDK we keep among them. They're also trying to talk with Zoom and whether it's to also keep making that experience of talking to a screen be more engaging when you're combining that with a space and we can drop your thoughts on and visualize them. People, once they're done, with whatever thing they're doing in MURAL, there're actual items, so we want to make it superfluid too so that you can keep on going afterward.

When it comes to the surface tab, and I know you're a fan and you're early on in that whole journey with Microsoft and Perceptive Pixel, these things are great. I mean, you saw I have one in my home office now. It allows you to have the human input that is so beautiful about walking into a whiteboard and be able to input in the context of a digital render. It's persistent, permanent, and upgradable with multimedia. So most of our users don't have big touchscreens to use.

Paul Estes:

Yet, I can imagine a future where everyone has a surface hover-like device, a big touchscreen, it is almost like it's location-based, like everybody's in the same room.

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

Yeah, but there's a lot of people that are already stopped on that route even before the pandemic. Hey, we have a big consulting customer that they have all other locations around the world all digital, so no sticky notes or whiteboards only touch screens and MURAL. And they do the workshops there and so forth, very engaging, orchestrated workshops with top financial services, customers and so on. So as people get more used to inputting texts to iPhones, drawings to iPhones, drawings to the iPad. Now the big push that Apple is making on the iPad is going to hopefully make that a work device very soon, and their pay pencil application is really great. Of course, Microsoft being an early pioneer on inking, not only on the big devices, like the surface tab but also on the medium and smaller devices. Surface Studio is a beautiful device with good inking too.

So yeah, the three trends that we are benefiting from are, one is this visual thinking message becoming more and more popular and more needed for innovation to happen. The second one is around the studio work being okay - and not only okay, but actually mandatory now. And the third one is we are getting used to inputting through glass naturally, and these devices are getting bigger and better and cheaper. So hopefully, all home office, but also when we get back to the office, we're going to still go back to in-person, but not to physical.

Paul Estes:

When I was using the product, it made me think that I didn't want to go back to an in-person brainstorming because I wanted to bring in more people. And if you remove a location, you're able to bring in lots more people into the collaboration process, and so that was really eye-opening to me that the software changed my mindset. I want to talk a little bit about how you run the company and your flexible work structure, as opposed to fully remote. So being a CEO of a tech company, how do you think you're going to return in a year?

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

So we had an office in, well we have an office in Buenos Aires, an office, small one, in San Francisco. And the rest of the world - people that are in Europe or the rest of the country in the US - they work from their home office or sometimes they go to a shared space. We were about to put together a lease for breathing space in San Francisco two days before the pandemic, and I did not sign that. The goal in there was to make it a space for showcase/collaboration that we could open up for our partners and clients to use because not all of them have the touchscreens and so forth. So we want to call it a high-end space for them.

As things progress, my wish, to be honest with you, is to work from home plus have certain locations - in this case, let's focus on the US for now but throughout the big cities in the US where we can go ahead and activate MURAL - Surface Hub-powered rooms. So we can go there like once or twice a week to collaborate on big things, but also do work sessions with our customers, because again we using MURAL allowed to sell, to cooperate with our customers and so on. So flexing up and down as needed, and instead of having permanent office spaces, do partnerships with folks that have locations so that we can, I don't know, some way, level up a big room and come there on demand.

Paul Estes:

Okay, I think the technology is one of those things that you really need to experience, and I think that's a great way to get people to understand how to change their thinking as it relates to this technology.

If you could advise a company on adopting your technology, if you were saying, "Hey look, there's a different way right now," what is the one piece of advice that you'd give them?

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

In general, and I tell this to our sessions, we don't talk to companies, we talk to individuals. There are core parts of teams who are employed by a company. And then there are two types of people that are inquiring about MURAL - one is someone that wants MURAL to help them run a team, and then there are others in large companies that are in the business of changing how many other teams work, so cultural transformations. So at a team level, I generally recommend that they know what they are trying to pursue in MURAL. So which are the outcomes, the goals that they want to achieve and set together the first meeting, so like take some time to use templates, explore templates, dismantle templates if you need to, but define the fundamental parts of the meeting and leave some white space in between for this improvisation, but have clarity there.

And before you throw everybody at the actual work, leave some time for an icebreaker and practice time, or even two. So we come in, introduce yourself, add a picture of you, draw yourself in a digital format, have some fun and then make it low stakes because people are only learning, probably a new methodology, but they're also learning how to move around in a new environment. Which is not the same, it's not as easy, of course, as walking to a whiteboard and drawing something, at least for extroverts. So make sure that you pay attention to the first one because, after the first one, you went through it and say, "Oh, I liked it."

Paul Estes:

Right.

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

Right, but there's a lot of tension, a lot of fear running into the things, so pay attention to that. When it comes to the big deployments, I always tell them, start small and also make sure that you select the 20-25 people that can become these professional facilitators that can jump around in between meetings and guide others and templatize a lot. Not because we need to industrialize the process necessarily, but as I said, people need to practice, practice, practice, and learn a new language. So in this company I went over, we understand the customer journey in this way. So try to respect it so that we can all understand in the same way, so that the next time we start a meeting you don't need to explain it for half an hour on what that is. Oh, it's a customer journey. Oh, these are the steps and so forth, and even better you know what, many do that in advance so then we don't spend the first 30 minutes catching up.

Paul Estes:

That's really great advice as teams are trying to learn together these new digital tools. I think the interesting thing that you said is, a lot of times in a room when you're collaborating, an extrovert may feel that they can go up and they don't mind taking over the whiteboard and doing that kind of stuff, and in this, it kind of democratizes that ability that anyone can participate and get their ideas out because it doesn't require standing in front of the room, some of those things that may not be comfortable for other people. I want to thank you so much for taking the time, we'll put all the links of the playbook and The Definitive Guide to Remote Workshops and all of that information in the show notes, and I wish you the best and I'll keep using the advice.

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

Excellent. And yeah, for all of those of you that are facilitators, we have a program to support you. If you go to mural.co/consultants, you can learn more about that. We are trying to build an ecosystem around our software so that people that are really good at this can basically become full-time facilitators, which is I think not only a core competency for the future but also a full-time job.

Paul Estes:

That's amazing, well thank you so much.

Mariano Suarez-Battan:

Cheers, bye.

Paul Estes:

I'm your host, Paul Estes, thank you for listening to The Talent Economy podcast. Learn more about the future of work and the transformation of the staffing industry from those leading the conversation at Staffing.com where you can hear from experts, sign up for our weekly newsletter, and get access to the best industry research on the future of staffing. If you've enjoyed the conversation, we'd appreciate you rating us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, or just tell a friend about the show. Be sure and tune in next week for another episode of the Talent Economy.

Mariano Suarez-Battan
Mariano Suarez-Battan is the co-founder and CEO at MURAL, a digital workspace for visual collaboration. Global enterprises including IBM, USAA, E-Trade, Intuit, SAP, Atlassian, Autodesk and GitHub have adopted MURAL to align their teams, plan in real-time, speed up decision making, reduce travel costs and accelerate a culture of innovation. Mariano has led the development of the platform since day one, which now connects 40% of Fortune 100 global enterprises.