Category Archives: Effective meetings

Collaboration Keys

In today’s complex world, collaboration is indispensable. Yet too often, it is a vague aspiration or buzz word. stepping stones across pondGood news! You can teach your team and whole organization language keys that unlock collaborative behavior.

Key #1. Sharing your street corner

When a group is wrestling with a high-stakes or contentious issue, encourage better listening and prevent unhelpful conflict by asking people to “share their street corner.” The phrase invites people to realize that they are speaking from a particular standpoint.

When Joan says, “this is how I see this issue from my street corner,” several things happen. She shows awareness that she speaks from a particular context, for example, her job function or stakeholder point of view. Because the other group members recognize the phrase “sharing your street corner,” they get curious to know more about her viewpoint. The phrase also encourages Joan’s colleagues to share their street corner.

In a recent meeting where I introduced this phrase, group members realized that misunderstanding had developed because two manager groups live on different street corners. Once the groups understood their different viewpoints, they explored sources and results of the difference. The meeting helped group members “cross the street” to talk and, eventually, work toward the common “interests of the neighborhood.”

Key #2. Share notions

When it’s time to think about problem solutions or ideas for a change, begin by using the term “notions” instead of “solutions.” A notion suggests one possibility among many. It means “this is just a thought” and doesn’t drive a stake in the ground. Notions encourage a free exchange of ideas that broaden people’s perspectives.

The language of notions also helps prevent two ways teams get stuck. Maybe you’ve seen a group make a bee line toward a solution without entertaining other options or even clearly defining the issue. When the group has a shared understanding about “notions,” they can get unstuck when a group member gives a cue like, “Let’s treat this solution as a notion. What are other options?”

Another way groups get stuck is by spending so much time gathering ideas that they leave no time to evaluate them, make choices and solidify action plans. When your group lingers too long in the world of notions, you can say, “okay, we’ve got several notions. Now let’s analyze them so we can make good choices.”

Thanks to collaboration experts Miller and Katz for these helpful phrases.

Key #3. Speak to the fire.

Imagine your team conference table as a circle with a fire in the middle. When uncomfortable issues arise, the group can handle them openly when group members “speak to the fire” instead of aiming at other group members.

When Derek hears a colleague on the Quality Improvement team defend a process that he feels is broken, he knows he has to speak up. He says, “I’m going to speak to the fire here. My experience is that this process continues to cause delays.”

There is disagreement here–but no blame. “Speak to the fire” is in-common language that invites risk-taking, acknowledges discomfort and prevents blaming.

“Speak to the fire” comes from a collaborative method called the Circle Way.

The Simplest Way to Effective Meetings

Do these sound familiar? Your senior team gets bogged down in discussions without clear outcomes. Board members discussing a difficult issue circle around it, avoiding what is hard. A new team treads cautiously while important decisions wait.

For meeting headway, where do you start? Use sturdy group discussion guidelines, which should:

  • Promote deep thought and clear understanding.
  • Keep discussion focused.
  • Encourage healthy disagreement.
  • Yield clear, actionable decisions.
  • State expectations for running on time and evaluating the meeting.

To promote deep thinking and clear understanding, try these four guidelines:

Merryn works with a group 2011

  • Talk about assumptions.
  • Explain the reasons behind what you say and do.
  • Make statements and invite questions.
  • Be specific, using examples and data.

This set comes from Roger Schwarz, who built on what Chris Argyris and other pioneers noticed about how many assumptions lie beneath what we say. We are not trying to hide anything; we simply take our assumptions for granted. These four guidelines invite us to be aware of our patterns of thought and emotion and then tell co-workers where we are coming from.

In a recent meeting, my client–a non profit COO whom I’ll call Karen–used the word “whiners” to describe employees who raise objections to the change she is implementing. During a career in the air force, she explained, she loved the admonition “no whining,” which she thought was a useful norm. By explaining the basis for her thinking, Karen followed the second guideline.

All four group guidelines invited Karen and everybody at the meeting to get curious: What assumptions are underneath the conclusion that people are whining? Do other group members have different views? If so, what is the basis for them? Surfacing such information helped Karen understand what had been her automatic judgement and opened the door to modifying her change strategy.

Meeting guidelines are nothing new. Yet most leadership teams I work with do not use them. Why? The guidelines that have failed them are the wrong kind. Statements like “Respect each other” do not improve meetings because they merely state good intentions.

Instead, guidelines must describe specific, expected behaviors. You cannot directly see respect, which is the result of several behaviors. In addition, people of different cultures, age groups, etc., have different ideas about how to show respect.

Useful guidelines state particular actions that group members can see and hear. That is why there are four guidelines that remind people to be aware of assumptions and reveal their thinking. Here are more examples of guidelines that describe behavior:

  • Avoid “talking over,” interrupting, and side conversations, including texting and sending emails during meetings.
  • Agree on what important words and acronyms mean.

When I lead groups, I use 16 guidelines that invite everybody to monitor and adjust in a continuous learning loop of heightening awareness, speaking up, then making adjustments individually and together. Consistent use of meeting guidelines are a simple way for groups to learn and model mutual accountability.