July seems like an appropriate month to talk about when and how to “not work.” Some of the best work that teams get done is accomplished together, but not in a meeting.
Give teams relaxed time
One time I drove to a meeting in Delaware with a colleague and we missed a turn, making us two hours late to facilitate a weekend retreat with more than two dozen key stakeholders from across the state. We were appalled.
My colleague drove as fast as he could and, when we arrived, we ran in to the conference room to find everyone gathered around the coffee table, chatting comfortably, and with great animation. What had they been doing? Getting to know each other in a relaxed environment. When we started the meeting, the atmosphere was unusually warm and lively. We could not have designed a better intervention.
Give teams time to play
I’ve always valued the power of informal time together to build relationships and thus facilitate the work. When I worked with a group of high-level Soviet officials and American academics, we held a meeting at a Florida resort where we could swim with dolphins. The first afternoon we all met on a pier, in bathing suits and nervous smiles, and laughed out loud as each person took a turn with a dolphin. Dinner that night was full of laughter. And the meetings over the next two days were more productive, based on a higher level of trust and intimacy.
Breaks allow check-ins and check-outs
We all know that “bio-breaks” for bathroom, food, and phone calls can help participants be less distracted during a meeting. In addition, these breaks allow people to connect individually. Important work can get done this way, as participants discuss ideas one-on-one, make alliances, and sometimes draw out those who haven’t spoken. I am often tempted to shorten breaks to get through the agenda – but I remind myself that the progress made during breaks can be as important as the conversation around the table.
This is also a key time for the person running the meeting to check how others perceive the meeting. Some times I ask, “How’s the meeting going?” and sometimes I just listen. If I am surprised by what I hear, it may be disconcerting, but allows me to adjust accordingly.
Let ideas simmer
I also like the idea of giving complex or challenging issues time to simmer. I consciously schedule tough issues before breaks, meals, or the night, to give folks time to think on their own and to discuss the issue with others. Last month I scheduled a “simmer issue” at the end of a packed meeting, allowing the participants to think about it over the summer.
It’s summer – as you enjoy a weekend away or an afternoon in the garden, think about how to help your teams take a break.