Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. Governments are scrambling to mitigate the effects of the outbreak, and business leaders are rushing to protect their people, their customers, and their companies. For the next few weeks, we’ll be drawing on our deep knowledge base about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, to offer you insights and advice about how to keep a steady hand on the wheel during the crisis, and how to guide your organization in its transition back to normalcy once the crisis winds down.
We have been studying complexity and helping leaders navigate it for nearly 20 years. While this crisis is absolutely unprecedented, all complex challenges – including this one – are best managed when you understand specific underlying characteristics they all exhibit, and tried-and-true ways to approach them. Today: How your company has to adapt to having critical interactions and making key decisions via video conference.
As the coronavirus rages on, many companies are shifting their work from face-to-face to remote. This means video conferencing is becoming the new normal for meetings, and people have to have good conversations, share critical information, ideate, reach consensus and make decisions quickly on this less-than-ideal platform.
There is a lot of good science and much has been written about the advantages of face-to-face communication for effective communication, positive connections, leadership effectiveness, and building trust. But face-to-face isn’t an option right now - and yet we, as leaders, face some of the most important decisions we’ve ever had to make in our business leadership lives.
SIX KEYS TO A GREAT VIDEO CONFERENCE
Here are six tips to have great video conferences when face-to-face isn’t an option:
1) Separate what can be done offline from what must be done together in a meeting
Some purposes can be achieved offline - asynchronously - while others can only be achieved together - synchronously.
Asynchronous tasks include gathering data, forming opinions, brainstorming ideas, polling, asking and answering questions. These tasks may be important inputs to meetings, but they can waste precious time and make people feel disengaged and frustrated. Have people do these tasks outside of meetings.
Synchronous tasks include having difficult conversations, debating key issues, and reaching and testing for consensus. Don’t try to achieve these ends through telephone calls, text, or social media. They can best be done in meetings.
2) Separate meetings about operations from meetings about the future
Some people’s primary function, especially during a crisis, is to deal with the here-and-now, allocating resources, assigning tasks, adapting in real-time to new information, and issuing communications. Other people must be focused on looking at what’s happening around the organization, what we are learning, what we are anticipating, and what we need to be doing next week, next month and next year as a result. If you mix both together in the same meeting, that’s a recipe for disengagement and frustration.
For example, we’ve seen a tech company hold a half-day meeting with an agenda spanning everything from urgent HR issues to long-term R&D projects. The problem was that as the focus switched between the here-and-now and the future,
individuals were deeply interested in some topics, and completely tuned out on other topics. And that was during the best of times, when things were normal and everyone met face-to-face.
3) Keep the number of participants low, while keeping variety high
How many faces can you see on your video conferencing screen at one time? That’s the number of people you should invite to the meeting. For most video conferencing platforms, that’s probably 12 or less.
The tension you should feel is that the law of requisite variety states that you must engage large, diverse groups of people in high-stakes, complex moments like this one. But right now, you’ll have to invite a smaller group that represents the variety of the larger group. Collect and share everyone else’s thoughts, concerns and ideas beforehand via a collaborative decision-making platform like ment.io or Loomio or Ideaflip.
4) Assign a good moderator to run the meeting
The moderator should stay out of the discussion and run the meeting - redirect the discussion if it’s getting off-track, interrupt individuals who are droning on or dominating, establish and manage meeting protocols and etiquette, and capture and share the output.
Because they can’t get involved, they can’t be a senior leader or even someone with a lot of stake in the outcome.
5) Give each person a conversational role
First off, establish video conference etiquette as a standard for all your meetings. Next, layer in some behavioral roles that you will ask people to play during the meeting. We use Member, Critic and Observer roles and describe them here. In short, Members own the meeting, do most of the talking, and are responsible to produce results; Critics listen and are intermittently given the floor to offer concise critique on the progress and content of the Members’ discussion; Observers can only listen. Behavioral roles can prevent individuals from dominating, from remaining silent or being suppressed, and from feeling like they’re not being heard.
Your moderator will enforce these roles - for example, interrupting Members every 15 minutes to give the Critics five minutes to speak, and holding Observers on mute while using a private chat to take feedback from them and relay it to the Members if and when appropriate.
6) Iterate, rather than trying to get all the way there in one meeting
Most of the time, you can’t get to a decision or a solution in a single meeting. Three iterations are usually necessary when you’re discussing something important.
In your first round, hold everyone back from trying to solve anything. Instead, just share issues, opportunities, and stories about what’s going. The goal is to reach shared understanding. This primes the pump for the next conversation and gives people a chance to digest what they’ve heard.
In your second round, just come up with ideas for what you could do. Do 5-10 minutes of traditional brainstorming, then switch into discussing ideas, riffing on them, and beginning to flesh out the strongest ones.
In your third round, decide what you should do. Apply time pressure, insist on recommendations that make actions clear, and once agreed, assign names and timelines.
Now more than ever - when the stakes are high and you need strong and decisive action - it’s imperative to to think carefully about what meetings you’re holding, who’s attending them, how they’re being run, and what expectations you’re putting on individual participants. You will need to delicately exclude some people, tell others to attend meetings they might not expect to attend, and occasionally shut people down in the middle of a passionate diatribe or call them out for being silent. Consider this an opportunity to correct some of the bad meeting habits you were suffering from even when face-to-face, and to introduce some good new ones. Despite being restricted to a second-best medium, strive for best possible results.
Original article posted in Forbes on March 25, 2020
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