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.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Where did my old job go?

Ever wonder where your old job went? And why you can't get a new job with the same skill set? And you have to go back to college to learn new stuff at 30, 40 or 50.

It' not entirely the fault of Wall Street as Michael Moore suggests in his latest movie, Capitalism: A love story.

Sure, many companies outsourced jobs to Mexico and India, and the banking sector probably wiped out millions of jobs by scaring the daylights of each other so no one was willing to lend any money for anything any more. And like Moore said, they placed bets on top of bets using our money, until "values" soared 40% above the trend-line. So they created a recession on the back of a fake boom.

But the underlying cause is mostly YOU and ME. And the other 6,000 million people on planet earth who constantly choose to purchase new fangled gadgets and enjoy enhanced experiences like go-anywhere tourism, instant cuisine experiences from every corner of the globe, wireless commuting, multi-channel entertainment from your desktop and interactive everything.

All the instant personalized services we enjoy come at a high cost. The much simpler, easier to perform job you used to have compared to the ones you cant apply for any more are being designed into new technology that automates what you used to do.

Remember the Luddites, the British textile workers who protested against the advent of looms that automated their jobs as craftsmen in the early 19th Century. Or the farmers who flocked to the cities whose jobs were displaced by the tractor and the combine harvester at the start of the 18th Century. Or the acres of secretaries and typists whose work was wiped out by a whole bunch of do-it-yourself tools during the 1970s and 1980s. The work we now do using the computer, the photocopier and software such as word processing, spread sheets, databases presentation or artistic tools which are such an important part of all over lives used to someone's job.

In between paradigms our jobs seems relatively safe as incremental changes are made to our tools. But every so often comes a new wave of technology, that not only sweeps aside the jobs of the previous paradigm, but also further automates the work of earlier eras. Each new technology is a new combination of several earlier fields that eventually displaces both the ancestor tools in all of those fields and the expert skills needed to use them.

The new methods and technologies are hidden under the hood. The extra knowledge is built into the way they make the product or deliver the service, with fewer steps, using less or smarter materials, or knowledge in the form of circuits and mechanisms.

Much of our hedonism is made possible by a rapidly growing number of bright sparks from a country you thought was under-developed and a city whose name you can't spell. These kids possess a masters or doctoral degree or technical qualification in a field you have never heard about before. Our situation in the West is becoming more precarious economically simply because our kids are choosing easier subjects instead of the science and maths needed for this kind of work, and we are giving these jobs away to kids in China and India who are prepared to do the hard yards.

And although some of the places we thought were under-developed and may have religious and cultural rules that frighten the daylights out of the more liberal-minded citizens amongst us, and although their neighbors may live constantly with the fear of death from diseases the West mostly eradicated a century ago and the microbe infested water they have no choice but to drink, or may die from the fighting over some remote drought-ridden sandy/rocky wasteland for some obscure political reason. Many have TV, mobile phones, the internet, cars and the latest wireless technology just like we do.

The signs of an emerging Wisdom Age are already apparent. New jobs are being created daily to more wisely apply our knowledge to deal with climate change,energy production and consumption, the safety of foods and pharmaceuticals, fresh water and a good lifestyle for all.

It's no wonder we see the tools as both our salvation and the cause of our existential angst. Here's a few emerging fields to think about. Nano-technology, bio-materials,  systems theory, complexity theory, bio-mimicry, cybernetics, expert systems, robotics, knowledge creation systems, neuroscience, machine-machine communication, spiritual and ethical reasoning.

So here is a workshop to explore what might be emerging?

1. What could we mean by the "wise application of knowledge" and what this could help us do?
2. How could we use "old knowledge" more wisely, or be sure the "new knowledge" we are creating is really useful or reliable?
3. Brainstorm a list of emerging fields and how they could help humans work and learn faster, smarter or more wisely. e.g. neuroscience - design new methods to help people make better decisions fater and more reliably with greater trust between them.
4. Describe a new product/service that could be created by combining one or more of these fields with either each other or an existing technology. Nano-technology, bio-materials,  systems theory, complexity theory, bio-mimicry, cybernetics, expert systems, robotics, knowledge creation systems, neuroscience, machine-machine communication, spiritual and ethical reasoning and serve our needs for the "wise application" of knowledge.
5. Brainstorm a list of new tools, technologies and methods that you might like for to support what you want to do in a "wise application of knowledge" world.
6. Brainstorm a list of new jobs/careers that you might want for yourself or your children in a "wise application of knowledge" world.
7. Thinking about earlier job and tool paradigms, how could "wise application of knowledge" tools further enhance tools used in hunter-gathering, agriculture, manufacturing, information and knowledge work.
8. What's a project you should start today to reinvent your products or services or business, community or government agency for a Wisdom Age world? (5 word snazzy title, 25 word description).