One of the most frequently shared pieces of business advice over the last few years has been to hold fewer meetings. You too have probably heard countless jokes about the agony of pointless meetings and tips on how that time could be better spent. The usual “this meeting could have been an email” is only the tip of the iceberg, and the internet is full of memes, jokes, and hilariously funny TikTok videos making fun of our everyday business reality.
And while I am a huge supporter of the idea of having fewer and more productive meetings, I’m still going to propose that you add one more monthly meeting to your teams’ calendars.
Why? Let me explain.
Every team has key moments in its lifecycle
Around the end of November I held a communication training for a team of techleads. Since they work quite closely with other teams and with their client, I wanted to do activities with them that might generate insights about how to collaborate in teams where different parts of the job get done by different roles (a typical setup in the life of a digital agency).
There was one activity where team members had to work together to build a particular shape out of lego bricks. Each team member had a specific role only they could perform: one person could see the original structure, one could build, one could answer yes or no questions, and there was one person who acted as the middleman, delivering information between the looker and the builder who weren’t allowed to talk to each other.
The teams were ready to get to work and were a bit surprised when I told them that first they will have a strategy meeting where they can talk about how they will approach the task, how they will divide the roles, and what they need to pay attention to once they start the project.
I know it’s hard to have these conversations without actually knowing what task they’ll be carrying out (at this point they haven’t yet seen the lego model). I observed that halfway through their discussion time, the teams were just fooling around and chitchatting, everyone feeling a bit awkward and not really knowing what exactly to talk about.
It was just like I’d seen time and time again with other teams and companies. And just like it is in real life.
The beginning of a collaborative project is the first key moment. However, people rarely think about sitting down to talk as a team before they get to work.
The opportunity to plan is missed, and only later does the team realize there were certain topics they could have covered. But let’s get back to this later.
Let’s see what happened once they took their place and the game began. 30 minutes in they barely had anything built, and it was clear they were getting frustrated not only with the task, but also with each other.
It’s always interesting to observe that even though it’s just a game, there are absolutely no stakes, and it could be fun (we are building with legos, after all), people still get frustrated and emotions flare in the group.
If we consider this game as a metaphor for the lifespan of a project, let’s imagine the amplitude and impact of the same frustration and emotions. There are many different theories that suggest it’s normal in a team’s life to enter a “storming” phrase. At this point, frustrations come up:
So I had a spontaneous idea and asked them to pause and take 3 minutes to talk about their approach. However, I told them that they were not allowed to talk about the task or the model itself, only their communication and collaboration in handling the task.
Within seconds, feedback and suggestions started flying around the room.
For example, it quickly became clear they weren’t effectively utilizing everyone’s role and some team members felt pretty useless, even though they had good ideas. One person couldn’t envision the model they were supposed to build at all and stopped the flow of information while trying to catch up. Someone else took way too much time explaining things it wasn’t necessary for the others to know. Some team members needed to verify or refute the assumptions that others had about their role.
Now, this was a constructed workshop exercise in which these issues came up. But they are great examples of the kind of frustrations people bottle up until this point – and you need to give space to address these frustrations if you would like to move into the next phase of a team’s lifecycle.
Here there are a few key factors to be aware of:
Let’s see what happened after this team had their 3-minute talk about communication, collaboration, and where they could give feedback and throw around ideas to speed up delivery.
After their 3 minutes were up, the team made more progress in 10 minutes than they had in the previous 30. By the end, everyone felt they could meaningfully contribute and that those 3 minutes made all the difference.
Why? Because they took time to work on the team, so when it came to working in it, they could effectively handle the issues that had previously affected their ability to collaborate and manage their task.
This experience once again reminded me how important it is to have these conversations, to talk about how people work together and not only about what they’re working on as is the case in most meetings.
By talking about solving the issues that held the team back, they managed to reach an optimal performance state.
By consciously supporting these key moments, you support attaining high-performance
Whether people are eager to start a project or they’re already juggling a full plate, it’s easy to think of anything other than the task at hand as a waste of time. 3 minutes out of 30 might seem like too much.
Now imagine this wasn’t a short no-risk team building activity, but a months- or years-long project involving many people (possibly working remotely). If you could prevent potential issues or come up with ways of handling the issues that inevitably do arise, would you consider that wasted time?
Meetings that are specifically organized for these kinds of conversations are called collaboration strategy meetings. And they are different from the meetings we are used to having.
Most of the meetings we run are called tactical meetings. Here you talk about what’s going on with a project, share any updates and questions, and make decisions on how to proceed.
Collaboration strategy meetings have a different focus. They are all about the ways people work together, from big things like how you communicate with clients or whether everyone is utilizing their strengths, to the smaller stuff like how you use Google folders or schedule emails instead of sending them out at 1 AM.
A collaboration strategy meeting is what your team needs in every key moment
Collaboration strategy meetings are accelerators, and can have a huge impact on the results your organization achieves.
They save your organization time (and money) because they allow both leaders and team members to take a helicopter view of what’s working and what isn’t in the way they’re collaborating with each other and with clients.
What makes someone feel triggered? What holds them back from doing their best? Is this process as effective as it could be? If “going the extra mile” is one of our values, what does that actually mean in certain roles?
There never seems to be a right time for discussing these things in the middle of day-to-day operations, but making them a part of your business practice is exactly what can help you and your people actively lead instead of just reacting to issues as they come up.
I saw a wonderful example of this in 2020 when I designed a series of collaboration strategy meetings for a team of founders. We originally thought that whenever an issue would be uncovered in a meeting, we would have to come up with a separate process for finding a solution. But as soon as the founders got a clear understanding of the problems, they instantly knew what to do with them. The only thing they had been missing was the bird’s-eye view and dedicated time to unearth, evaluate, and understand specific issues a bit better.
This is not only important on a leadership level – the same is true for every team in your organization. By having dedicated times for people to talk about the ways they’re working together and to give feedback, you are freeing up space for them to use their energy in more effective, innovative ways instead of wasting it on interpersonal issues.
So I encourage you to take a look at the kind of meetings your organization runs. How many of them are purely about the day-to-day stuff, and where would talking about the ways you work provide additional value?
If you would like to learn more about collaboration strategy meetings, you can check out my other articles on the topic:
5 reasons to get your team together to talk about collaboration
How to run effective collaboration strategy meetings for your team
3 reasons to work with a facilitator for improving collaboration in your team
And if you are curious about how to improve collaboration in your teams, how to introduce these kinds of meetings, or want to invite me to facilitate one for you, let’s get in touch!