“Organizations are not real in the material sense; instead, organizations are a culmination of conversations and texts*”
Reflect on this for a moment, as it is a profound way of expressing our current reality, has immense implications around where our focus should be (and likely isn’t), and has only been exacerbated by COVID-19’s demand on remote collaboration.
I submit that, even absent COVID-19, organizations have not made much progress in the past 25 years regarding how conversations are managed in service of its strategic ambitions.
Yes, you heard that right. Group conversations are a critical part of the enterprise operating model. From my experience (and those of my colleagues), little to no intentional, coordinated effort is applied to this essential component. If you think that’s crazy, I agree. And you’re likely to be guilty as well.
I would like to invite you to participate in a broader discussion on the ideal operating model, and practical, long overdue ideas that you can apply back at your workplace. More on this at the end. As a teaser, I would like to offer what I consider to be requirements for substantive discussions**. Considering the opening quote, these aren’t ‘best practices’; they are non-negotiables. What we’ve seen from COVID-19 is an erosion of what little discipline we’ve had, to the point where employees are reporting negatively on the number and quality of meetings, among other operating deficits***.
Underpinning each of the following five requirements is decades of organization behavior and communications research worthy of a longer discussion to better understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’. In the interest of brevity, I am asking a little forbearance — the logic and internal consistency behind them should be enough to avoid the need for a leap of faith.
As you proceed, try to estimate what percentage of the substantive discussions in which you have led or participated (during COVID) met each requirement. Then estimate what percentage met all requirements. We’ll revisit this after.
- The meeting purpose and the required outcomes are clear, shared beforehand, and confirmed at the start of the session.
People embrace what they help to create. Before the purpose is finalized, ideas should be tested on a few of the participants (especially the skeptics), and questions considered carefully to reduce ambiguity. If there are good ideas, they are incorporated and given credit where credit is due.
“Required outcomes,” are not objectives, not goals, aims, targets, or aspirations. There should be no misunderstanding of what is required from the meeting, both the behavior of participants and what they are expected to deliver, collaboratively, in the meeting and after the meeting.
2. An agenda is not a design.
Too many people walk into a meeting with just an agenda: a list of the topics to be discussed along with the time and place, and that’s it. Often, the topics or activities originate with the person whose meeting it is, and that person has likely not consulted with anyone else (see Requirement #1). If all that is considered are the topics without any thought about what outcome you want from each topic and what process you will use to deal with each topic, you will end up just throwing topics on the table. People will proceed to offer their opinions, or objections, or irrelevant information until everyone has had a chance to be heard.
A meeting design, in addition to specifying a topic or activity, should display its purpose (which in turn should clearly support the overall purpose of the session), the process for dealing with it (including participants responsible, and supporting artefacts), and the outcomes produced (decision, resolution, action, plan, etc.).
3. Meeting outcomes need to be produced collaboratively by participants, not directed by the “leader.”
If a group of people are assembled for a purpose, you are likely hoping to provoke the search for common interests and a commitment to common efforts. Remember the principle: people embrace what they help to create. If we want a group of people to support an idea or implement a project or take a certain action, they need to be in on its creation. Otherwise they will say “yes” and do “no”. There is an important corollary to this requirement:
Make sure you have the right people in the room. Those who will need to produce after the meeting need to be considered and included before it, especially if they are from a different department or reporting structure.
Sometimes it’s useful for the boss to stipulate certain things when it is appropriate. Things like strategy, standards for work, purpose, goals. Stipulation is efficient, but the means to achieve or the way to proceed needs to emerge out of a collaborative process. The meeting design, of course, will cleverly engender these collaborative processes.
4. People need a voice in changing what isn’t working.
What can be done when ‘things go south’? People stop being engaged, progress slows, or a process isn’t working, and people are getting confused or frustrated. Some people are insistent on pursuing a topic that emerged in discussion even though it was not considered in the design.
Take a time-out; just stop.
If it’s a relatively small group, less than ten, acknowledge what’s going on and ask what they think might be a better way to proceed. Voice any ideas that may be useful. Choose an alternative that is appropriate to your purpose and proceed. If it’s a large group, give folks a fifteen-minute break — “Talk amongst yourselves.” — and confer with your team about alternative ways to proceed.
5. Ideally, a meeting should not be a single, stand-alone event, but part of some larger effort.
If a meeting is known to be in service of a larger effort — new product launch, organization change, etc. — it is likely that the design, content and process will make ready sense to the participants. The larger purpose, context and interim goals are known, and likely actions have already been taken subsequent to other meetings or events.
However, the staff meeting may appear to be singular and unrelated to a larger effort. Rarely does the boss, who generally runs the staff meeting, give any thought to its design and process. After all, the most common purpose for staff meetings is to share information.
Staff meetings do serve a larger effort, that being the group’s contribution to the strategy, operations and financial performance of the firm. The group doesn’t exist in a vacuum; you all are paid because of what you bring to the larger firm.
First, make sure you know what that contribution is, generally, a combination of activities that have an impact on revenues, costs, margins, profits, operations effectiveness, collaborative imperatives, velocity and scale. Some of these elements are quantitative and others are qualitative. This notion of contribution should be shared in some detail, and checked for clarity and consistency up and down the line.
Staff meetings then, track how well you are succeeding in making your contribution. You want to hear about: specific measures as specified by the boss, status of plans and actions designed to improve given outcomes, changes in ways of working required to improve outcomes, transactions between staff members needed to increase contribution, resource/skills allocation issues and pace of current efforts.
In short, everything presented must be relevant. People must be prepared to present on these agenda items, and expect that decisions will be made, collaboratively, to resolve the issues that emerge.
How did you do? If you are over 20% for all requirements, I want to work where you do. NOW. Making all the requirements (like ‘thinking’, as Henry Ford once said) is the “hardest work there is, which is why so few of us engage in it.” There is hope, however, as efforts to improve on any of them will show positive results almost immediately.
As mentioned before, I will be co-leading a broader discussion on ideal ways of working as an essential component of enterprise operating models. If you found the ideas above useful, please let me know if you are interested in the group sessions to be scheduled.
*Taylor, J. R., Cooren, F., Giroux, N., & Robichaud, D. (1996). The communicational basis of organization: Between the conversation and the text. Communication theory, 6(1), 1–39.
**”Substantive discussions” includes staff meetings, “kickoffs’”, workshops, and the like. Does not include “stand-ups” (or other relatively brief transactional dialogues), or predominately one-way sessions like awareness webinars, announcements and such.
***How Companies Are Winning on Culture During COVID-19; Donald Sull and Charles Sull , MIT Sloan Management Review, October 28, 2020
****Some specific descriptions borrowed from colleagues David Sepsenwol and Eileen Bedell in the unpublished “We’ve Gotta Start Meeting Like This.”