Monday, July 26, 2010

Talking Sticks, Music & Colored Pens Do Belong In the Workplace

I was recently introduced to a strategic leadership framework called Nine Conversations. Over the course of several weeks you and your co-workers are coached through nine conversations (+ homework) about leadership, communications, strategy and vision. I've only just begun the journey and will save a more complete analysis of the approach for a blog post down the road. In the interim, there are two components to the early conversations that I found particularly compelling.

The first was something I've never experienced in a business workplace. Our team, or in nine conversation nomenclature, cell, was lead through exercises that forced us to think using different parts of our brains. At times we sat on the floor in a circle using a traditional South African talking stick to guide our dialogue. Elsewhere we listened to music during journal writing exercises and at the end of the second morning we even drew pictures. Each of us was supplied with color markers and some large, blank pieces of paper. We were instructed to draw what leadership meant to us. It was an interesting challenge and one that I took on with some unease - but of course that was the point. We'd spent the day reading, writing, debating - now it was time to use a different part of our brain. Luckily, the quality of our artistic ability was not at task - it was about telling a story through an analogy. You can imagine the outcomes. There was no right or wrong answers - no picture was better than another, but there was truth.

If someone had explained the day to me and I had not participated, I imagine I'd describe the activities in my father's words as "touchy feely". But they weren't. We weren't seeking out our feelings, we were carving a path to drive organizational efficiency through better communications, clarity of vision and a rock solid strategy.

The second intriguing technique was almost annoying. The facilitator had the most frustrating habit. Every time someone asked a question it was posed back to you - what would you like to do about it? I almost felt like I was lying on a coach in a counseling session. As it turns out, the approach was not only a frustrating habit, but an empowering one.

The Nine Conversations approach brought together all of the best pieces of coaching, communication techniques and whole brain thinking. I'm energized by the reminder that meetings don't have to follow a familiar pattern to be productive - in fact, a little moving and shaking can do us some good.

Friday, July 9, 2010

My Kids Have More Focus Than My Co-Workers

Sometimes my kids have more focus than most adults I know. On the surface that statement feels counter intuitive; but think about it. Kids spend six hours a day in a classroom - 5 days a week. They stand on a baseball field for hours, most of the time doing nothing. And yesterday, my boys repetitively jumped into the pool from the exact same spot for 90 minutes straight. They only stopped because I was ready to leave. And don't even get me started about the video game trance all pre-teen boys seem to zone into in an unnatural obsession with getting to the "next level".

Contrast this to your last all day planning meeting at work. How many people were "taking notes" on their laptop while checking their email? Or doing the "lowered head concentrating look" while thinking they were being sneaky checking their black berry under the table? Did a group bathroom break get triggered when one brave sole got up to leave?

What can teachers and parents show us about keeping someone's attention for long period's of time? It turns out a LOT! The next time your facilitating a long meeting - be it two, three, or six hours keep these tips in mind.

1) Make Your Content Relevant - Do fourth grade boys enjoy learning about grammar rules? NO, but they do pay attention because the teacher makes it relevant - they have a scheduled test planned. You may not be able to "test" your audience, but you can explain why they need to pay attention, give them relevant examples, and understand their needs.

2) Set Expectations & Layout Goals - Review the agenda and meeting objectives in advance. Explain how long the meeting will last, what topics will be covered and any meeting rules (i.e. no black berries, planning assumptions). Determine up front what will be accomplished in the meeting - will a decision be made on a new product direction? Will you be sharing important new benefits information? Are you soliciting input for a new marketing strategy?

3) Schedule Breaks - It may not be recess on the playground, but just like kids, meeting participants need a chance to stretch their non-brain muscles. Schedule sufficient time to check emails, stretch your legs & for informal chatting. I recommend one or two long breaks as opposed to several short breaks. There is always a transition getting back from a break and too many cycle breaks can hurt the efficient flow of a meeting.

4) Feed Them - Snack time isn't only a favorite for the kids. After sitting for long periods of time people need an energy boost. I recommend laying out food for grazing as opposed to a formal "break" - I find it helps people focus if they are munching on their own schedule.

5) Honor the Plan - While it's important for meeting participants to feel they have some ownership of a session, its critical you honor the goals and objectives of the meeting. Just like a teacher keeping lessons on task, it's the job of a meeting facilitator to balance good quality discussions spurred by creative thinking, with the actual meeting goals. Many people use a "parking lot" system for managing important, but irrelevant or complex topics that arise during a meeting but can not be addressed in the current session.

6) Send Out Post Meeting Notes w/In 24 Hours - Classroom teachers assign homework to reinforce the lessons of the day. In the workplace we shouldn't shy away from homework assignments of our own. Nothing will stifle the success of your next meeting more than a lack of follow up on a previous session. Time is valuable to all of your co-workers they want to know it was used wisely for themselves, and the organization. Be sure the notes articulate any decisions made, next steps and assign "homework" action items with due dates.

Sometimes going back to the basics can make all the difference. These simple guidelines can work for classrooms and swimming pools across the globe, keep them in mind to help your next working session be a wild success.