Monday, November 16, 2009

An etiquette for peak team performance

Strategy meetings are the place where all the good and bad news is supposed to be shared, sifted, weighed, evaluated and converted to new knowledge. And for everyone to quickly agree to the best course of action under the circumstances.

Some meetings are leaderless, and roam randomly all over the place. Others have a chairperson, who allows people to take turns to speak. The etiquette we use to guide important meetings is often a throwback to our murkier, and more belligerent past, when we drew swords or guns to settle disputes.

David Kirkpatrick, writing in Fortune magazine, once famously said meetings occupy up to 70% of a manager's time, are too long and held too often. Few or poor decisions are made, 20% of the people do 80% of the talking, decisions are imposed by managers or they ignore the decisions taken by subordinates. Meetings lack focus, do not deal adequately with inter-personal conflicts and the minutes are rarely an accurate record of what was decided. They are also often very stressful.

So what is the difference between a great meeting where new knowledge is collectively created and agreed and one that leaves many people unhappy with the outcome? What are the rules of engagement?

Marcial Losada uses complexity theory to show that peak team performance is highly correlated with group connectivity as measured by the number and strength of speech acts between the members of the group. Group performance declines as the number of connections becomes smaller and weaker. High performance teams create new opportunities and the emotional connections including trust, sharing, mutual support and engagement. The members of poorly performing teams exhibit little enthusiasm for their tasks, do not trust each other and become cynical.

Whether we make robust connections with others largely depends on the meeting etiquette.

Some meetings employ an etiquette called monologue, a one-way kind of interaction which result in negligible intra-group connectivity. The after-dinner speech, oratory, the keynote and the boss telling you what to do. All are a form of monologue. Everyone agrees to listen while one person speaks. At the end of the speech, there may be time for questions where you, the listener, get to have a "say". Its' great for hearing from an expert, but useless for information exchange and developing affective, intimate relationships.

Then there's the discussion etiquette. One person speaks at a time, while others listen. Sometimes its a free-for-all, so that even before one person has finished speaking another interrupts to have their say. Often the quiet, reserved people do not even get a chance to contribute, unless you are from a Greek or Italian family where you are conditioned to everyone talking (and presumably listening) at the same time. The problem with discussion, is vital information may never get onto the table, or if it does, is shouted down by the loudest voice, or herded into a corner by the majority, and quietly or noisily strangled. Coalitions form of one group versus another. People who are not heard go off and politick, or refuse to accept the decision.

Fortunately, new, more integrative forms of discourse etiquette are emerging, which are both more respectful of all participants but more effective as a way of creating new knowledge. In the more democratic space of a workshop, polite turn-taking may be slower, but at least everyone gets to be heard. World Cafe and Open Space meetings are classics in this new space. Graduate management schools use a mix of syndicate and plenary sessions to exchange ideas. Participants work on an issue in small groups, then report their findings to the remainder of the group.

In schools there's a whole bunch of etiquettes for small group discussion, which result in high levels of cross connectivity between participants. The reciprocal teaching method is a repeatable process that involves four stages - questioning, clarifying, summarising and predicting - that is easy for students to follow and subsequently use on their own.  The Jigsaw method involves assigning different parts of a topic to each of several groups to learn, and then teach to others. Think-Pair-Share and Think-Pair-Share-Square from the cooperative learning stable encourage people to have conversations in pairs to achieve the maximum possible conversation for the entire group, then share the conversation with others.

In the electronic meeting world of Zing, the Talk-Type-Read-Review etiquette encourages conversations in pairs and the rapid sharing of ideas via a giant computer screen, following by a sensemaking step. It's an etiquette which employs dialectical discourse. Through a process of guided questioning and sensemaking/pattern detection, all the ideas are resolved into a higher level, overarching idea that embraces the broad spectrum of subsidiary ideas. It's the fastest and most effective way I know to create new knowledge together.

So here is a workshop to explore better ways to meet in your organization, and to design/develop a new etiquette to achieve the high levels of interconnectivity, trust, sharing and mutual support that leads to peak team performance:

1. Describe the best/most effective meetings you attend in your organiztion. How are they organized? Who gets a say? In what order? What are the rules?
2. Describe the worst/least effective meetings you attend in your organiztion. How are they organized? Who gets a say? In what order? What are the rules?
3. What new meeting rules/etiquette could you adopt to a) ensure everyone is heard b) all issues are dealt with by the decision/plan c) the decision has widespread support and d) is a good fit with the emerging business environment?

# Losada, M. (1999). The complex dynamics of high performance teams. Mathematical and Computer Modelling, 30, 179-192.

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