Don't Just Do Something, Stand There!: Ten Principles for Leading Meetings That Matter

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Presents often contrarian insights into how to design meetings that actually accomplish something Filled with case examples and exercises Draws on the authors' decades of experience working with businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies worldwide This practical guide details ten key principles that will profoundly change the way you think about, organize, and lead the meetings that matter most. Rather than trying to change anyone's behavior, Weisbord and Janoff show you how to change the conditions under which people interact. By doing less, you help others do more. With examples from around the world, and practical tips and exercises in every chapter, Don't Just Do Something, Stand There! gives you many new techniques for helping people discover common ground, make productive use of dissension, and take responsibility for action.

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CONTENTS

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Principle 1 Get The Whole System in the Room

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At a meeting a few years back, we presented a case study of IKEA, the global furniture retailer, where 53 people had in 3 days decentralized a global system for product design, manufacture, and distribution (Weisbord & Janoff, 2005). The plan was developed by people from 10 countries and from all affected functions. Customers and suppliers participated, as did the CEO, who signed off on it immediately. The group formed implementation task forces on the spot. Two years later, the business area manager for seating reported that IKEA had transformed its product strategy and now routinely brought product developers, suppliers, and customers together early in the process.

At the end of our talk, one consultant, minimizing this significant achievement, called out, “Well, of course you were able to do all that in 3 days. Look who you had in the room!”

Well, she had a good point, and that is the theme of our first chapter.

Since Marv first proposed “the whole system in the room” as a key step for fast action in 21st-century organizations, this principle has influenced meetings all over the world (Weisbord, 1987, 2004). He derived this idea from studying his own consulting projects over many decades, noting the shortcomings of both expert and participative problem solving as the pace of change accelerated. Many methods that once worked now seemed to lag people’s growing aspirations for both systemic (rather than single-problem) solutions and for greater inclusion of people in using what they knew (in addition to expert input). Marv concluded that “getting everybody improving whole systems” was the great challenge for a new century. We needed to find methods enabling everybody to improve their own systems without having to become systems experts themselves. Experimenting with simple ways to do that, we and many others noticed that including all the relevant people in each meeting produced faster action on problems, decisions, policies, and plans than any other strategy. Moreover, this principle led to greater personal responsibility at all levels. If the participants didn’t act, they had only themselves to blame. Whatever meeting methods they used were secondary.

 

Principle 2 Control What You Can, Let Go What You Can’t

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Quiz for Ourselves

Q: What would you like to control?

A: People’s behavior, commitment, motivation, and outcomes.

Q: What can you control?

A: Structure.

Q: Anything else?

A: Our own behavior.

Q: What have you let go of?

A: Controlling others’ behavior, commitment, motivation, and outcomes.

Q: Why?

A: We can’t do it, and we get better results by not trying.

It was the late Eric Trist, a founder of London’s Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, who went down into a South Yorkshire coal mine in the late 1940s and came up “a changed man.” He had seen a work system until then considered implausible. The miners and management had collaborated to create multiskilled self-managing teams that planned and controlled their own work. The teams had higher output, less downtime, fewer accidents, and less absenteeism than anybody had believed possible. They had read no management books, taken no personality tests, attended no problem-solving courses, and heard no motivational speakers. They invented a highly productive work system using knowledge and experience they already had.

 

Principle 3 Explore the “Whole Elephant”

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If you’re wondering how elephants figure in meetings that matter, let us introduce you to a famous poem by the Vermont lawyer John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887), who recast in verse an ancient Buddhist teaching. See whether you can identify with it.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

It was six men of Indostan to learning much inclined, Who went to see the Elephant (though all of them were blind),

That each by observation might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant, and happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side, at once began to bawl:

“God bless me! but the Elephant is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk cried, “Ho! What have we here,

So very round and smooth and sharp? To me ‘tis mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal, and happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands, thus boldly up he spake:

“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand, and felt about the knee:

 

Principle 4 Let People Be Responsible

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The owner of a shipping company ordered up a new oil tanker.
He employed the late Gunnar Hjelholt as consultant to lead
the ship’s crew in designing a new work system. None had
ever shared decision-making, and they struggled through
several meetings. They wanted Gunnar to tell them what
they should do. “My comment,” he recalled, “was, ‘Who is
responsible for this ship?’”

— Madsen & Willert, 2006, p. 252

There are many forces in society and in us that work against people taking responsibility for themselves. We defer to people in power; we look to experts for solutions and magicians to entertain us; we sink into self-doubt when facing ambiguity and seek heroes to insure our safety. No wonder people expect anybody who leads a meeting to do most of the work for them.

In this chapter, we present a philosophy for leading meetings in a way that encourages participants to share responsibility. Many people have proved its efficacy in diverse cultures. To get to this place, we have had to drop cherished practices going back decades. We now get more done in meetings, whatever their length, than when we believed that everything hinged on us. Whether you reject or embrace our philosophy, we predict that you will be more mindful of your own assumptions any time you lead others.

 

Principle 5 Find Common Ground

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common ground, n.

“A foundation for mutual understanding” (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition)

“Shared beliefs or interests, a foundation for mutual understanding” (American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms)

“A basis agreed to by all parties for reaching a mutual understanding” (WordNet 2.0)

As you can see, dictionaries have reached common ground on common ground. They define it as the basis for mutual understanding. What they do not tell you is how to get there. That is the task of this chapter. We define common ground as those statements agreed to without reservation by every person in a meeting.

Common ground is not compromise. When people agree reluctantly to propositions they consider partially OK, they end up endorsing positions they don’t hold. Common ground does not require anyone to go along to preserve harmony. It describes real agreement at a point in time. Common ground also does not require convincing others that your views are correct. Talking long enough to “know what we are saying to each other” is the key to finding common ground. Nobody has to give up anything to discover that.

 

Principle 6 Master the Art of Subgrouping

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Why can’t we all just get along?

–RODNEY KING, commenting on riots that followed his beating by police on the night of March 3, 1991

Not long after World War II, a German refugee psychologist named Solomon Asch did a series of legendary group experiments. Asch imagined that an individual in a group faced with an obvious choice will choose correctly no matter what the others do. How wrong he was! He presented student volunteers with a line drawn on a card. They were asked to select an identical line from another card with three lines, two of them of different lengths. All but the “subject” were briefed in advance to give wrong answers. The subject disagreed repeatedly, becoming more agitated and uncertain. Within a dozen trials, most subjects went along with the group. Only one in four held out against group pressure although the correct line was obvious.

Years later we had the good fortune to visit with Asch and discuss his experiments. “I wanted to set up conditions under which every person could be independent of group pressure,” he told us. He was surprised at how few held out against a group that clearly had it wrong. He thought the evidence of their senses would keep people steadfast.

 

Principle 7 Make Friends with Anxiety

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Nothing in the affairs of men is worthy of great anxiety.

–PLATO

Anxiety. Everybody has it. Nobody loves it. Mel Brooks made a movie about it, High Anxiety (1977). W. H. Auden wrote a long poem, “The Age of Anxiety” (1947), set in a New York bar. Leonard Bernstein adopted Auden’s title for his Symphony No. 2 (1948). We are wallowing in anxiety, generalized, unfocused, nonspecific, and—our favorite term—free-floating, a kind of nervous cloud on which we depart the present in a sour mood for a place we’d rather not be. When we put the word anxiety into Google, we got 112 million hits in 0.07 second. That’s a lot of free-floating anxiety in cyberspace.

This chapter has twin themes to help you manage anxiety when you lead meetings that matter. Our first theme is that task-related anxiety can be your best friend. The poet T. S. Eliot called anxiety “the handmaiden of creativity” (or so it says on the Internet). You, too, may discover that apprehension in a meeting often serves as a precursor to creative breakthroughs.

 

Principle 8 Get Used to Projections

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We all go to the same different meeting together!

–JIM MASELKO, consultant and trainer

When you are leading a meeting, do you get agitated with people who say nothing? Or with those who won’t shut up? If someone expresses anger, do you become angry? Do you sometimes suspect that people are telling you what you want to hear? Or silently judging you on criteria never made explicit? Do you sometimes decide this group is “resistant,” another group “ready to work”? Have you ever found yourself disliking, mistrusting, or ignoring somebody before you knew anything about that person? Or found yourself liking a complete stranger at first sight?

In each of these scenarios, you are caught up in the experience of projection. You attribute to things and people “out there” qualities that originate in you. Whether they have any basis in fact is irrelevant when you are projecting. Put on a uniform or clerical collar and people relate differently to you than if you were in shorts and a T-shirt. That’s projection. Or notice what happens inside yourself the next time a leader stands up in front of a group and says, “My name is so-and-so, and I’ll be running this meeting.” Whether you decide to resist or cooperate depends largely on what you project on that person’s looks, demeanor, and tone of voice.

 

Principle 9 Be a Dependable Authority

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If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.

–RUDYARD KIPLING, “If” (1895)

Kipling’s poem contains three more stanzas, 15 “ifs” in all. He ends by saying that if you can do all these things “you’ll be a man, my son.” We like his poem because Kipling vividly describes to his child exactly the challenges every meeting leader faces. Anytime you assume authority, people test your dependability. The more emotional the agenda, the tougher the testing. It is your job to keep your head, not take things personally, be patient and not too full of yourself. The payoff comes when you learn to trust steadfastly that when you hang in long enough, no matter how disquieting the agenda, you will be doing the best you can.

 

Principle 10 Learn to Say No If You Want

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You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, Know when to walk away and know when to run.

–KENNY ROGERS, “The Gambler”

When Ronald Reagan was president of the United States, his wife became famous leading an antidrug campaign under the slogan “Just Say No!” In fact, saying no is not an easy sell. People who live in a 24/7/365 world of can-do and must-do ascribe negative traits to anyone who uses the world’s shortest negative. No is a sign of hostility; it implies passive-aggressive impulses; it brands the speaker a defeatist; it undermines creativity, goodwill, and good humor. For many managers, consultants, facilitators, and staffers, saying no can be interpreted as cowardice, disloyalty, or even sabotage.

In this chapter, we speak to several audiences: department heads, supervisors, or managers who feel pressure from somebody higher up to do something they doubt will work; consultants external and internal who are under the gun to deliver extraordinary results under questionable conditions; staff people in finance, information technology, engineering, and human resources who imagine their jobs are on the line anytime they are tempted to negotiate conditions for success; teachers, health care professionals, and civil servants who are constantly in the public eye. Many conscientious souls are addicted to saying yes when every synapse in their bodies screams “no way.”

 

Ten Principles, Six Techniques: A Summary

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This book contains many rules, guidelines, tips, procedures, practices, and techniques for leading meetings. Over the years, we have noticed ourselves using certain ones repeatedly. We believe that if you learn to make these six moves, you will be able to handle almost anything that comes up.

We urge you to consider these suggestions only in relation to our 10 principles. You’ll have a much easier time with any of them when you make friends with anxiety, get used to projections, and see yourself as a dependable authority. You have little to gain using any of them if you don’t have the right people in the room.

1. To quickly establish a sense of the whole, go around a group and have people say where they are (i.e., “differentiate”) themselves. (Principle 3)

2. To keep meetings from fragmenting, find an ally for a person at risk by asking an “anyone else” question. (Principle 6)

3. To interrupt polarization, help people identify sub—groups in conflict and dialogue among themselves. (Principle 6)

 

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