TeamBuild July 2019: Why it works to not work

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.

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TeamBuild June 2019: The Power of Virtual Agendas

In February, I talked about the power of working online with teams. This month I want to zero in on one online tool – a shared agenda that also is used to take meeting notes in real time.

In three organizations I work with, we draft and post our agendas on Google Documents. Everyone who will be in the meeting has editing access. During the call, the agenda is in front of everyone (on Zoom, for example, on a shared screen; otherwise, everyone can pull up the agenda on their own screen). Minutes are noted on the agenda as we talk. This is both a tactical and cultural change that is challenging for some but ultimately efficient and accessible.

Post the agenda ahead of time

Posting an agenda online avoids having to send out an agenda via email. In one group I chair, I have committed to have the agenda online 48 hours ahead of our call. Everyone on the team can edit the agenda before the meeting, which distributes ownership and can result in a better agenda. This also means that you don’t have to go searching through your emails to find the agenda – it is always sitting in the shared Google Doc.

Simplify minutes by taking notes on the agenda

Increasingly I work with teams that take minutes in real time – on the agenda, online, so that everyone can see what is noted as the call progresses. In one group I am in, we take turns taking minutes, to share the load. Visible real-time note-taking also distributes power – it becomes clear what the note-taker is writing down or not, and others can speak up. In addition, while the note-taker for the day has lead responsibility for taking notes, anyone else can add or edit notes as we talk. It’s helpful to keep track of what was decided, who will do what (I note this in the document in red), and to not burden someone with summarizing and distributing notes afterwards.

A cultural change

In this new culture, each person is responsible for accessing the agenda themselves. The agenda does not land in an email; however, email prompts are helpful – “Just a reminder of our call tomorrow – please review the agenda beforehand.” (Where it says agenda, provide the link.)

Last week I heard a client typing while we talked. “Are you drafting an agenda? Put it on Google Doc and I’ll join you,” I said. With that, we worked together online, collaboratively, and efficiently.

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TeamBuild May 2019: Visual Voting

This past weekend I used a tool I call “visual voting” and it proved surprisingly effective in moving us forward. For visual voting, options being discussed are written on flip charts and participants walk up to the flip chart and place colored dot stickers next to their preferred options. In this way, there is a quick gauge on where the group stands.

Visual voting is different than a show of hands in two regards – the votes are anonymous and they stay up in front of everyone as a visual representation of which options have more support. It’s also important to note that the team is then looking at flip charts, which is neutral territory, and not at each other. And voting this way is physical – it gets folks up and moving.

The team I was with last weekend was a board that had spent a year examining alternate business models to address the fact that participation in their programs had decreased by 75%. Based on this work, the board met to come to agreement on which direction to move forward with.

Each team presented a business plan; there were seven options under consideration. Following each presentation we entertained clarifying questions but not comments that were judgmental or evaluative. Then everyone was asked to go to two flip charts listing the seven options and “vote.” Each person was allotted three green dots for the options they liked and up to three red dots for options they did not like or had a strong concern about. Everyone had to vote for their top three options (green) but didn’t have to rule any option out (red).

Once everyone voted, the colored dots made it easy to see where there was consensus. We started with discussing options that the group wanted to rule out and in fact, there was one option that got a lot of red dots. There was quick agreement that this model didn’t fit the values or the brand of the nonprofit.

We then looked at which options received the most dots; two options stood out. The group discussed strengths, weaknesses, variations, and overlaps of the remaining options. Seeing the dots arrayed over seven options was a quick and clear gauge on where the group stood and helped structure the discussion.

What would have happened if the dots were evenly distributed? While I’ve never seen this, it would in fact, be useful data. It would let us know that we didn’t have sufficient consensus on key attributes, values, or decision parameters, and would have to back up.

Importantly, visual voting is efficient, anonymous, and can even be fun.

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TeamBuild April 2019: Share the conversational pie

Don’t you hate when you get stuck in a conversation with someone who hogs the “conversational pie”? Similarly with groups, members disengage when one person, or a few people, take up most of the air time. If some people don’t participate, you may miss key data, not get the best decisions, and most importantly, not get full buy-in. I try to be explicit about sharing the conversational space when facilitating a meeting; here are a few approaches I use.

Set the tone early

When I ask for introductions, I say how long or what elements to include and then start first in order to model brevity. If an introduction that follows mine goes on too long, I step in to reinforce the standard.

Engage naysayers; confront bullies

Welcome individuals that disagree. Ask for a contrarian view. Thank them. If naysayers are valued, they may participate in a useful and insightful matter. However, I don’t believe in letting one individual dominate. In my June 2017 blog post about bullies, I mentioned an example in a senior team retreat when someone who had already spoken twice, asked for the floor a third time. I told him that I was going to call first on people who hadn’t spoken yet. He stomped out of the room; I let him go. Later, he returned and waited his turn.

Write it first

Sometimes the fastest thinkers talk more. I often ask a group to individually write their thoughts down on a subject before opening the conversation to the whole group. In this way, thoughtful people who need more time to organize their thinking, may feel more ready to enter the conversation.

Write it for all

I’m a big believer in taking public notes – either on flip charts in a meeting or in an online document during a conference call. I started my consulting practice years ago with a group that worked with high-level Soviets – they called me their secret weapon because I took notes on flip charts and when the Soviets repeated something they had said, I would point to where I had already written it down. Seeing that their point was noted, they would smile and stop repeating themselves.

I also use public note-taking to organize interventions, so that I can acknowledge what someone says while holding to the agreed agenda. “I’ve noted this here; let’s come back to this when we address xyz in the agenda.”

Set the tone, be consistent, and use writing; people appreciate a well-balanced conversation and you’ll get the best out of your group.

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TeamBuild March 2019: Remember to be surprised

In a graduate school course I taught this fall (strategic planning for nonprofits), I ended each class by having my students list a facilitation technique used in class and then writing it up. A few of my students gave a name to something that I did – “Remember to be surprised” – and I thought you might appreciate it.

“Remember to be surprised” refers to the fact that I called out achievements by two different students in two different instances, that I hadn’t expected. As I said to the class, it was an important reminder to me to be open to what people can achieve, a basic principle I try to keep alive in the teams that I work in and run.

One of the students who surprised me was a shy student who often spoke with her face looking down and her hand in front of her face. She volunteered for a particularly challenging part of a public speaking exercise we did where the volunteer has to sing a personal purpose statement without reverting to a known tune and singing in vowels and no words. To everyone’s surprise, she sang with strength, captured the class, and made the point about presence in public speaking with aplomb.

The other student that surprised me was one that turned in a first draft of a semester-long writing project, a strategic planning handbook, that was rife with errors, had poor structure and writing, and appeared to demonstrate a lack of understanding of key concepts. She came to me for feedback, turned in multiple drafts for more feedback, and ended up writing a final draft that was so strong that I sent a copy of it to the Dean of the school.

Remember to be surprised. Remember that individuals aren’t always what they seem at first. Remember to have hope and expectation and be open to what is possible.

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TeamBuild February 2019: Google Doc as team builder

As some of you know, I often work with groups on big pieces of flip chart paper. How archaic. BUT, I have also stepped into the 21st century and use Google documents (“docs”) – an online document that multiple people can access – to work with teams. I find it very powerful.

How does it work?  To start, set up a shared online folder in Google Drive with separate documents in folders. The owner of the document can give editing access or “view only” access to multiple participants. For our family cottage we share financials with nine families but allow editing for two people.

Remember to name the folder appropriately – I’ve had to ask for folders to have the organization’s name, not just “Strategic Planning” as I have multiple groups I’m doing strategic planning with. It’s also useful to set a standard naming protocol, starting with the date so that the most recent draft shows up first on the list.

In real time  I use Google Docs during a meeting so that participants can comment on and see changes to a document as we work, like a blackboard. It can be used when everyone is in the same room (projected or on individual screens) or when located in separate locations. As I’ve talked about in a previous blog (March 2017), using a common text that all can comment on and edit in real time works like the One-Text Approach outlined in Getting to Yes, which advocates the power of negotiating agreed-upon language through multiple rounds of edits.

In between meetings  In between meetings, using a Google doc distributes ownership and increases efficiency. Post a draft timeline, contract, or proposal, and get input before meeting. A search committee I was on with members in two countries and candidates from four countries, posted schedules, candidate interview questions, reference check debriefs, etc. on Google Docs, for review and commentary in between meetings.

In addition to giving access to everyone on the team, posting online is efficient. It avoids having to send out emails with drafts or agendas; allows editing without the possibility that drafts will cross; and makes it easier to find the most recent draft.

In sum, while I still use flip charts when appropriate, I find the elegance and flexibility of Google Docs a game changer.

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TeamBuild September 2017: A mission to remember

I’ve been thinking about mission statements lately as I draft one with a board that I am on and remind myself to follow my own best advice.

I believe that a mission statement that is aspirational, short, and uses ordinary language is remembered and thus, used. It can serve as an elevator pitch when someone asks “What does your group do?”. It can be used as a touchstone internally, when making strategic decisions as to what to do and what not to do. A longer, complex, or more formal mission statement may look impressive on a plaque or website, but is difficult to keep in one’s mind and to quote.

I have three rules for writing a mission statement that is easy to remember.

1) Be aspirational.

A mission statement should be visionary, bold, and inspire. I know of a staff that didn’t want to include the words “and get a job” in their mission statement because they feared being measured by whether their students got jobs and worried they would fall short. In fact, a mission statement should set out an audacious goal — JDRF’s mission is to find a cure for diabetes; Oxfam is to create lasting solutions to poverty, hunger, and social injustice. It’s the striving, reaching aspect of such a statement that makes it exciting, and thus memorable.

2) Take the time to make it short.

It can take a long time to write a short mission statement. I spent hours with the leadership team of SSEF and used tens of sheets of flip chart paper to finally land on: We support the South Sudanese community of greater Boston to be self-sufficient and to embrace our diverse cultural heritage. Complex concepts were encapsulated in simple words. “Self-sufficient” stands for being educated, getting a job, having access to health care, and more. “Embrace our diverse cultural heritage” addresses the fact that the South Sudanese in greater Boston are from different tribes and speak different languages, but are all South Sudanese and American.

3) Use ordinary words.

Formal language can be difficult to remember. One of my favorite mission statements is one that a young farmer I know told his mom he uses for his goat/cheese farm: I think of stuff that you and Dad and your friends would buy and then I make it. Now it’s true that this may not be used on a website or brochure – but it is driving the farmer and his staff. They now produce goat milk cheese and soap, baseball caps, and a site to be rented out for weddings.

In sum, it is the short mission statement with a bold vision but ordinary words that will be used.

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TeamBuild July 2017: The value of values we recognize

One exercise I do with teams is to explore shared values about how they want to work. The challenge is to unearth values that are inherent in the culture and values that the team aspires to – but with language that they recognize, will remember, and use.

Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos, did just this. After six years of running the company, he took a year and emailed all the employees several times to ask what they thought their core values should be.

“The problem is that they’re usually very lofty sounding and they read like a press release that the marketing department puts out. …We wanted a list of committable core values that we were willing to hire and fire on.”                                           Tony Hsieh, HBR 5/24/10

They came up with ten Core Values, including “Deliver WOW through Service,” “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness,” and “Be Humble.”

A Congressional office I worked with recently talked about “radical hospitality”, a term they articulated as a core value at their first retreat five years ago. This year a new employee told a story that illustrated that value. He was in one of the local offices when a woman raced in, wild eyed, sweating, and her hair sticking up. She asked to use the bathroom. He hesitated as he saw his colleague reach for a button they have to alert help. But he said to her, yes, you may. When she emerged from the bathroom, she explained that her husband had abused her for a decade, today she had decided to leave, and that this was first place she came to. The tag line to radical hospitality then became, “Yes, you can use the bathroom.”

When I worked with a senior team from a regional environmental nonprofit, they discussed an argument online that had gotten ugly. Someone said that the disagreement should then have been handled right away and in person. “Just pick up the phone” became one of their operating principles.

Accessible and down-to-earth values language, emanating from the team itself, and told with humor and sometimes drama, are the kind of values are used, passed on, and hopefully inspire.

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TeamBuild June 2017: Bullies

When I started consulting, I didn’t believe there were adult bullies. I was wrong.

In my May blog, I talked about “radical empathy” for difficult or oppositional people. But some people are not just naysayers. Bullies can be covert and quiet or they can yell and throw chairs (I didn’t see the chair thrown but heard various accounts of it). The behavior of someone like this is corrosive in one-on-one relationships and can upend a group.

With bullies I’ve learned that some strong personalities are creative, brilliant, and useful to a team and that others cannot be tamed. In both cases, my approach is to hold steady and address these individuals head on.

In one team I worked with, there was a person with a reputation as a bully. I met with him before the first group meeting and viscerally felt his power. But I liked him. It was apparent that, if he would collaborate with the team, he was unusually creative, had a lot of energy, and was very persuasive.

At first, he contributed appropriately. But in the third meeting, he got angry. Not surprisingly, he got angry at me. He stood up, walked towards me, and waved an email that he demanded I read to the group. Unprepared for this, I said no. I hadn’t read the email thoroughly. He raised his voice, “You said you read it before this meeting!” I countered that I had skimmed it and wasn’t going to read it out loud now.

After the meeting, I called him to explain why I hadn’t interrupted the meeting to read the email (it wasn’t on topic and reading a prepared statement was out of place with a dynamic conversation). His response? “Oh, okay,” he said.

In a different group, someone who had spoken twice, asked for the floor a third time. I told him that I was going to call first on people who hadn’t spoken yet. He stomped out of the room. (The CEO followed him.) I let him go. Later, he returned and waited his turn.

In cases like these, the group is waiting to see what norms will be enforced. Bullies push until stopped. Being firm, calm, and consistent can set the boundary the bully needs. I model how to stand up to a strong personality. The group appreciates that the bullying won’t continue.

That being said, I have also dealt with people who won’t stop bullying. I coached a senior VP for a half year to give her perspective that what she was facing was inappropriate and to give her tools to manage one individual. She held firm, and he was fired.

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TeamBuild May 2017: Radical empathy

Recently, when I was working with a distinguished senior team, there was one individual that I didn’t like or trust. I knew this was not a good thing and called one my favorite mentors to talk about it.

“I know this isn’t a helpful attitude, especially as the facilitator of this team. I just don’t like him. I don’t trust him. What should I do?” I asked.

“I think you should practice radical empathy,” he answered.

I couldn’t help but smile. Of course. In Leadership on the Line, Heifetz and Linsky say, “keep the opposition close.” And part of me knew that, with this difficult person, instead of moving away from him, I had to engage with him. And so I did.

I met with him individually and talked with him by phone. What I found reminded me of what I often find — someone insecure, wanting to contribute, and to be heard. Someone I liked more than I had thought. Not only did I build a bridge to a potential foe, I also learned something important. He had previously been the head of this team and ran a strategic planning process – it was vital that I build on that and not look foolish for re-creating the wheel.

I also try to practice radical empathy as I facilitate meetings. While my instinct may be to turn away from someone who is a naysayer or recalcitrant or difficult, I try to remember to make sure their concerns are heard, give them responsibility, and talk to them at the break. Acknowledging their view can soften their stance and open them up to listening to others. If I’m working with flip charts, I note their issue, underline or circle it, and return to acknowledge their point when appropriate. By welcoming their different or difficult point of view, I sometimes disarm them and most importantly, get useful data.

I admit, it’s hard to do. So lately I’ve been reminding myself of this phrase, “radical empathy.” It makes me smile.

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