Meetings, The Benefits of Shared Understanding and How To Achieve it!Had any meetings recently? How would you score the meeting and your co-attendees out of 10?
My own experience is that a ‘10 meeting’ needs clued-up, contributing, relevant people and a good process that travels the path from “Welcome” to “See you next time”. I recently met Kelvin McGrath of MeetingQuality at the 2017 #PMOConference. Kelvin focusses on just these concerns.
Analysing Meetings to Predict Project SuccessKelvin runs http://www.meetingquality.com where he has combined the insights of Ron Burt (Boundary Spanning) and others in a way that allows you to measure the quality of your meetings and business relationships with sufficient insight that the analysis is a contributing predictor of project success!
Finding Out How To Do Better MeetingsMy own interest is to turn knowing how to measure, analyse and predict into guidance about how to foster more 10 scoring meetings and enhance project success.
Somewhere in that mix is a second and third theme of interest to me; I believe that remote working - through tools like skype/lync, zoom, hangouts and #slack - offers opportunity for creating BETTER shared understanding than many face-to-face meetings achieve!
The nature of some project ‘meetings’ is now that they are held asynchronously. In that case you should sometimes read ‘collaboration and communications’ where I have written “meetings”.
My third theme is that great communications have to be translated into follow-through of actions and results. Meetings are a hurdle at which we can fall but not of themselves a source of success.
A Need for Less Naive AdviceIn total there are many meeting types or meeting purposes. In the specific context of projects at least some of our early meetings are intended to determine direction of travel; to define the target result desired. Getting these right is crucial to success. Other crucial meetings design the journey. Yet others share status etc but maybe success is less sensitive to their quality?
Within the meeting type’s purposes are the determinants of how to foster good meetings. What makes ‘good’ is situational.
The freshly minted The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK®-G) 6th Edition (PMBoK-G6) has a newly explicit Tool and Technique at 10.2.2.6 Meeting Management which tells us to distribute agendas and stay on time. Now while that is ‘good advice’ sometimes the advanced creation of an agenda and appointment of a chair person are two ways to contribute to or reinforce a systemically bad meeting that turns off people’s ability to contribute and thus destroys motivation. Not always but potentially. If your aim is to ‘rail-road’ a decision that is how you do it.
The wrong meeting set-up, particularly where it counts; as a project struggles to overcome inertia by collecting and growing people’s enthusiasm has far reaching negative fall-out. Done well the early parts of the project’s interactions bring the participants to a place where enthusiasm and energy build team and momentum that helps us cruise to project delivery.
Have you ever received any meeting ‘best-practice’ advice that said something other than “You HAVE TO have an agenda and a chair”? If not then thus far the guidance you’ve received is rather naive. PMBoK-G6 expresses a vastly different perspective on project best practices than its predecessors but it is repeating socially naive guidance when it comes to meetings and meetings are perhaps the dominant consumer of project team time and energy and so the fulcrum of project success or failure.
Lets explore more deeply.
Shared Mental ModelsThe way in which together we achieve project results is by sharing understanding. Understanding is searched for and ‘constructed’ by building models in our heads of the world around us.
When we seek to share those models, we embark on a hard task.
It is no surprise (I hope) that the process is helped by pictures over words and working (prototype?) systems over pictures. Until Elon Musk’s Nueralink human computer interface or its imitators and successors are in wide use we will have to manage with yellow sticky notes, the ubiquitous (mis-use?) of PowerPoint equivalents and increasingly the tools of virtual collaboration spaces like shared desktops.
Even pictures and prototypes are of no use if the sociological aspects of people’s interactions are not also tuned to the constructive needs of the participants. Here it starts to get complicated. Kelvin directed me to a paper by Christoph Haug that analyses the elements of a meeting’s conduct. Christoph’s analysis explores physical meetings but is still very relevant to my interests of a functional meeting using virtual team technologies in a project setting.
Words Across A TablePhysical meetings take many forms, for example folk may be sat around a table. These meetings favour words as the medium of exchange. Tables and words are the first factors affecting achievement of purpose if that purpose is design oriented. The presence of the table 1) creates a physical barrier and 2) puts some attendees where the likely dynamics are face-to-face or in constant direct eye contact while other’s eye-contact becomes hard. These forces have a myriad affects.
At least everyone knows how to sit at a table and in that case the full range of words, tone of voice, body language and so much more non-verbal communication becomes part of the total dialogue. The fuller communications can enrich the discussion by aiding the transmission of ideas, promote debate and enhance search for shared view-points and acknowledged ranges of disagreement.
On the other hand, barriers such as tables, non-verbal cueing and other factors are also the sources of a disempowering meetings. For example the chair can use eye-contact to ‘allow’ speakers to contribute and eye-contact can inhibit people to broach difficult topics. In the virtual world participants can be further disadvantaged by being unsure of the technology and the new etiquette conventions such as how to signal “I have a point to contribute here”.
When the wrong meeting structure is selected or the wrong conduct allowed, encouraged or even enforced then the sociological and psychological forces at play reduce the chance of success or even prevent it.
Wrong MeetingsI can recall several whispered “that was a load of b****cks” comments with colleagues in the corridor on exit from failed meetings. I have two opposites in my mind. One started “we need your input…” and then set the agenda and told us the problem, told us the diagnosis, told us the resulting actions imposed on us, the ‘solution’ (which by the way didn’t work) was already a fait-accompli. Contributions were not wanted. Another likewise started “we need your input…” but ground to a halt as the facilitator struggled to get anyone present to contribute freely. Participants had insufficient trust to share their opinions openly because everyone knew resolution needed some bruising exchanges and the prevailing culture was one of power not seeming to be linked to very open ears.
In contrast to meetings held by sitting at the same table are electronically hosted meetings. They may put all the participants in different locations but they also remove eye-contact and change the dynamics of what is socially acceptable. For example, lack of eye contact, even as reduced by video meetings allows remote participants to step-outside physical meeting norms. I have several current team member colleagues who self-selected virtual working as their preferred way to work collaboratively because it allows then freedoms they didn’t enjoy face-to-face such as raising topics otherwise considered too sensitive. It seems remoteness makes people bolder; perhaps in compensation for a reduction in intensity?
Perhaps most usefully eMeetings put all the inputs and tools of search-engines, document and picture libraries, shared white-boards, even animation, video and increasingly 3D printing and more not just at our shared finger tips but centre stage of our meeting’s expected conduct. Output wise eMeetings make easy and already common recordings that time-shift for absent colleagues. Real time speech to text is also easy but so far uncommon in my experience.
On the negative side and most obvious is that electronically hosted discussion enables, perhaps even encourages multi-tasking which is a comprehension killer in any situation that needs attention to detail. Virtual collaboration spaces are powerful amplifiers of the good and the bad.
Not Routinely There YetCollaboration tools from PowerPoint and flip-charts to shared virtual desktops and #slack are with us all the time now but in my experience the transition to routine use by all is far from yet achieved. While people COULD use them in physically collocated meetings take-up beyond static PowerPoint is low and fluency in virtual spaces is even lower.
For example my experience in virtual meetings is that I find I’m in the minority switching on a webcam. My experience is that often the technical environment has glitches whose causes are roughly equally security policies and immature tech. Bandwidth issues are less of a challenge but not eradicated. Prime though is that our participants are not sufficiently tool literate to use the facilities available.
Additionally, continual shared collaboration spaces like #slack require everyone to communicate through them. I frequently experience (and sometimes cause) several days delay for simple replies from busy people.
Kelvin tells me his data shows that the biggest bug-bear of mixed in-person and virtual meetings is inadequate attention to the participants out of the room by those in the room and that even slack’s CEO recognises that when part of asynchronous collaboration moves back to eMail then “it [open forum discussion] tends to fall apart”.
Shared generation of value is only likely if the people have the skills in both the new cultural paradigms and tool literacy, the tech. works and the meeting’s combination of ‘Regimes’ is conducive to purpose.
RegimesMeeting regimes are Christophe Haug’s decomposition of 6 themes of constraint to 18 variations (I have applied my own filters and interpretations and rewordings to his ideas). For the original see the references at the end.
For a fuller – but still adapted – description of Christoph’s Regimes see the tables in the appendix.
|Pre-scripted Framing Regime||Open-Space Framing Regime||Evolving Script Framing Regime||The three choices on the axis of choice for how we set the meeting’s agenda|
|Informal Turn Taking Regime||Formal Turn Taking Regime||Casual Turn Taking Regime||Three mechanisms for allocating people’s turn to contribute|
|Authority Leadership Regime||Egalitarian Leadership Regime||Complex Equality Leadership Regime||Three places where the authority can rest|
|Conflict Avoidance Social Regime||Conflict Based Social Regime||Candour Social Regime||Three ways to handle contentious content|
|Grape-Vine Boundary Regime||Plenary Boundary Regime||Functionality Boundary Regime||How rigidly enforced is the meeting’s timings and use of tools or techniques|
|Ignored Environmental Regime||Inclusive Environmental Regime||Pragmatic Environmental Regime||How (if) the location and facilities affect the meeting|
|The 6 combined regimes in this column have the potential to be the most disempowering. They may rubber stamp and formalise a foregone decision||The 6 regimes in this column may lead to creative meetings without a conclusion||A meeting using this combination of regimes is likely to raise, debate and close issues but risks external politics negating its results|
What I have ‘lifted’ verbatim is Christoph’s analysis of how the three patterns of regime combination in the table result in differently empowering (or in the first column’s case disempowering) meetings. Christoph points out that 726 more combinations are possible beyond the three above!
Disempowering May Not Be All BadThe first column above could be great for a project sponsor explaining the vision they are paying to have delivered. That can be a vital part of project success.
But big but; it is a disaster for a group of subject matter experts seeking to explore and debate design issues with the aim of shared understanding and commitment to act – which is also a vital part of project success.
I’ll explain more of regimes and their combination into styles later. The right style simply enables. The meeting’s style determines how the meeting is run. Within that style we also need the right participants being enabled.
Right PeopleI could write reams here about meeting passengers etc. but I’ll be more succinct. A valuable participant has the subject matter expertise to understand and contribute to the meeting’s purpose. They also have a reason to attend. They arrive appropriately prepared and with will and energy to play their part (appropriate preparation can range from ‘none’ so as to arrive with an open mind through to rehearse, scripted presentations and more).
In addition to a proposed list of 18 ‘real’ reasons to attend meetings amazingly Kelvin’s data from the field shows about 1 in 8 participants have a 19th which is they don’t know why they are at any given meeting.
Segmentation?In some circumstances a participant’s value may be the authority to make decisions.
I have found in many projects that some topics deserve a meeting that explores options and a separate meeting that decides and different (overlapping?) participants at each.
In my experience, the power of a segmentation approach has been that I can get senior people to attend short meetings with clear focus and a decision orientation. I can build motivation in open forum that searches for opinion and consensus. I can combine the two to avoid the “won’t talk in front of the boss/ overdrive attention seeking in front of the boss/ blind agreement with the boss” types of dysfunction while keeping the combined ‘commitment to act, and act with authorisation’ overall.
Finding the Right People For ActionI mentioned Ron Burt above. Burt shows us how people in organisations are connected to each other and that some individual’s connections reach a long way from what we might call their local close circle. He called these people boundary spanners. They are connectors. Many commentators have since shared Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties” and Malcolm Gladwell’s observations in his book Tipping Point.
I’ll assert that in a project environment there is only one ultimate reason to hold all the ancillary meeting types; to motivate and coordinate committed actions. All the others are preparatory of this ultimate reason.
Gladwell identified that to build momentum needs a stickie message and the ability to reach out through connections to new communities.
Gladwell describes three personality traits that have been combined whenever we see unstoppable social momentum; someone with a message (the maven) links with someone who is highly connected who links with someone who is highly persuasive (the salesperson). Of course all three abilities may reside in one head.
The right meeting style (collection of regimes) is an example of multi-criteria decision making where participant’s personality type, the nature of the subject matter, the meeting’s purpose and the shared culture are all contributing factors.
Better SharingOne step to better meetings is to understand the axis of analysis that reveal the social mechanisms in use. Social mechanisms are often forces affecting us all that a lot of people could not name or describe but that we recognise when they are explained. Christoph’s regimes are an example.
Another axis is the technologies available (but not if our environmental regime is ‘Ignored’ – see the regime definitions later).
Another is our choice of words. All sharing of ideas and options needs communications. Words can be helpful but they are also a hindrance (more in a minute). Communication is often best achieved using graphics. Working prototypes systems can be even better but are hard to create – although note that a scrum (agile) end of sprint product demonstration is a discussion with a working system and could be said to be using the ‘Inclusive’ environmental regime (recall more regime details in the appendix).
Frustration of Words Around A TableUsing more graphics is obviously aided when we use tools like skype well or when we use white-boards and flip-charts well. ‘Search for understanding’ meetings where people are sat around a table and rely on just words always frustrate me. Words are so often, so far from well used to convey concept.
Is it just me or do you also hear people start their descriptions with an obvious encyclopaedia of assumed but unlisted, unexplained factors creating ambiguity and uncertainty in their messages? How much better then to use graphics tools and how much better to de-materialise the meeting around shared collaboration spaces that everyone has equal access to? Even concurrent access!
Lets explore words and structuring their presentation a little more.
Vocabularies and MindSetsChelle Rose Charvet wrote an excellent book (Words That Change Minds) on people’s mindsets and how their words reveal them. Are you a big-picture person? Rule bound or rule maker? Problem resolving or goal seeking? Should I aim to help you ‘see what I mean’, ‘Hear what I say’ or ‘Sing from the same hymn sheet’ or ‘get in step’?
Whether we draw pictures and build models or not we still need to use words. Even when we can perceive the mindset of a speaker or of our listeners from their words and thus improve the transmission of meaning we still face the challenge of constructing arguments that link objectives or problems to actions that are agreed and taken.
Problem DescriptionDescribing a vision (seekers) or problem is bringing us towards my third interest above – generating committed actions. But first we need to overcome the problem that to simply agree the description of goals and problems turns out to be hard in some cases.
The terms ‘Wicked Problem’ and ‘Mess Management’ have been used to describe ‘problems’ whose description and analysis is fraught with complexity. Wikipedia gives a good introduction to wicked problems and the whole class of responses. Responses are ‘vocabularies’ and techniques for argumentation and design rationale representations like Horst Rittel’s IBIS (and see also Jintae Lee and Kum-Yew Lai’s 1992 MIT working paper). A wicked problem is one: whose existence involves emergence, whose description is unique for each observe, whose description anchors the solution search, whose potential solutions cannot be assessed in advance as right/wrong and often only present as “that’s enough” after we get past a point of recognition and for which each attempt at solution changes the problem left.
When dealing with these problems when is it right and useful to use which tools and techniques? What meeting style should be combined with which purposes and participants?
Great Meetings – A Hint Towards How To:…Great meetings need the right style from Christoph’s 6 axis of constraint. Then within that context there are techniques and orientations which can assist us to build teams that select and deliver the organisation’s portfolios of project based change.
Kick-OffMost people have heard of Kick-Off meetings.
Kick-Offs communicate “this is where we are going, why action is needed, what the constraints are”. As I alluded above Christoph’s ‘Disempowering’ combination may well be the most appropriate in this context. Used well the impression created could be a clear vision, a firm sense of direction and confirmation of reliable sponsorship through easy and tough times. Maybe disempowering should be relabelled Power-Focussing?
Within the Kick-Off context my preferred tool for envisioning is the Program Exit Test (maybe I should ™ that!). Adapted from Use-Cases, Test Driven Development and elsewhere “As <role> I am coming to inspect <operational procedures> in routine use on <date>”.
There is so much that flows from the backcasting of actions from program exit tests through business behavioural tipping points, benefit flow measurements and eventually cascade-able project milestone targets that I’ll leave the expansion here to my video training on project meetings at http://learn.logicalmodel.net/. Suffice to say we have to know how to conduct a meeting, use techniques to share opinions AND have the tool-set to capture the meeting’s agreed semantic content.
Framing Sessions Before and After Kick-OffsLess people seem to use framing sessions. They are perhaps more important than kick-offs for the success of business investments (projects).
Here it is appropriate to use Christoph’s functional boundary and pragmatic environment regimes. It is right to add discussion tools like those I previously mentioned from Hörst Rittel and wicked problems (IBIS and the Compendium software) and Russel Ackoff’s Mess Management perspective of synthesis instead of analytical decomposition.
Framing sessions need chairing or facilitating, they still need participants from the right constituencies, they need communication outside the meeting that has previously ‘kicked-off’ something empowered and they will need other communications that will subsequently turn exploration into decision then decision into action and then action to results.
Framing asks “what is possible? Where are the possible boundaries?, How?, Can we chart the implications of competing choices?”. Used well these are optioneering sessions whose result can be to build commitment by having shown willingness to listen. They do not have to be power-sharing but they are encouraging the use of a debate-space.
If Kick-off cascades the target destination (What) then framing is the nemawashi* before kick-off that selected destinations and the nemawashi after kick-off that option-eers potential solutions (How-To) backwards from Program Exit Test to project milestones via Gladwell’s Tipping-Points using Ritel’s IBIS or other argumentation language.
[*Nemawashi is the Japanese word for the activity to socialise an idea and to build committed consensus]
Governance and FreedomWhen the context is complex then the governance control regime is freedoms, adaptive and iterative. When the context is linear certainty and simplicity then management can be predictive and optimised for efficient swift delivery.
Once again it is too much to include the details here of how meeting protocol, ideation tools and project governance, leadership and management all coalesce but project success depends on them and increasingly we are seeking success in collaborations based on virtual team spaces.
I’ll just summarise by saying that once our meeting constraints are well constructed then our envisioning meetings benefit from an attendee outlook that synthesises rather than analyses and benefits from tools that capture proposition and argument to visualise conversations and choices. I’ll leave the expansion of these themes to my video training on project meetings at http://learn.logicalmodel.net/.
See the Appendices -