The Art of Managing Meetings

I've been very impressed by the work of Scott Page and his work on the science behind the strength of deploying a cognitively diverse team. So much of it provides opportunities for exploring what we've been seeing first hand as organizations come to terms with new ways of working.

One interesting idea is the role of a manager in balancing team time to optimize on tasks. Tasks can be described as being 'conjunctive' which indicates that the group's collective efforts are required to generate an optimal outcome. This may be because there are sequences of tasks or that the work is being allocated across different functional expertise or experiences. Other tasks are described as 'disjunctive' and really only require one correct answer to be successful. As an example, a solution to a supply chain issue need only be surfaced once. The execution of this innovation may be a conjunctive task, but the problem solving only requires one 'right answer'.

When teams work at a geographic or functional distance, understanding how time should be spent in face-to-face or virtual meetings needs to be a primary focus of managers. It becomes quite easy to start categorizing tasks as conjunctive or disjunctive in order to avoid underlying issues of collective performance. The two extremes of this bias are listed below.

1. Two Heads are Better than One

In this type of team, meetings are frequent and lengthy. Everyone needs to have a voice on most tasks and context-setting takes up an inordinate amount of time. Staff grumble that things move too slowly but feel valued as they have opportunities to chime in on any number of initiatives. They feel a connection to the larger direction but feel stretched to contribute to all of the tasks underway. This arrangement generally describes a manager that sees many tasks as requiring comprehensive input. The baseline assumption is that more people are required to execute effectively. Experts and specialists feel marginalized as their particular expertise is not valued differently than less-technical tasks that require coordination. People who enjoy the social aspects of work thrive. The benefits of diversity are diluted as sub-optimal tasks are included with tasks better-suited to collaborative exploration.

2. Too Many Cooks

This situation is defined by infrequent meetings were individuals report in on the aspects of the project they are accountable for. Work is divided up into discrete tasks early, and those tasks are distributed to team members for completion. The benefits of diversity are reduced as opportunities for collaborative action are truncated in the name of efficiency. Meetings are 'status updates' and feedback is not always welcome, particularly from those outside of the perceived 'expertise'. People who enjoy the activities of task completion thrive in this environment.

The role of the manager, then, is to understand their own bias in framing work tasks and ensuring that enough time is offered to benefit from the diversity of the team while not dragging out conversation beyond a point where the assets in the room offer only marginal benefit. Obviously, this is a challenge. The best teacher is experience, but only when feedback is offered on the efficacy of team function. This can be particularly challenging with distant teams as there is less motivation to correct the situation. Some will thrive, others struggle, and eventually the team composition will lean torward the style of the task manager.

Here are a few hints to deal with 'management drift':

1. After-action Learning - team members need to have an opportunity to offer feedback on their experiences in a process. By aggregating the responses of the team, the manager will have a better sense of where the line needs to live. Psychometric assessments can help indicate whether a group has an innate bias (a Learning Styles Inventory can be a powerful tool).

2. Clarity on Terms - a lot of assumptions go unaddressed, particularly in distant teams, as we either assume a shared consensus or can't benefit from social cues that something is not being talked about. As simple a question as, "What kind of input would this task benefit from?" can help managers see when more discussion is needed and when it's time to put the tasks into the hands of the experts

3. Celebrate - understanding how individuals contributed to overall task completion provides insights into where value is created. If functional areas are consistently offering value to projects outside of their perceived scope, then institutionalizing that relationship can frame 'the line' where dialogue and distinct tasks live.

The managers primary responsibility with geographically or functionally distant teams is to understand where the diversity of the group offers value and where it just drags things down. The practice of management allows for better decisions to be made as the manager matures, but feedback must be ongoing in order to become a truly reflective practicioner.

Jerry McGrath applies best practices from creative and entrepreneurial communities to support partner organizations and movements. His interest is in how to support existing institutions to become as adaptive as startups and to contribute to the rehabilitation of the concept of leadership for the 21st century. Areas of specialization include strategic planning within creative organizations, strategic innovation, agile approaches to innovation, design approaches and thinking, open leadership, entrepreneurialism and the future of work.