Remember to shower before your next video conference

Tearsa Coates is the newest author to the Meetings Improved Blog. She is a Senior Client Decision Manager at Decision Lens. Enjoy her first of many posts!

One of our colleagues, Jared, is leaving the Arlington office to join our West Coast team.  Although we are all excited about his new adventure, it won’t be the same here without him.  Jared has a wry sense of humor, which can only be fully appreciated when accompanied by his facial expressions.  Which is why I’m campaigning hard for him to attend future internal meetings via video conference rather than teleconference.

But Jared’s sense of humor isn’t the only reason that I’m politicking for video conferencing.  It is generally accepted that about 80 percent of communication consists of non-verbal cues.  Being able to read expressions of joy, confusion, hesitancy, agreement, and frustration enhances our ability to understand each other, saving time and preventing errors.  Further, research from Forbes (The Case for Face-to Face) shows that people actually look forward to multitasking during teleconferences, hindering their focus on the discussion.  So, “dialing in” may actually compromise the efficiency of business.  Finally, in this economic environment, it’s difficult to justify the expense of traveling cross-country for routine meetings.  (Check out Polycom’s Video ROI calculator.)  ConsidBest Practices in Video conferencingering all this, you can see why I’d surmise that video conferencing is the next-best thing to meeting in-person.

Now, as a professional facilitator, Jared is king of the teleconference.  But a video conference is not just a teleconference with a camera.  There are a few unique annoyances that one must prepare for.  So I drummed up this short list of tips for Jared to keep in mind.

1.    You’re Not Talking, But We’re Still Watching

Unfortunately, buddy, you’ve just lost your ability to surf the web, daydream, or scratch anything above your knee during a call.  When it’s not your turn to speak, it’s normal to drift off a bit.  But because there will be so little on the screen besides you, every move that you make unrelated to the meeting will be more pronounced.  (This especially includes reading email, as there is something eerie about watching someone’s eyes darting back and forth across the screen.)  So sit up straight, look straight ahead, and keep your hands folded on your lap.  It’s for the good of the team.

2.    Break Down and Use the Headset

Yes, I know you will look like a telesales rep and probably muss your hair.  But, to date, this archaic device still yields far better sound quality than its sexier cousin, the Bluetooth.  If you rely on the computer microphone to pick up your voice, the team will have to cram around one laptop to hear you.  That would be selfish.

3.    Mind The Gap

There may be a slight video delay during our calls, making your status updates seem as if they are being dubbed from another language.  Try shutting down concurrently running programs that eat up bandwidth.  (This will also help with Tip #1.)  And don’t forget to pause regularly so we can catch up to you.  I promise to personally repeat any jokes that fall flat on your end due to poor timing.

Despite these minor disadvantages, I am convinced that videoconferencing will keep us all connected and help us to remember that there is a real person on the line.  But, if all fails, I’ve built a solid case for why Jared should hop on a plane and visit us every once in a while.

Best of luck, Jared!


The Emerging Voice Against Meetings

It’s Monday morning… and I thought you might enjoy these rather cynical quotations on meetings, all compiled in a very interesting report sent to me by a client and good friend of mine.

“A meeting is a gathering where people speak up, say nothing, and then all disagree.”

“A meeting is an interaction where the unwilling, selected from the uninformed, led by the unsuitable, to discuss the unnecessary, are required to write a report about the unimportant.”

“A Meeting is indispensable when you don’t want to get anything done.”

“A meeting is a place where you keep the minutes and throw away the hours.”

“Time and Money, money and time, with respect to meetings they intertwine. And, when all the costs are added up, it blows your mind.”

There’s a growing trend against meetings, and a general perception that their cost exceeds the value they bring. Some will tell you just to skip your next meeting.  Others say they should be cut out altogether.

I’m not so cynical as to believe there is no use for them at all.  Part of the problem is that we see our next meeting as an end in itself.  At best, we look at them like a chore – like doing the dishes or walking the dog or taking the kids to school.

I like to think of meetings as a tool, or a set of tools. Some meetings can be useful for sharing information.  Others are necessary for holding people accountable.  Still others, the most important, are critical for making decisions. When we focus on the objective of the meeting, and the benefit it will bring to us and those participating, suddenly the meeting begins to work for us rather than against us.  And when we begin to use meetings as a means for accomplishing our work and refuse to let them take a life of their own, they become a valuable mechanism for becoming more effective.

Present company excluded

It’s Monday Morning…and you are halfway through your 9AM meeting and your mind starts to wander. You begin thinking about all of your To Do’s, a whole list of calls that still need to be made, even details left undone that you may have missed from the prior week’s work and you begin to feel a great sense of anxiety build within you!  Sound familiar? You are not alone. The feeling that you have too much to do and not enough time to do everything is common for so many busy professionals.  However, what we forget when we become overwhelmed is that one of the key aspects of remaining productive in meetings is staying present. What I mean is that if you are always thinking about the past or the future, you are not really present to the individuals or the work right in front of you or around you. Being present is more about listening well in the moment and fighting the temptation to dwell on the past or obsess about the future.  When you are present, you stay actively engaged and allow the present moment to help you accomplish the goal immediately in front of you.  The question then becomes, how do I stay present when I have so much on my mind? Here are a few tips.

Turn off the technology – Turning off your IPhone, blackberry, or whatever your preferred mode of communication during meetings can help you stay focused and present.  Even when your phone is silenced, you may feel this small vibration that is beckoning you to check out, or reminding you that someone or something wants your attention.  Turn it off and find your mind rest a bit easier.  One hour with your phone off is not going to hurt anyone. Plus, you typically can’t respond during the middle of a meeting anyway so turn it back on when you are done. This is a great cure for finding some quiet and focused mental time in a meeting.

Write it down and refocus – Instead of resisting all of the tasks pummeling your brain for action during a meeting, keep a piece of paper out and call it “Out of my mind notes” so when you think of something you must do, you can quickly write it down and refocus. Often, people are fighting so hard to focus, they end up taking so much time resisting their own thoughts that they defeat the very purpose of their attempt to pay attention. Write it down and let it go.  When a thought comes, right it down and you will allow your mind to rest.

People first –Next time you are in a meeting and your mind starts going crazy with thoughts, just smile and remind yourself of the principle I call People First. People First is the idea that when tempted by worries about the past or the future, focus on the human beings who require your full attention in this very present moment.  If you are so caught up in your own mind, you may miss the colleague sitting next to you who has offered a brilliant idea because you are so busy thinking about all that you have to do.  It’s hard to obsess about To Do lists when you look people in the eyes and really listen to what they are saying instead of listening only to what your brain is telling you to think about. With People First, remind yourself what’s really important – meaningful connections to the world around you. Last I checked, great ideas may have come from thoughts, but human beings are the ones that actually made them become reality.  Live in the present moment and focus on the people around you. It makes meetings better, your time more productive, and puts your To Do list in proper perspective.

What are other techniques that allow you to remain present and focused?

Giving them the Disney Experience

About a year ago, I was sitting in a small internal meeting. Our Vice President Kevin Connor— a decision-making expert in his own right—tried to instill in us a desire for the kind of high-quality, seamless series of interactions our customers should experience when we (and our software) facilitate a decision-making process with them.  To drive home his point, he said finally, “We need to give them the Disney experience!”

I didn’t fully understand what that meant until recently, when I was actually inside Disneyland with my wife and kids.  If you’ve been to Disney, you know what I’m talking about.  Everything we touched, saw, heard, or felt—the meticulously detailed decorations (including garbage cans), the creativity, the music, the availability and friendliness of the staff, the cleanliness — all focused on one thing: giving their “guests” a meaningful, memorable experience.

This dawned on me while I was watching Disney’s $75 Million spectacular water show, World of Color.  It was like nothing I had ever experienced.  I thought, These guys don’t look at competition or return on investment (ROI) with the same conventional mindset that most companies do, even in the entertainment industry.  It’s not about doing just a little better than the next group, or pulling a “one-up” on the competition.  And it’s not about squeaking out a short-term profit.  To Disney, it’s about living up to their own brand of stretching innovation, creativity, and entertainment to new heights, all with the hope of providing a completely different experience to their guests.   It’s about shattering anything that has been done previously.

Don’t worry.  I’m not about to suggest that every meeting should be like a trip to Disneyland.  Yet there are a number of business applications to draw out of the Disney example.  I’ll mention just three:

  1. Consider your Guests’ Experience – In preparing to present material, meet with customers, or lead an effort, think of the stakeholders as your “guests.”  What will they experience?  How will the event, meeting, or interaction help them with what they hope to accomplish?  What mutually beneficial objectives can be achieved?  Remember that what your “guests” see, hear, or feel requires a significant amount of prepared effort “behind the scenes,” but it’s worth it.
  2. Focus on the details – Just as Disney is meticulous about the details, push beyond the basics of preparation for each meaningful interaction with a client or customer.  How will you introduce a topic?  What questions will you ask?  Where will participants be seated?  What will create the best environment – light in the room, the projector, potential distractions—to make the time meaningful?  When you think you are prepared, think again.  It may not be a life-changing experience, but it could be game-changing in your relationship.
  3. Push beyond the limits of mediocrity – In many organizations the bar for an effective meeting or decision-making effort has been set fairly low.   So shatter the competition!  Avoid planning your meetings and interactions the same way as the next person, or even a little better.  Take a step back.  Think outside of the box.  Be creative.  Consider the ROI for this engagement, with an eye toward your own brand and long-term relationships. And when you have a sense for what can be accomplished, try to find all the ways to exceed expectations.

You may be saying, ‘Wait, aren’t we just talking about meetings and processes here?’  True.  But, like Disney, it may be worthwhile to view these tools in a new light.  Meetings are often boring, redundant, and meaningless.  But they could also be the forum and means for making critical decisions, building our reputation, and establishing lasting relationships.

The labor in Col-“labor”-ation

I laughed when I saw this.  How many of us have been on one or both sides of this table before?

“We want to include you in this decision without letting you affect it.”

We’re asked to give advice or recommend a solution.  So we work hard and sometimes spend long hours to provide the best answer.  Later we learn that our recommendations were not followed, and possibly never looked at.  We’re deflated.

That has happened to me more than once.  One time early in my career as a young consultant, our team was asked to recommend a set of new Standard Operating Procedures for a large financial office.  We worked long hours, carefully considered every detail, and ultimately delivered a 350-page masterpiece (so we thought) for our client to implement.  They took our deliverable with appreciation, even admiration, and we were paid for our work.  But in the months that followed as I did subsequent work for the client, I noticed that our document simply collected dust on a shelf in the office.  Our “deliverable” was just that: deliver-able but not implement-able.  So that was it – all that time amounted to “shelfware.”   Why?  I learned that it wasn’t because our solutions for them were inaccurate or our ideas were bad.  It just wasn’t their solution.

I often point my clients to a concept from Michael Wilkinson’s book, The Secrets of Facilitation.  He says that an 85% solution with the right stakeholder involvement is better than a 100% solution without stakeholder involvement.

So that’s why we make decisions collaboratively. If it’s our decision, we determine who should weigh in.  If it’s our opportunity to recommend a solution, we involve the key players in the process. Does it require more work? Yes.  Is it a slower process? Usually in the short-term.  Is it more painful and risky at the beginning?  Often.

But in the end, it pays off.  We provide lasting value to those involved and get much closer to accomplishing our decision goals.  So I’m interested in your thoughts: What are the risks and benefits of collaboration?

Strike Out or Home Run: The Risks/Rewards of Authenticity

The other day, I nervously sat on a plane enroute to some uncharted territory: This was my first landing into the Professional Sports industry.

View from airplaneComing in for landing

I was thrilled, but a little anxious.  I had facilitated in many industries across government, non-profit, and commercial entities.  And my company has a decent depth of expertise in decision-making with sports teams.  But I had never led a kick-off meeting about how to draft professional players. Nor had I facilitated a session with professional sports executives.  Now I was about to do both.

This was an absolute first for me.

What’s more, these were the key decision-makers in their organization (to keep their competitive edge, they wish to remain anonymous) with roughly 90 years collective experience in their sport.  And they had just come off of a hugely successful year!  As much as I tried to do my homework, I didn’t have all the players down and I don’t know any more about the sport than your average Joe.  I had no idea how this would go.

Looking out the airplane window, I began to sort through my options on how to introduce myself?  The way I saw it, I could do one of the following:

  1. Lie about my credentials and pretend to knowledge I didn’t have;
  2. Never say anything: hide behind my sharp young Princeton-touting analyst, and brag about my company’s credentials; or
  3. Actually tell them I’m a beginner in this industry.

Worried that I might lose credibility at the outset, I leaned toward a variation of option 2.  But I didn’t have a good feeling about that either.  Searching for inspiration, I pulled out my copy of the Trusted Advisor Fieldbook, co-authored by my friend Andrea Howe.  I thumbed through the pages and found a section entitled “Three Ways Kickoffs Go Wrong.”  There’s a case study that closely resembled the predicament I was in, which ends as follows: “Honesty builds credibility as much as experience does.”

Feeling some apprehension, I decided to take a risk and just be totally transparent with them. The next morning, I introduced myself in this way, “I’m an experienced facilitator and decision-process expert, but in all honesty I’m new to this industry. You all know this game much better than I do. We have Gavin (my 22-yr-old Ivy-league-sports-fanatic-colleague), and some depth in our company, but you’ll need to teach us about your business. And I think you’ll find some value in an unbiased facilitator that will ask questions and challenge assumptions.”

To my delight, they responded extremely well to that kind of intro.  And it gave me enormous freedom to ask seemingly ignorant questions and challenge assumptions.  They became my mentors and teachers about their “business” and I settled into my role as facilitator and decision process advisor.  It sets us up for an enduring partnership based on mutual trust.

When we concluded, the group felt we had accomplished a great deal in a small amount of time.  My friend and main client said, “I have to hand it to you guys… you really exceeded my expectations.”

It pays to be authentic and transparent.

Imagine if in every meeting you attended there were no excuses, no blame games, no posturing for personal recognition, and no “working on it” statements when in fact nothing has been done.  Imagine further that you knew exactly where everyone stood, both in terms of quals and their various points of view.  That’s quite a starting place for using meetings productively and making effective decisions.

Skip your next meeting – we won’t tell

Recently I read an article that said the best way to react to ineffective meetings is just to blow off your next meeting.  This radical approach may or may not work for you (it might depend on the meeting), but the concept behind it is valuable. Here’s the big question:

Do you work for your meetings, or do they work for you? 

With each meeting we might ask ourselves:

1) How does this meeting help me to accomplish my job in the short term? In the long term?

2) How does this meeting help our organization to accomplish our overall purpose, in the short and/or long-term?

3) What is the opportunity cost of the meeting?  In other words, what would I lose from going to the meeting as compared to what I might gain by spending my time doing something else?

If the meeting will be ineffective, but you still have to attend, you might consider how you can make it the best use of your time.  The most effective meetings center around key decisions that all or most of the participants need to make together.  Talking over the agenda ahead of time with the meeting leader, or asking for certain items to go on the agenda, may go a long way.