Have you ever heard of people having a “meeting about a meeting”?
Even though strengthening our relationships is a good enough reason to meet online, we don’t want it to be the main reason behind all our meetings. We need to make sure that there is also enough time to get the work done.
A common reason for calling online meetings is the need to make a decision. If your team works well, there will be plenty of times when team members can make decisions on their own. Other times they might know who specifically they should consult, or whether to start a discussion in an asynchronous environment. But sometimes team members, and even us as managers, might need a bit more guidance on whether to call a meeting or not.
Do We Need a Meeting?
- Overall importance
How high are the stakes? How much will the decision outcome affect you all ?
- Duration of impact
For how long will you have to live with the decision?
- Difficulty of the decision to be made.
How complicated or ambiguous is the situation you need to work on? If it’s a simple problem, like “should you invest in the paid version of your current collaboration platform?”, an asynchronous text-based conversation might be all you need to decide. On the other hand, the decision to recruit for a new team member will benefit from a richer conversation, where your emotions also play a part.
- Who will be affected?
Is this a high-investment decision? This question will also help you to decide who will need to be involved in the discussion. If after a decisions is made some team members will have to use their own judgement, initiative and creativity to implement it, you probably want them to be involved.
In addition to helping you decide whether you should set up a meeting or not, these four criteria can help you plan the meeting. If it’s going to be difficult to make the decision, if it will have a big impact on your team, and affect all of you for a long time, it might be worth scheduling three different meetings over a week, rather than trying to squeeze everything into a one hour session.
Similarly, after considering the four criteria, you might decide that, although it’s a low-impact, easy scenario, it will affect a lot of people. In that case, you might want to kick off an asynchronous conversation, and get each team member’s input over a week. Following that, you can assess whether you need a meeting or not.
Supporting Your Meetings
Once you’ve decided a meeting will be worth your time, consider how the rest of your communication ecosystem will support it.
- How much information can you share beforehand?
- Is that information easy to access?
- Can you kick-off the discussion asynchronously, to surface the different points of view before you get to the meeting?
Does Your Decision Need a Discussion?
If you prefer not to go through the above process and go straight into the meeting, make sure you check at the beginning of the meeting where you all stand in relation to the issue about to be discussed. You could save yourselves a lot of time.
Ellen was the student representative in a committee tasked with filling in a new position in a University. After interviewing a series of candidates, the committee met to decide who they should offer the post to. They sat together for around 90 minutes, comparing notes on each candidate. The head of department then decided to take a straw poll, to see where people’s preferences lay. When one name was read out, every hand went up. Everyone looked around, surprised at their complete agreement. And once the surprise wore off, they became a bit annoyed with themselves.
The committee members realised that this one candidate had had unanimous support from the start of the discussion, but they had spent an hour and a half sharing their thoughts - something that could have been avoided if they’d taken the time at the beginning of the meeting to check in with each other about their preferred candidate. [Story adapted from Rework podcast Meetings are Toxic]
This is exactly the kind of scenario you want to avoid. Having a 90 minutes meeting that could have lasted only ten. If you are unable to share your points of view asynchronously before the meeting, it’s advisable to check at the start of the meeting how you view the problem or decision.
Gradients of Agreement
In the Facilitator’s Guide To Participatory Decision Making, Sam Kaner lays down a series of criteria for when to seek “enthusiastic support” for an idea. In your remote context, you can use this list to help you decide whether you need to call a meeting or whether you can make the decision asynchronously - or a bit of both.
First off, a disclaimer: I don’t like voting as a means of making decisions in groups. I can live with it when the outcome is not that important and a decision needs to be made quickly. However to end important discussions with a vote almost always leaves at least one person unhappy. While that is something to be avoided in any kind of team, in remote teams it can be more damaging. As soon as the meeting ends, you are left on your own (or at least away from the rest of the team). Ending a meeting with the feeling that you’ve been pushed out by the majority in a direction you resisted, can leave you feeling isolated.
For that reason, I prefer reaching unanimous agreement through consensus. I don’t necessarily mean compromising, but reaching a decision that everyone can support in varying degrees. In order to do that efficiently, it’s good to use a metaphorical thermometer, so that we can take the temperature of our team and see how close we are to reaching agreement.
Furthermore, using this “thermometer” at the beginning of a discussion can also help us see whether we are already in agreement and prevent us from wasting our time, like Ellen and her colleagues did. (And if you use your ecosystem properly, in cases where you find that you are in agreement before the meeting, you might be able to avoid a discussion altogether and have a virtual coffee instead.)
I first came across the Gradients of Agreement in Sam Kaner’s book on participatory decision-making, but you can also find descriptions of the tool online, should you want to share it with your team members.
The gradient provides a range of answers to “Do you support the decision?” that go beyond “Yes”, “No” or “Maybe”.
1 : Whole-hearted endorsement. “I really like it.”
2 : Agreement with a minor point of contention. “Not perfect, but it’s good enough.”
3: Support with reservations. “I can live with it.”
4: Abstain. “This issue does not affect me.” (If someone states this as their position, it could well be the moment they go off and make a cup of tea or check their emails until the meeting moves on…)
5: More discussion needed. “I don’t understand the issues well enough yet.”
6: Don’t like but will support. “It’s not great, but I don’t want to hold up the group.” (I particularly like this way of disagreeing. Some people will indeed be concerned that they are holding back the group or holding up a meeting, and as a result, they might not voice their disagreement. This allows someone to voice their opinion clearly, as well as showing their concern for others.)
7: Serious disagreement. “I am not on board with this - don’t count on me.”
8. Veto. “I block this proposal.”
If you need to make an important decision in your meeting and have already identified some options, you can use this tool to be clear about where people stand. If everyone gives a “1” to one of the options, you know it will be a short meeting, or you can change the agenda to enable you to start planning on how the decision will be implemented.
However, beware of silo mentality, where suddenly no-one starts to question any of your decisions, or where team members continuously agree wholeheartedly with one another. In that case, maybe you want to ask, “Did anyone almost reply with a ‘2’?” or “If someone had replied with a ‘2’, what do you think would have been the most likely objection?”
I will come back to this tool in the section on Making Decisions, but I wanted to introduce it here, as it is something you might want to consider adding to your Meetings Charter. If the Gradients of Agreement becomes part of how your team communicates and runs their meetings, it could save you a lot of time, as well as making it easier for some people to disagree. For those team members who are conflict-adverse, it might be easier to say, “Mmmm, I feel a bit “6” on that”, rather than vocalise their strong disagreement. This can also provide you with some shared vocabulary. For example, you can ask, “What would need to happen to move your agreement from a ‘6’ to a ‘3’? Or would we need to move first to a ‘5’?”
How you practically communicate your agreement scores is up to you. You can vocalise them, type them in the chat, write them out on a post-it note and show them to camera (like talent contest judges) or you can have a spreadsheet where you introduce your numbers.
This is an extract from "Online Meetings that Rock", due to be published in the summer of 2018. If you would like a review copy of the book, in the e-format of your choice, sign up here.