Go, Team, Go!
Your Jewish Fairy Godmother’s 10 Commandments for Team Building through Meetings
Most people hate meetings. Everyone with too much real work to do that is. So how can you use the time when your crew is gathered to solve problems, create and enhance a sense of group identity, and make your meeting time more productive? Regardless of the specific focus, every agenda should have the same flow and subtext: Goals, Deliverables, Ideas, Resources, Constraints, Solutions. Focus the attendees’ time and energy using these 10 commandments:
Commandment Number 1: Understand your authority.
Are you in charge because someone appointed you, because you’re the supervisor, because of seniority, relevant experience, academic degree, job title, the boss’s favor, because you asked for it or got stuck with it? Why should these people follow your lead? What’s in it for them? Your twin challenges are to earn their respect and solve a problem for the organization. If there’s a sense of rivalry (a spoken or subliminal version of, if s/he fails I can show how much better I could do) you’ll need to transmute that energy into something less volatile and more productive.
Commandment Number 2: Create a team identity.
A shared sense of mission binds people to a common cause. Sometimes it’s pride in being thought of as the best (think Marine Corps ads). Sometimes it’s based on a prize (goal: we get a bonus for accomplishing X). In the best of worlds it’s based on a mutual sense of being able to produce or accomplish something (be it an ad campaign, fixing the broken scheduling system, or any other institutional challenge) because folks really like doing their jobs. Your task is to get people to see the goal as worth more than their individual egos. They should become proud to work together.
Commandment Number 3: Identify the short- and long-run goals.
Everyone should know why they’re in the room. Clarify up-front the timelines, the problems you need to solve, the products you need to create, and the process you’ll use to do it. Set a context for why you’re taking everyone’s time away from what they’d rather be doing, whether that’s actual work, or surfing the internet and making personal calls on company time. Keep a list of deliverables and deadlines posted prominently. Make sure you have time at each meeting for identifying problems, suggesting possible solutions, and building consensus around what to do next.
Commandment Number 4: Get everyone involved.
Trust the way leadership works. Think democracy, not dictatorship. By the time you leave the room, you want everyone invested in the outcome. To get there, they’ve got to be part of the process. Give them all a chance to talk. If you’re staring at sullen silence and folded arms, something’s very wrong. When hands are waving and folks are so excited they interrupt one another to talk, a meeting’s really cooking. Harvest every scrap of an idea on a whiteboard or big sheets of paper. Keep them legibly and visibly in everyone’s field of vision. Help every person in the room feel like a smart contributor. Give appreciation for their input, even if you think it’s stupid or off the mark.
Commandment Number 5: Balance control and independence.
You want abundant creativity, without wasting too much energy on schemes that are fiscally or politically out of orbit. But don’t squelch any ideas too soon. Something that first sounds impossible could convert into a creative solution later. Practice asking: “What’s good about that insight, and what’s not? How do we fix the not and keep the good?” As you identify problems, go back to the team for solutions. For any “it” that’s particularly tough, keep asking: “How can we fix that?” Early in the discussion, keep all the ideas flowing. With luck the team will identify solutions during the meeting. If not, there’s homework ahead.
Commandment Number 6: Mind the clock.
Announce the duration of each meeting and a limit for each speaker’s input. You can operate via recognition by a moderator, an open-mike free-for-all, or passing a baton, coffee mug, or silly hat. But you should appoint a clock monitor to cut off self-appointed geniuses and long-winded drones. First get all whining out of the way: what’s wrong, why we’re stuck, what’ll never change, blah blah blah. Then invite suggestions of alternative solutions. This is the part of a meeting that gives brain-storming its name. Try to identify the universe of possibilities, anything they’d like to see as part of the final answer. Save enough time to evaluate options and agree on what happens next.
Commandment Number 7: Use carrots and sticks as needed
You’re bound to have a mix of recalcitrant donkeys and over-eager beavers, each uniquely problematic. Promises of rewards or future success are good inducements to participate. Praise and recognition go a long way too, as do one-on-one meetings with each participant in which you say (even if you need to wash your mouth out later) “We’re sure lucky you’re on our team.” But you’ll have to make them personal, in case folks compare notes about your pep talks. Be sure to diffuse troublemakers early. They may hate meetings, or simply not like you. But quickly let them quickly know the downsides of impeding the group’s progress.
Commandment Number 8: A little nosh never hurts.
Food has an intrinsic appeal and helps draw folks into the room. The endorphins that a little sugar and fat produce, the insights that caffeine will stimulate, and the general sense of goodwill that an eating break engenders can all be your allies. You don’t want your meetings to degenerate to a coffee klatch. But it’s better to have folks feeling sated and comfortable than waiting like nervous recruits for the drill sergeant to bark at them before breakfast. Create an atmosphere of collegiality and see how your team responds.
Commandment Number 9: Assign homework as you need to.
Create task teams to pursue different alternatives. Acknowledge the costs and benefits of proposed solutions. Assign the biggest whiners to help resolve pet peeves (though only one per working group or you risk mutiny). Be clear about the specific mission of each subgroup, and how much time they should spend. Have each team email the whole committee 48 hours before the next group meeting, and detail their progress. Their homework should explain the problem they were assigned to examine, summarize the steps they took to resolve it, identify their preferred solution, and the advantages and constraints of their recommendations. This all feeds the next agenda. Note: It helps if people read these emails before they walk into the room.
Commandment Number 10: Create consensus.
Your goal is to get everyone to buy into a final solution. They should leave every meeting with a how-can-we-do-it attitude (emphasis on the we), and with enough momentum to get them to do whatever it is you’ve agreed upon. Some philosophers say, whatever the boss says goes. Others believe that if even one person disagrees, the group should not proceed. Opt for a more moderate mandate, a blend of common sense and necessity that’s likely to generate respect and energy, and that passes the red face test (you’re able to announce your recommendations without blushing). Get every attendee to agree, before they leave the room, that they’ll work towards the proposed solution, even if it’s not perfect, because it offers a better future than their current reality.
Be sure you to take a minute to summarize how the time was spent, giving credit to folks for their enthusiasm, contributions, willingness to do more, or other aspects of participation. Like an series of inoculations, it may take several rounds to be successful. But if you can get your crew in harness, used to the meeting process, and genuinely aimed in the right direction, you’ll find that both your authority and your team’s productivity will bring many new future rewards. Plus you get coffee and a bagel.