The Trouble with Meetings

The Trouble with Meetings

An open secret in the corporate world is that meetings are a necessary evil that replicate rapidly and consume time greedily.

Consider how so many meetings conclude with a thoughtful consensus: there ought to be more meetings about these things. Chances are that no one is really clear on what the things are, but by the end of the next meeting we will have another meeting to figure that out.

This is why I am convinced the single most important aspect of facilitation is bringing forth the responsibility of today in order to stop its escape into the ethereal ‘next meeting’ and replicating endlessly.

Below are some common multiplying meetings and tactics to stop their multiplication before it gets out of control.

 

 

Brainstorm Sessions –

People love brainstorming, because they get to be cool and creative without the consequences. Nobody wants to be the bummer that ruins the ‘creative vibe’ with structure and reality. (Also called rap sessions, discovery, kickin’ it, and getting everyone’s thoughts)

How to Stop Multiplication: Get really clear on the intended outcome and remind people annoyingly in the first 10 minutes (are we here to solve a problem, design a logo, map consequences of a solution, etc.,?). The best way to end the churn of the storms, while making everyone feel involved, is to propose some form of decision criteria or guiding principles. This creates a paradigm that refines any future Brainstorming session and gets people comfortable with progress.

Some people treat these like vacation, and might get annoyed when you treat it like work and be productive. Fun fact: you’re still at work.

Withdrawal Meetings –

Withdrawal meetings are scheduled for someone to feel like activity is occurring, because activity feels a lot like progress. That activity can be addicting for action-oriented people that have trouble understanding how to make progress on complex or delayed work.

How to Stop Multipication: If this is your meeting, don’t schedule it unless you need to. If you are being compelled to attend, focus the conversation on actions completed, actions outstanding, and barriers to completing those actions. If there is no discussion over two meetings, consider moving to written communication or a 15 minute read out. Usually people scheduling like this tend to have trouble understanding what outcome their work is targeting, it is worth refreshing with them if they continually go back to using.

Side Note: If you’re having a meeting to have a meeting, then you’re not doing work. You’re just having a get together with people with whom you have no intention of socializing. Which is a really weird way to spend your time.

The Weekly, Hour-Long 15-Minute Touchbase –

Very similar to the previous case. This meeting had a purpose, but there isn’t nearly enough substance to justify the length of the meeting. Instead of multiplying in number, this one has grown in length. This type of meeting demonstrates an interesting principle, the land grab for time deflates the value of the time. 

How to Stop Multiplication: If this is your meeting, cut the time to only what you need and create an agenda that arrives at the necessary outcomes (not the topics of interest). If this is someone else’s meeting, help the organizer understand the impact of inflated time. If the team doesn’t need to discuss topics, advocate replacing the status meeting with a status report.

If all else fails, only attend the first 15 minutes and train the group to push their priorities for you forward. You need to make strategic investments with your time.

Prioritization Renovation –

When the larger team gets together to calibrate on what the yearly goals are for this week.  These are tough. While it is incredibly important to be sure you are focused on the right things and adapting as you make changes, you can’t constantly overhaul your long term priorities or progress will never get made.

How to Stop Multiplication: Be disciplined about the types of priorities and goals you have. If you are discussing changes to high-priority long term goals frequently you either have poorly chosen your goals or you have a poor governance system. Neither are flattering, but both need solving beyond tactically dodging meetings. For a quick way to address an overactive governance bureaucracy, I suggest highlighting types of priorities and reminding everyone what needs the constant review of the system and what it exists to enforce.

The Dressing of Hyper Competence

The Dressing of Hyper Competence

We all know someone like this.  That person who everyone else asks for help.  The one the boss relies on to pitch in on every project that is floundering, even while spearheading other work.  The friend who seems able to think about your problems and their problems, while you perhaps feel weighed totally with simply your own issues.

Some of us are the one receiving help, some of us are the ones providing assistance.  At different times in our lives most of will wear both hats – but for some there is a pattern of taking on an extra burden.  Within the workplace there is often one type of person who gets tapped to fill that role, the hyper competent.

At first this seems to that individual like an acknowledgement of their ability.  A wished for recognition that they are talented in a way that others really need.  This is not wrong.  This is with out a doubt a primary factor in becoming the one who is relied on.  This person is highly capable, engenders trust and often delivers on expectation.  However this can cause an issue both for the employee and the company.

The burnout this can cause, or the lack of productivity due to being spread so thin, are well worn paths.  I wish to examine the other side of the equation – the risk run by the organization.

Organizations or groups that have hyper competent individuals come to rely on them by nature.  If it becomes too common, if there is an underlying issue that might be masked by the borrowed competence of this individual.  How important does it become to understand the reason this person is getting so much work?  We should all be aware that relying on a small subset of the company is risky.  If it is simply the blinding talent of one person,that may not be an issue.  But if this bandage is covering up the festering incompetence of their peers it becomes imperative to keep an eye on the situation.  Where there is implanted competence, we must be wary of infection in the potential gaps that competence covers up.

Skirting Disaster with a Quick Wit and a Strong Point of View

Skirting Disaster with a Quick Wit and a Strong Point of View

Sometimes the question is not “how do we solve this problem?” but “what is the actual problem?”  Some six sigma minded types would tell you that the first step to solving any problem is diagnosing it properly.  They are not wrong, but that way of phrasing can be a bit misleading.  I am not talking about problems that need a little fishbone diagramming and some root cause analysis.  What I am talking about is the situation we find when ambiguity surrounds an issue – when you are not even sure what direction the solution should lie in.

It may be easier to think through an example.  Imagine looking at a changing industry (perhaps insurance, banking or even long haul trucking) and being tasked with answering the question “what do we do next with product A”.  Now mix in a little bit of “by the way, product A will not be profitable in 3 years and may not even exist in 5 years” and some “it is part our core business.”

How do you begin approaching this problem?  Maybe some data analysis? Maybe some expert consultants? Hold some innovation tournaments?

I think before those questions there is actually a more urgent and arguably more important issue that needs to be addressed – who do we want doing this work?  When ambiguity arises, who leads us through the fog?  I would propose the leaders needed in these situations are comfortable setting strategic direction without need to build an edifice of system.  What the leader needs is an agile mind and the ability to act on an informed opinion.  Or as I have titled this, a quick wit and a strong point of view.

 

Cult of the Obvious

Cult of the Obvious

I think we’ve all had moments when an ‘obvious’ idea is unreasonable, but inexplicably supported by others.

 “Obviously, we should create an engagement committee to handle the day to day for the financial governance committee. Engagement is a key driver of our financial results.”

“Good point Drake, I’d hate to be someone who doesn’t support engagement or committees”

Ideas can be so imbued with ‘obviousness’ that they elicit an almost religious reaction. There are days I’m convinced I’m the only one not performing the sacred rites of St. Ad Oculos.

“Yes brother analyst, crowdsource is our innovation leverage. Agile cloud engagement is the one true platform. Our Executive has all the answers, we must follow his wisdom. In the name of consistency, ship it”

That would explain the hooded cloaks and candles I got at new employee orientation.

We all have ways of justifying the rationality of our choices. Obviousness is usually justified by history, herd-thinking, and leader mythology.

“That’s how they did it last time. Now we have a good reason to do it that way.” 

“I’d hate to be the fool who can’t understand agile cloud enragement like the rest of us.”

“Our leader wants more agile cloud engagement. She has secret knowledge of the one true platform only a chosen few can understand.”

Mercifully, the answer to “am I the only one who sees how stupid this idea is?” is usually no. People who are baffled by the ‘obvious’ ideas begin to form pockets of sanity where they can join forces.

“Do you have any openings on your team? I was told I need to ship more agile cloud engagement.”

Sometimes these pockets of sanity become an escape. This escapism can disconnect you from reality and over time it may start to create a new kind of ‘obvious.’

“Obviously, committees should never be used. They should dissolve the financial governance committee. Do you not trust your people to spend money well?”

“Obviously, two years ago they made a bad decision and every decision they make will be terrible for decades.”

So, how do you know when your ‘pocket of sanity’ has become a cult of its own? Here are some signs:

  • You’re always agreeing on every decision
  • Your ‘pocket of sanity’ has been the same for the past year
  • Your ‘pocket of sanity’ is only in one department
  • You haven’t ever thought that the other way may have something right about it
  • Your definition of sanity uses biz-phrases (e.g., “we’re the real agile cloud”)

Give the obvious it’s day in the sun, but let it stand on nothing but it’s own merit.

Subtitles

One of the challenges with being a business practitioner and a philosopher is that your imagination sometimes takes over during meetings. The other day I was in a meeting with executives who were discussing a very complex problem. I started to notice a disparity between what everyone was saying and what they were communicating.

Because one can only listen to so much corporate-speak, I started imagining subtitles to match the meaning underneath the words. Here’s a couple of the gems I found:

“I think it’s really important and we should be thinking about this.” (I’m not going to put my reputation out there)

“That’s above my pay grade” (I recuse myself from decision-making responsibility. Let’s have our bosses fight it out?)

“What do you think?” (our CEO agrees, do you disagree?)

“A lot of other people have thought about this.” (I needed to tell you that you aren’t that special. Also, I didn’t really listen to what you just said and I’d rather not discuss it.)

“That’s the right direction.” (When you figure it out I’d love to participate)

“This other team might be the right team to help you” (I’m not going to help)

“But what is our MVP?” (I don’t think we should build that)

“This piece is separate from that piece” (I don’t care if this is interdependent, I don’t want to do that work) 

“How will we balance the near and long term?” (Can you find me an easy answer?)

“I hear you, and we don’t have an answer” (That question needs to be answered soon)

“What about lawsuits?” (I’m not sure I understand the discussion, I’d rather talk about something really tangible or nothing at all)

“I hear you, and we don’t have an answer” (That’s a really tactical question, and it isn’t important.)

 

Hidden Disagreements

Hidden Disagreements

Language in all it’s abundant complexity offers multitudinous opportunities for misunderstanding. We’ve all been in meetings or conversations where it suddenly becomes apparent that people’s understanding and use of a phrase dramatically differs from our own in a meaningful way.

“How are the new engines for these bicycles?”
“Great!”
“When can we stick them to the frame? The glue is ready.”
“Wait, you mean engine stickers? I was designing a motorcycle”

Where there was the perception of understanding, a hidden disagreement has been discovered.

It isn’t always ignorance, sometimes it’s just a complex idea combined with complex perspectives and many possible interpretations. They usually show up if we discuss enough.

 

 

Don’t worry about it. Here are the best ways to act when you identify hidden disagreements:

 

Tell Someone Else- Decide the other person’s understanding isn’t important right now and the underlying disagreement isn’t as important to you. This usually requires a pretty bold statement after the meeting like: “I just knew they weren’t going to get past that misunderstanding.”

Force Clarity in the Moment- Get the same definition and perspective. Lock the door and bar the windows. If the other party is unwilling to come to agreement, they’ve disqualified themselves from having a voice. “Let’s hash this out at a time that’s really inconvenient for you”

Cut Others Out- They just didn’t get it. Remember it isn’t worth it if you might have to compromise on your position. “No, why would you think Greg would stick with us after the first week?”

Claim ‘Fault’ to Your Credit- Tell them this was on you, because you didn’t explain things well enough. People especially like to hear that it may have been their lesser intellect that caused the misunderstanding. Be sure to humbly suggest that you listen to them the next time around, because that way you’ll be able to think for the both of you. “My bad Susan, I should have thought for both of us.”

Swap It Like a Pro- Decide you liked their interpretation better. Now be the loudest advocate for that version. Don’t announce or acknowledge the change or trouble yourself with an explanation for the shift. This goes really well with a few others in the room so that you can explain to them how you didn’t change your opinion at all. “That’s what I’ve been saying about less revenue. We need LESS less revenue.”

Piledrive Them- Bury them in explanations. This is a pretty good move when you’re in a tight spot especially when you’ve realized your perspective isn’t a really solid position. Pile driving tends to stun the listener as they try to keep up with the syllable barrage you’ve salvoed. Be careful, crafty people will Swap It after a solid piledriver.

 

 

Your Help is a Hindrance

Have you ever been on a project where it feels as though someone is unwittingly playing defense against a successful outcome.  Either they are doing things that actively run counter to the group or are doing things poorly that require others to pick up their slack.  I do not mean those who are trying to tank a project, I mean those whose incompetence on the project produces a result indistinguishable from sabotage.  What do you do with this member if you are not responsible for assembling the team?

Generally in this situation there are a few basic options:

  1. Advocate for that person to be removed from the team.
    Now there there are different ways to go about this.  I don’t recommend advocating to the whole group in the middle of a meeting in the presence of this individual.  This may produce results, but it also produces the undeniable perception that you are a total douche.  Instead I recommend speaking with whoever was responsible for staffing the project.  Approach them one on one and be fair but straight forward in your words.  Above all make sure it does not come off like you simply don’t like the incompetent individual, even if that happens to be true.
  2. Assign them work of the lowest importance.
    If the above option is unavailable for whatever reason, or if you would rather not pursue it, you can always change the kind of work assigned.  Perhaps this person can schedule and build agendas for meetings.  They can take notes and follow up with people.  Perhaps there are work streams that are “nice to haves” rather than “must haves”.  This requires a bit of the benign deception and people skills that make many managers great, the ability to decrease someone’s importance to a project without them feeling slighted enough to blow up.
  3. Mentor them to bring up their performance.
    I personally feel this is the ideal state, but because of that it of course is the most difficult to bring to fruition.  It would be excellent if you could bring someone from dead weight to contributor while they are on your project.  In order for that to happen three things must be true: the participant must be willing, the mentor must have at least a little skill in teaching others, and there must be enough time.  This is the calculus that you must perform if you want to pursue this option. Is this person willing and do we have anyone able to bring them along in time for the value to be recognized in this project?  That is a tricky and situational decision, but the rewards offered if successful should make this a consideration each time.
  4. Stop assigning them work.
    I personally find this to be a bit passive aggressive, but some may see it as the only possibility in their circumstance.  This is pretty self explanatory, you simply stop assigning work to them, or have someone always paired with them who is actually responsible for the work.  This has a high risk of turning the incompetent member of your team into a disgruntled member of your team.  That can cause friction in the working environment that may spill over, so caution is required if you decide to go with this approach.

Obviously this is not some panacea, but by weighing out the options available you can drive the result that provides the best outcome for a given situation.  Always consider the risks that accompany each solution and take mitigating action at the same time you start to implement your solution.