Consultant, heal thyself

Earlier this month I facilitated a meeting for a group of physicians who are members of a state medical society. The Governor of the state established a consortium for the prevention of prescription drug abuse in response to the national opioid crisis. The consortium in turn, reached out to the medical society to convene members for the purpose of establishing protocols, exchanging best practices, and aligning on a point-of-view to share with legislators that would ensure meaningful regulation.

My blood pressure goes up when I’m in a room with one doctor, so you can imagine how I felt about facilitating a meeting with 20 doctors. Nevertheless, I had agreed to help them tackle an important topic. We needed to make the most of a day-long meeting of professionals volunteering their valuable time. The expertise in the room wasn’t going to do anyone any good without a process that ensured shared understanding and produced actionable alignment.

Working with problem-solving groups is itself an exercise in problem solving.

Smart, highly skilled people who generally solve problems by themselves don’t automatically adapt to the challenges of collaboration. One of the challenges of collaborating during a problem solving exercise is slowing the group down enough to confirm that they agree on the problem before they start generating solutions. Doctors in particular, think fast and have been trained in a diagnostic methodology; they move from symptoms to causes and then prescribe or operate.

A challenge like the opioid crisis doesn’t present itself in the way a patient might show up with symptoms. A public health emergency is not just a more complicated set of symptoms requiring a differential diagnosis. Complex social problems can’t be outsmarted. Chasing down causes might help us feel more in control, but the causes are not static conditions waiting to be discovered. Asking what’s causing the opioid crisis is like asking what causes religion (no Marxist pun intended).

Upon reflection, I’ve come to realize that a tension between competing research methodologies hid below the surface of our work together that day. The doctors had been trained as scientists. Science presumes that objective observation and analysis can lead to universal causal laws. I had suggested a collaborative process based on a social theory approach called, participatory action research. Participatory action research presumes a dynamic relationship between understanding something and changing it. By contrast, science presumes we need to understand something before we try to change it.

While we made respectable progress and agreed to a few clear action steps, I am only now coming to realize the mistake I made in designing a process for the meeting. Because of my anxiety about showing up as an authority, I inadvertently acted like a doctor. I treated the group as a patient. I diagnosed their group dynamics and prescribed process fixes. Alternatively, I could have recognized that together we represented our own complex social network. I might have been more open to the way our challenges and shared understanding emerged through our dialogue. Had I been more attentive to and less judgmental about the group’s natural tendencies, we may have made even more progress.

When it’s your turn to present, start with a question

“That staff meeting was the best part of my day,” said no one ever.

People in organizations endure staff meetings and status update meetings everyday. Of all the dreaded rituals of organizational life, update meetings seem to be the most impervious to change. Staff meetings, task-force meetings, and information sharing meetings according to one study of meetings in America, make up 88% of all meetings. Over 33% of the time spent in meetings is considered, “unproductive” by participants.

We’re not suffering from a lack of effective meeting practices. The founder of the consulting firm where I work, Interaction Associates literally wrote the book on how to make meetings work in 1976.

We’ve known for years how to fix bad meetings, yet we don’t.

I have a theory that partially explains why we allow ourselves to be tortured by bad update meetings and I have a simple suggestion, in the form of a question, for making them better.

Team leaders and functional leaders who generally convene the update meetings are getting their needs met at the expense of all the other participants. If you lead a group and need to know what is happening so that you can anticipate problems, allocate resources or reassure others that you are in control, the most efficient way to get your needs met is to convene the group. The problem is that while the leader gets his or her needs met, everyone else at the meeting gets bored.

If everyone attending a meeting could get their needs met, not just the leader, meetings would be better. When it’s your turn to present at an update meeting, start by asking the group, “what are you listening for?” You don’t pitch in baseball without first checking to see what the catcher wants. Similarly, presenters should never pitch ideas without knowing what their audiences want. Don’t guess, ask.

Suppose you are responsible for working with a technology vendor on a project involving a software change that will impact accounting procedures. You have been allotted fifteen minutes on the agenda to update the team. Before giving your update, you say, “Before I begin, what information do you need from me?” Here are some possible responses:

  • Leader: I need to know if we’re on track with milestones and whether or not you anticipate any budget overruns.
  • Team member A: I need to know when to schedule training classes for the accounting department.
  • Team member B: I don’t need to know anything about this part of the project. If you need support, I’d like to know how I can help.
  • Team member C: I’m curious about your impressions of the vendor. I need a team of developers for a different project

Knowing what people are listening for allows you to tailor your update to the needs of the team. If the meeting is face-to-face, write down what people are listening for on a flip chart or whiteboard and respond to the items one by one. If the meeting is virtual, use the meeting platform’s shared screen to capture the list. Of course you may have important information to share that others won’t know to ask about. You can always add something to list. Most update meetings have nine or fewer participants. If you have a larger group, you may need to have people submit their information needs ahead of the meeting.

Once the idea of presenters responding to what people want to know becomes routine, you won’t even have to ask the question. When transitioning from one topic to the next, participants in the meeting will let the presenter know what they need. The group will understand the expectation that they share responsibility with the presenter for ensuring that only useful information gets exchanged. As a side benefit, people won’t be able to multi-task because they have a role to play even when it’s not their turn to present.

If you want to drive greater accountability, not just greater engagement, you can pair the question, “what are you listening for?” with the question, “what will you do?” at the conclusion of the topic. Before you present, you will know what information people need. After you present everyone will know the action steps people will take with the information you have provided.