Written by Ed Cook
As we all scramble because of the COVID-19 outbreak of the coronavirus to move to virtual work that means virtual meetings. Anything that has not gone well with our in-person meetings is going to go even more horribly with your virtual meetings. Every distraction, every unfocused agenda item, every meandering conversation without conclusion or action, will be all the more so in a virtual environment. So let’s use this time of COVID-19 driven separation to make our virtual meetings fantastic. They can be a source of trust-building as discussed here. They can even be a way to bring Joy at Work, even more so because so many are anxious about the future. Now is the time for leaders to step up and be the voice that provides calm and guidance. Meetings are the place we can do it!
Meetings are a symptom of bad organization. The fewer meetings, the better.
There is significant risk in contradicting a renowned business philosopher like Peter Drucker and directionally I agree. Businesses often have too many meetings, and it is a sign of bad organization, but well-run, well-constructed meetings virtual or not can be giant infusions of energy for the team. Why? Because humans are social animals and need each other in order to find meaning and purpose.
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
So why do we bother to organize in groups called companies and then gather to talk about what we are doing in those companies? Because we need to. Because the work is about us coming together as a group to get it done. So why not do it in a way that brings Joy at Work? COVID-19 or not.
Some of the things to do are quite tactical like how to actually conduct a virtual meeting. But before getting there, we should look at what kinds of meetings we can have.
The Decision-Making Meeting
One of the most powerful reasons for people to come together is to make a complex, group decision. In academia, this is called a Multi-Objective Multi-Stakeholder decision . There is much to be learned from what has been studied. Here’s an example of an interaction that sets up this kind of meeting with commentary as to why each element is important.
Cassandra, the meeting organizer: “Welcome everyone, this is a decision-making meeting and what we need to decide is how we will execute the rollout of the new system”
Note: At the very beginning of the meeting, Cassandra states what kind of a meeting this is and what the goal of the meeting is. Both are critical to the meeting’s success.
Cassandra: “Here’s how we will handle the meeting. First, we’ll discuss the criteria we will use to make an evaluation of the decision. Then we will list out all of the alternatives. Finally, we will evaluate the alternatives against the criteria. Our agenda follows this sequence.”
Note: Cassandra clearly lays out the steps for the meeting and then connects back to the agenda. Immediately after that Cassandra can set a few key roles for the meeting that will help it go well. These are laid out here.
All of this can be done very effectively whether in-person or a virtual environment. Cassandra needs to stay in control of the meeting, but not in the dictator sense, more the outstanding teacher sense. An outstanding teacher maintains control in the classroom but that is in service to learning. Similarly, Cassandra needs to stay in control of the meeting in service to deciding. There is no joy in a poorly run meeting.
The Planning Meeting
Once a decision has been made, there has to be a plan to achieve the decision. Again, a structured approach to the meeting will greatly improve its effectiveness. Here’s another example of the interaction.
Hector, the meeting organizer: “We need to create a plan to implement the new system. We will soon be ready to implement the first component, but I want to make sure that we have all the risks identified and a solid plan to mitigate them and deliver this first component and then the rest of the new system as well as we can.
Note: In setting the planning meeting up this way, Hector’s layout can be used for any software delivery methodology, agile, waterfall, or any other.
Hector: “Here’s how we will handle the planning meeting. We will lay out the critical activities for managing the change with the full group of stakeholders impacted, then all the activities for rolling out the technology and all process and policy changes. Once that’s together, we will add in any other elements to complete the plan. All this is spelled out on the agenda.”
Note: Like Cassandra, Hector describes the meeting process and then ties it back to the agenda.
Now Hector can assign the roles in the meeting that will give it structure (a Conversation Leader to drive the meeting which could be Hector, a Time Leader, to keep the agenda moving, and a Visual Leader to take notes on what is said and present the materials) .
There are a couple of tricky situations that can take a planning meeting off-course from completing the plan. These situations relate to two of the other meetings. First, there is often a desire to revisit the decision or alter it which may be appropriate but should be deferred to another meeting. The planning meeting may reveal new information that could alter a decision, but without going through the decision-making process that evaluation shouldn’t be made on the fly in the planning meeting. It will be up to Hector to complete the planning meeting or stop it and schedule a new decision-making meeting.
Second, there can be a strong tendency to want to brainstorm possibilities and not move to specifics of the plan. A well-run brainstorming meeting can be a useful way to bring out possibilities but it should be done separately. Like the decision-making meeting, the planning meeting needs to converge to a final answer. Brainstorming meetings are diverging meetings that open up the frame of discussion. A planning meeting is about closing the frame to the specific actions that need to be taken to achieve the goal.
The Brain-Storming Meeting
Brain-Storming meetings can be both productive and truly fun, but they, like the other meetings, need to be structured for them to work well in a virtual environment. The difficulty with Brain-Storming meetings more than any of the others is that there is significant value in building on each others’ ideas. A virtual environment makes that difficult because people are not able to pick up on the social cues that allow for a group interactive discussion. The structure of the meeting is critical to making this happen in the virtual environment. Here’s an example of the interaction.
Helen, the meeting organizer: “Today we get to engage in a creative session. I love these brain-storming meetings!! The goal today is to come up with all of the ways in which we can use change management engagement tactics for all the stakeholders of the new system. I’m sure other ideas will come up for other elements of the rollout plan, but we will note them in a parking lot and then come back to our specific focus, engagement tactics for the change effort.”
Note: Helen is setting up the meeting as an energizing activity but is making the topic fairly narrow: engagement tactics as part of the change effort for the new system. This helps ensure the energy is channeled into a specific area.
Helen: “To start, I want you to write out the ideas that come to mind for engagement tactics. We are using a definition of engagement tactics that is ‘tactics that have the stakeholders involved and active in the process of change.’ There are other tactics we need to work out but let’s stay on the topic of engagement for this meeting.”
Note: Helen is using a proven method, well documented in the academic literature, of having people silently write out their own ideas first and then share them with the group. This generates a deeper and more diverse set of group ideas.
A brainstorming meeting can be hard to keep focused but is a powerful way to use the collective brainpower of the group to understand a fuller set of possibilities.
The Information-Sharing-and-Discussing Meeting
Here’s the “half” meeting which the title of this piece suggests. It is the slippery-slope of meetings. The “why-did-I-just-waste-an-hour-here” meeting. Sadly, it is the one most frequently scheduled meetings but should be the one most judiciously scheduled.
Meetings should never be used solely to pass information
Ashamedly, I was well into my career before this dictate became clear to me. It took a deeply thoughtful and persuasive person to point this out. What she said was,
“Why would we invite people from all over the country to come and then subject them to dozens of PowerPoint slides?”
It was brilliant! But I had spent so many years with these meetings I hadn’t really considered it. It was just...the thing to do.
These meetings are rampant in business culture. It’s not surprising. We come together in organizations to get work done. It makes sense that we should get together in groups and talk about what we are doing. If we are spread out in many locations maybe even more so. How else will we maintain social bonds so important to human interaction?
Use a passive medium for passive information
Yes, certainly those are all good things, but an information-sharing meeting with no other purpose than to pass information is a very poor, even destructive way to do it. The answer for information sharing is to pass the information in a passive medium such as email, messaging systems like Slack, Intranets, shared file systems, even posters, but don’t make people sit through a recitation of a bunch of facts.
If the goal is to get a dialog going about the facts, then that is a totally different meeting. In this case, the meeting organizer can set up the meeting to deliver the facts quickly or even before the meeting and then have a discussion about them. What is critical to this process is that the meeting organizer needs to state clearly what the purpose of the meeting is. If that is not done then participants will gravitate to one of the other three meeting types individually. Chaos follows shortly.
I count this as only a half meeting because it is a type that should be very rare. I’ve seen it best used when really big announcements, usually bad news, need to be shared and the leader needs quick feedback on how the news will land.
The one most important idea in planning any meeting is purpose. Ask yourself why you are having the meeting and what it will take to achieve success. Do that and your meetings, virtual or not, will improve with each iteration.
What if achieving joy is truly the role of a leader?
Written by Ed Cook
While watching a symphony or orchestra or choir, I’ve often wondered what the value of a conductor is to the other musicians. Afterall other music groups seem to do fine without one. Rock bands, jazz groups, a cappella ensembles, all manage without a conductor. I got an interesting glimpse into just what a conductor does after viewing this smile-inducing clip. A professional ensemble sets up on a city street with a sign that invites passersby to “conduct us.” We are then treated to a series of would-be conductors who produce...what? Clearly, the ensemble does not need them to create music. Yet each of these conductors brings something special...joy!
As the first conductor steps forward, the glee on the faces of the musicians is striking. They are truly ready to take on whatever the conductor can provide. As each new conductor steps forward, we see some take on a persona of a conductor, some test the limits of their powers by spotlighting a particular musician, some add clearly nonstandard moves to see where it leads. Even a city cop steps up and gives it a try. It’s a wonderful scene. As a metaphor for leadership, it is powerful. The conductor is not bringing better technical music. The musicians clearly have that handled. The conductor is bringing joy. Their own unique and fully realized version of joy. None is better than another. They are all precious.
What if achieving joy is truly the role of a leader (conductor, team captain, CEO, foreman)? This does not negate the need for proficiency in the technical skills of the job, but those are inputs to the process. Perhaps joy should be the leader’s output. The rest of the team can create the outcome of the group (music, points, profits, quality).
Currently, the Richmond Symphony is in the process of finding a new conductor. With amazing candidates, the leaders of the symphony have constructed a significant program where each candidate will lead the symphony through several performances, but will also meet the public, talk with city leaders, and generally engage with the City of Richmond. Certainly, the skills of each candidate will be on display. Each will show their ability to conduct the musicians, select the energy of the performance, and even demonstrate their thinking on the future of the symphony, but I suspect there will be another important criterion as well. The musicians will imagine rehearsals and judge if they will be joyful. City leaders will consider if a prospective conductor will add to the joy of the city. Patrons of the symphony will imagine performances in the future and search to find the special joy that this conductor could bring.
A useful distinction between manager and leader is that managers focus on outcomes and leaders focus on teams. Think of the team that you look back upon as your favorite. Joy was likely at the center of that experience. Reflect on that experience and go find your place for conducting joy!
If measuring competencies is irrelevant and impossible what should we measure?
Written by Ed Cook
In corporations around the globe, managers are engaging in a process to develop their associates. At least they are trying to do it. These well-meaning attempts typically include some sort of a model of competencies. The manager is supposed to “ground” an assessment of the employee’s competencies with behavioral examples when they exhibited higher or lower levels of these competencies, then finally give the employee a score against each competency. There are a few core questions to examine in this system of thought.
First, what is a competency? So many companies talk about these. Rate their people on these. Determine promotions, bonuses, raises on these. Companies define competencies like “strategic thinking” and “builds relationships.” These certainly seem useful. Who wouldn’t want an employee to be great at these two competencies and others? Typically, competencies are the more intangible traits that a company thinks makes for a great employee. So, we need to define a competency so we can measure it.
Second, how is a competency defined? This is where it starts to get tricky. Competencies are abstractions, something that only exists as an idea. To make sure everyone is on the same page for the meaning of any competency, companies attempt to define them by listing “behavioral examples” that often have “differentiators” for the level of proficiency of the competency that an employee demonstrates. With a typical five-point range, that means even having five competencies requires twenty-five differentiators. The descriptors used to make the differentiation are often adverbs like “rarely,” “sometimes,” and “always” which now sets up the problem of defining those terms. On it will go becoming more and more complex and unwieldy.
Third, how is a competency measured? With descriptors either fixed year-over-year or defined for each year (a laborious process), managers are now tasked with determining where on the scale each employee sits. Here’s where the system really starts to wobble. There are two factors to examine in any measurement system: validity and consistency. Validity is the ability of the system to accurately measure. Consistency is the ability to do it repeatedly without significant variation. Competency measuring systems can do neither.
First, competencies cannot be measured. Taking “strategic thinking” and “builds relationships” as examples, are they expressions of who we are and therefore immovable or are they skills that can be improved? If they are skills then there should be direct tests to measure them and a body of knowledge to learn. If companies see these as skills, then there is a clear path to measurement and training. A skill mapping system makes sense because then all are clear that these are skills which are valuable for the role. It would be possible to develop schools and classes for these like there are for accounting and marketing and analytics all of which have a body of knowledge to learn and external tools to measure proficiency. If instead competencies are expressions of who we are, then a very different approach is needed to understand these. For an understanding of the psyche of a person, we look not to a group of outsiders (managers in this case) to peer inside the head of an employee, but rather we use internal tools. Questions are asked that an employee answers, not managers, about how they would handle a situation or simply how they would assess themselves. A look at art and artists can be instructive. There are many skills involved in creating art, that can be learned. Arts schools exist in part to do this. But art schools take a very different route for the competency of creating art. They don't measure it with external tools, instead they create a dialog between student and teacher where the student can discover what art means to them.
Second, improving a competency does not necessarily drive improved performance. Certainly, it is the job of managers to make decisions with limited information. It is not unreasonable to explore the idea that even if it is very hard to get the measure right, the process of doing it can still be valuable. This is the second problem with competencies. The idea of the well-rounded person who performs better as a result of improved competencies is the stuff of management theory not management reality. To see this, we can look to examples of all kinds from sports, music, business, military, government. We wouldn’t ask a great footballer to enter the hockey ring or an opera star to sing hip-hop or a sales person to handle accounting. In studies of what did make for a great performer, what consistently showed up was that they excelled somewhere. It was not being well rounded but instead having greatness in some aspect of the role.
If measuring competencies is irrelevant and impossible then what should we measure? Answer: outcomes. This is at once subtle and obvious. Obvious in that people have been measuring outcomes since the first person made a trade of a good to another person. What else are we measuring except the goodness of the work? We should continue that tradition. This is, however, subtle in that describing a good outcome in our ever increasingly complex processes of business can be hard. But…that is the role of a manager! Of all the things a manager can do to create value, clarity of what good means for each employee tops the list. With that clarity, employees are now empowered to make decisions about how to get to that outcome. An opaque system of competency measurement will not do it.
There is still room for managers to help employees make improvement. Managers can coach to provide guidance on how employees can use their skills to better effect. They can provide training to improve skills. Even better they can be clear on what skills are needed and then set up training programs for employees to obtain those skills. They can select work that both plays to their strengths but allows room for them to grow. Managers remain critical to the success of the group and the growth of the employee. It is clarity of outcomes that shows the path to success.
When you focus on the struggle the clarity of your team's purpose will emerge.
Written by Ed Cook
On February 14, 1990, the scientist of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) turned Voyager 1 around to face the solar system. The spacecraft was just beyond the orbit of Neptune and on it’s way toward interstellar space. While out there, Voyager 1 took what came to be known as the "Family Portrait," a series of photographs of Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter, Earth and Venus. At the press conference Carl Sagan, at that time a "rock star" scientist because of his popular books and television series, "Cosmos," said,
"We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings..., every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam."
The photo of the Earth became known as the "Pale Blue Dot."
Capturing these photos was heralded as a defining moment in humanity’s struggle to understand the world and itself. But not everyone was so joyful.
At the time, many of the scientists at JPL were adamant against risking a shot so close to the sun that it might damage Voyager’s camera as well as the use of Voyager’s precious fuel to create photos with no scientific merit. This was a stunt in their minds. More publicity than public science. In fact, Carl Sagan had to go over the heads of the scientists at JPL (some had been working on the mission for over 20 years) to the Administrator of NASA, Richard Truly, to force the issue.
But outside of the scientists themselves and those curious enough to read the books and watch the documentaries, no one remembers that struggle. Just the pictures are remembered. Those striking thought-provoking pictures. You can see them here: Family Portrait
Often projects that are considered a huge success in hindsight were a struggle all the way to completion. Recognizing the value of the end result and not the strife on the way there, is a key for leaders to maintain strength and push out doubt. In fact, it is the ability to engage in struggle that creates the conditions from which greatness can emerge. Squash all dissent and team will atrophy as their muscles to handle a difficult question are unused. Foster the struggle, guide it, and a high-performing team will emerge.
This happened for me in a large team program. The leaders were "bickering" (or so I labeled it), but as it was happening Roxanne texted me, "This is great! They’re working it out!" That totally set me back on my heels. That was not my interpretation, but as I reflected, I could understand that she was right. The team was in the struggle, working it out, and in the process getting stronger. Had I squashed the conversation, it would have sent the message that I was concerned primarily about harmony or even worse that I was indicating some opinions are more valuable than others. Instead, the team stayed in this mode of struggle and I kept them focused on their purpose. In the end, we completed the program successfully. It was great, but it was never easy.
I have failed and (re)learned this lesson every year of my career. It is as difficult as it is powerful. Focus on the struggle and the clarity of purpose (your team’s purpose) will emerge.
How to build and sustain trust on a virtual team.
Written by Ed Cook
What is trust? And, why do we want to build it? These may not have the easy answers the simplicity of the questions suggest. Let’s start with trust. We place our trust “in” things and people, like, “I’ll put my trust in this old car,” or “I’ll put my trust in Angela,” or even “I’ll put my trust in God.” We talk about “my trusty pen,” or “umbrella,” or “screwdriver.” But how do we even know we have trust? The one key characteristic of trust is that it is something given, as in, “I give my trust to you.” It cannot be taken or really even earned. The origin of the word itself is from Old Norse and means strength. In giving trust, you are giving your strength to another. A powerful gift.
As to why would we want to build trust, especially in a team situation, the value is clear. The team is stronger. This makes sense if the team is thought of as the collection of connections between the members of the team. The collective strength of those connections are the strength of the team. Building trust is team building.
This definition provides a guide to the activities that will truly build the team. These activities cannot be merely episodes in the life of a team. Although ropes courses and team outings and, yes, even trust falls can create comfort between team members, they cannot create trust. These efforts are more of a quick, sugar high. Tasty but it doesn’t nourish. This is particularly true when the team is working mostly through virtual means.
One of the ways to build trust is for each of the team members to express to all of others the unique value they bring to the team. Then the other members of the team tell that person what they appreciate about them. This Appreciation Exercise is something we have done with many teams and the results continue to surprise us. In a simple exercise like this, people who are normally emotional rocks will tear-up as they hear what others appreciate about them. In many cases, they did not realize the value that others held for them. Trust was implied but not expressly given. A video meeting is a perfectly good way to do this for a team that must work virtually.
This brings up the second way to build trust, use video. Effective human communication relies strongly on audio and visual information not just the conceptual content of the message. So a phone call is better than an email, and a video conference is better than a phone call. Making sure that the message is fully received is certainly important in the giving of trust. How sad it is to mean to convey your trust only to have the receiver miss the message because of the limits of the medium.
The third way to build trust is the most obvious and most difficult. It must be given. Since Trust is a gift, it cannot be earned by the team member on the other end of the video chat. It must be given. In that gift, you are strengthening the team and increasing the chances of your own success. This is the key to strengthening a team...trust me.
How to be a meeting genius.
Written by Ed Cook
As I step out of a meeting, I wondered nearly aloud: “What was that about?” Yet another hour spent with a group of people, both on the phone and in the room, where NOTHING of any value was accomplished. So much time together, with so little to show for it. And then Ron Swanson (my favorite character from the TV show, Parks and Recreation), ran through my head: “Why don’t people know how to meet?” For those in the know, he actually said “eat” instead of “meet” but it still works.
I wondered why don't people know? Maybe nobody ever showed them? Maybe they haven't experienced a good meeting? With that in mind, here are my Four Guidelines (because there aren’t really rules) to achieve a good meeting.
For those still skeptical that these will make a difference, I ask you to imagine the opposite. People come together, they don't know why, and they are not sure what to do. They do it because others do it. It may be enjoyable but often not productive. To me that's not work, that's playing company. Imagine hearing, “I'll make the agenda!” “I'll get the snacks!” “I'll send out the invite!” Those people are playing, not working. It's silly.
Employ even one of these techniques and you will be a meeting master. Employ them all and you will be a meeting genius.
Practical ways to get you and your team focused, even when you're under stress.
Written by Roxanne Brown
What do you do when you have so much to get done and your team is just not focused? Let's get right into it...
The first thing to do, of course, is to get yourself focused. What you focus on grows, right? Take five minutes to jot down….
Getting a little perspective helps! You could probably come up with a quick game plan with the answers to these questions alone.
But let’s talk about what to do when the team is under stress. In the best case scenario, the team is stressed yet energized toward the goal. They’re into it! It’s awesome! The worst case is when the stress they’re feeling is leaving them deflated or hostile. Getting a team like that to focus can be particularly difficult and no fun.
When a team is stressed and energized, the main thing to do as their leader is to sustain their momentum and feed that energy. Pick your spots to remind them of the vision -- where you and the team are going and how their work is getting you there -- and stay out of their way. Don’t disappear! Your attention matters. Try not to be a hovering manager but instead a coach on the sidelines -- encouraging and quietly communicating confidence in them.
When a team under stress feels deflated or angered, that’s clearly a different story. Now is the time to separate their emotions from the pressure you’re under.
Here’s what I mean. You probably know in your gut what’s wrong. Think about it. Are people feeling disrespected? Are they tired from running hot for too long? Maybe they don’t understand why their work matters. Or, they do understand but they don’t think their work matters to their leader or the company. Maybe there’s a change in direction that’s really unexpected and very different from the path they thought they were on. The point is to check in with yourself. Looking at things from their perspective, you probably know something about why people are feeling the way they do.
Here are some other questions to answer:
Acknowledging and communicating comes next. Your team needs to hear you acknowledge the problems before they’ll see you as credible and get onboard. It’s time to share your vision for the future and why it matters in terms of what’s at stake. It’s also time for you to declare a personal commitment that you will stick to. And, ask for their help.
This approach may seem dramatic but it’s effective no matter how emotionally charged the situation is. The idea is to tune into what’s happening with yourself and your team, decide how you want it to be and lead.
Sure, you could lay down the hammer instead. You could threaten them (directly or indirectly) to focus. You’re the leader, you can do what you want. But be careful, threatening is not a long-term play. Sooner or later your reputation shows up long before you enter the room. What you do in these moments becomes the content of what people say about you when you’re not there. And, that has consequences for who will follow you, who you attract and, eventually, impacts your contribution to the world.