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!

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Brainstorming: A Complete Waste of Time?

So you walk into a meeting and he or she (meaning your boss, a consultant, facilitator, whomever…) asks you to participate in a quick brainstorm session.  They introduce the topic and tell you to think up as many ideas as you can as quickly as possible.  No idea is a bad idea, they announce, and there will be no criticizing others’ ideas. Ready, begin!  After all, this is the best way to get the creative juices flowing and introduce more and better ideas.  Right?brainstorm word cloud

Well, maybe not.

Just today, several of my long-held assumptions about the power of the classic brainstorm were put on trial by an article sent over to me from a client and friend, Andrew McKee.  In that article, Jonah Lehrer writes that even though brainstorming has become “the most widely used creativity technique in the world… there is a problem with [it].  It doesn’t work.”  He says that the underlying assumptions about brainstorming – that to defer criticism will breed creativity and open people up, for example – just don’t hold water.  Experience doesn’t back it up.

Can this possibly be true?  Professionally I facilitate brainstorm sessions all the time.  And even on a personal level (like when I don’t want my wife to tell me that my brilliant idea won’t actually work in the real world), I’ll preface my comments with “I’m just brainstorming here…”

So, according to Lehrer, is the problem with how the brainstorm session is set up, or with group collaboration altogether?

Lehrer goes on to describe the best template for creativity.   He endorses group collaboration, but suggests (through studies and examples) that open criticism and debate actually infuse creativity, leading to more and better solutions.  He adds that the composition of the group matters – “enough people with different perspectives running into one another in unpredictable ways” – and cites numerous examples to back it up.

Frankly, I’m not sure I buy all of this. I have seen many valuable brainstorm sessions – ones that truly unleash the creative power of bright minds. And I believe there are many who are empowered to speak up when they know their ideas won’t be criticized.  Still, I completely agree with the diversity of perspective, the need to foster debate, and the value of encouraging informal connections.

Where do you stand? Does a no-criticism brainstorm session lead to a false feeling of productivity, with no real value?  Maybe there’s a different approach altogether. I’m interested to know how we can reap the benefits of a dynamic brainstorm while improving the quality of the ideas.

Buy a stopwatch – you will thank us later

So it’s Monday morning… and about 15 minutes into your weekly status meeting with the team, your colleague Terry is going on and on about a project he is working on.  It always seems like Terry is talking whenever you meet and as you look around the room, others are showing a similar expression of tuning Terry out – yet again.  How do you handle this type of situation where meeting participants are unfocused or simply eating up valuable time and not addressing the issue at hand?  Below are some ideas for keeping participants focused, time conscious, and participating.

1. Ask a focused question – When you begin the meeting, instead of asking the group a general question to provide a status report, focus the group by asking a specific question. For example, you may want to say, “I would like everyone to provide an update on X, Y, Z project and when you give your report, please only bring up items that you would like the group to be aware.  Other items can be brought up offline.” Participants will now have something specific to respond to and will be less likely to get off track.

2. Provide a time limit – Offer a time limit to keep participants moving along.  Assign a colleague to manage the clock and have that person raise their hand when there is 30 seconds left for the individual’s report.  I have found that the time limit method works very well. It takes participants a few meetings to get used to the time limit, but once expectations are set, the time provides a framework for individuals to tighten up their verbiage and offer a more concise report.

3. Establish a round robin – Ensure that all participants have a chance to speak by telling the group that we will begin with one colleague and circle around the table.  One strategy to begin this process well is to start with a colleague that you know will meet the time limit as well as offer a concise report.  This offers participants a model for how the report can be delivered.  Do you have a quiet colleague who does not speak up or is introverted?  The strategy for this situation is to maybe begin the reporting about three people away from the quiet member. This will give the more introverted team member additional time to prepare their report.

These are just a few ideas, what best practices have you employed at your organization to address this type of situation?