Conteneo Blog

How to Use Online Forums to Fix Your In-Person Meetings

Posted by Luke Hohmann on Jul 24, 2017 6:47:33 PM

A few blog posts ago I wrote about how much I love to read. Along with books, some of my favorite magazines include Forbes, Fortune, Fast Company, Businessweek and Harvard Business Review. 

A pattern that is growing stronger in the reporting of these magazines is that organizations are finding it harder than ever to understand and build alignment on priorities. These challenges exist at all levels of the company: strategic decision-making, roadmaps, business models and backlogs. Accordingly, I'm devoting my next several posts to exploring how organizations can address these challenges through the lens of a committed agilist.
 
Let's start with something pretty fundamental: meetings.
 
Agilists tend to try and solve the problems I listed above through collaboration. Unfortunately, too many agilists think that this means "Have another meeting". Research show these meetings aren't working. In Stop the Meeting Madness (July-August 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review) the authors report that "meetings have increased in length and frequency over the past 50 years, to the point where executives spend an average of nearly 23 hours a week in them, up from less than 10 hours in the 1960s." And yet... "only only 17% [of 200 managers surveyed] reported that their meetings are generally productive uses of group and individual time."
 
This is a fundamental problem: We can't be agile if we're wasting time in unproductive meetings. Let's fix that. 
 

Why Meetings Waste Our Time

The first step to fixing the problem is to try and understand some of the root causes as to why most of the meeting we attend are a waste of our time. Here are a few root causes - and I'm willing to bet you could add more:

Unclear Purpose: Surprisingly, many times we don't really know the purpose of the meeting. Oh sure, we know that the meeting might be about prioritizing marketing programs, but we may be unsure of whether or not the decisions we make are binding. So we get frustrated when we attend a meeting ready to make actual decisions only to find out "this meeting is to explore ideas". And we get even more frustrated when we attend a meeting that was promoted as exploratory but are held accountable to decisions we weren't ready to make! 

Unclear Decision-Making Processes: Are we really funding project Moonshot just because Francine yelled the loudest? Are we really prioritizing Joe's "big account" over Chon's? Even if we do what Joe's customer requests, they might defect - and Chon's account is growing.

One And Done: As the number of unnecessary meetings grows, the ability to schedule the meetings we need shrinks. And when everyone is demanding that the meeting must be in person our options vanish, causing organizations to try and design the "one meeting that will solve their problem" - severely limiting agility in the process. What is needed isn't one meeting: it is a meeting template that ensures we're both making progress in solving the problem we're facing and 

Fortunately, frameworks address these and even more problems. 

Frameworks to the Rescue!

A framework is a tool that knowledge workers use to solve problems. Frameworks are the screwdrivers, pliers, sockets and wrenches of the Agile organization, and just like the proper wrench makes fixing your bike a snap, the right framework converts a time-wasting meeting into a high-impact forum:

Clear Purpose:  A framework has a clear purpose: Prune the Future is a framework that helps drive strategic planning while the Innovation Ambition Matrix helps organizations map innovation portfolios. Some frameworks are designed to explore a problem without making commitments while other frameworks motivate us to make binding commitments to others. We have found that framework-driven meetings (forums) are much more focused: Participants know through the use of the framework and how it is introduced both the problem they're solving and the degree to which binding decisions will be made. 

Clear Decision-Making Process: A framework prescribes how we work together as a team to produce the result we want. We don't have wonder if we should speak, or when or how we should collaborate with others. A framework makes the "rules of engagement" clear.

Scheduling Challenges Are Reduced: Frameworks can be used both online and in-person, enabling teams to schedule their forums at times convenient for everyone.

Frameworks Evolve: Organizations can improve performance by creating or acquiring new frameworks, retaining and tailoring high-impact frameworks and discarding low-impact frameworks.

It also increases options for effective meetings.

The Template for High-Impact Decision-Making

Through our work we have found that the following template provides a high-impact alternative to traditional meeting structures. Use this template to help improve any truly important meeting.

Phase 1: Online Forums. In this phase we use the Conteneo Weave platform to produce online forums. These forums, which are typically explicitly non-binding, enable participants to explore a problem and build a shared mental model on how to solve it. Going online enables leaders to include a broader number of participants, safely increasing engagement throughout the company.

Example: We recently produced a project portfolio roadmapping enagement for a $500M software company where we started the process by having each member of the executive staff work with their direct reports to create an Innovation Ambition Matrix for their Business Unit. Going online enabled the distributed BUs to quickly generate a set of results that provided a clear understanding of actual projects and a moasiac of high-potential ideas.

Phase 2: In-Person Forums. In this phase, decision-makers come together to leverage the results of the online forums and make binding decisions. By using the same frameworks in-person that they used online, decision making processines improve and accelerates the work between the executives. And while the success of the online forums in phase 1 suggests that in-person meeting are not needed, the reality is that because the majority of human communication is non-verbal, decision-makers need the option to meet in person to explore, argue, and eventually, ratify their choices. 

Continuing with our example, we next scheduled an in-person meeting of the BU leaders. We downloaded, printed and shared the results of the Weave forums and used them to guide the (sometimes challenging) discussions on the tradeoffs that needed to be made in prioritizing their innovation portfolio.

Phase 3: Online Results. Decisions need to be communicated throughout the organization to create the alignment that improves execution. In this phase we return to Weave, transcribe the decisions into a forum, and then share it broadly throughout the organization. Weave's powerful ability to manage forum results enables the organization to have a single "source of truth" that is shared while also enabling BUs to build on that truth, extending and adjusting to prepare for the next round of meetings.
 
Yeah, meetings suck. But they don't have to!
 

Workshop Alert!

Ready to learn more about Agile Portfolio Management from Luke Hohmann?  Join him in Sunnyvale, CA on August 30th.  For more info and for registration links, click here.

Topics: Agile, Buy a Feature, Decision Engine, geoffrey Moore, Horizon thinking, McKinsey, Participatory Budgeting

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