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Thursday, March 21, 2013

21B Managing Meetings

Crisis Meetings

Crises are everyday occurrences in most complex organizations. They must be dealt with rapidly and effectively as discussed previously in lecture 20. Meetings are necessary and they should be staged to minimize wasting time of workers involved. Stage the meetings as follows:
·       First meeting- gather only those likely to have data needed to define the problem
·       Second meeting- gather only those necessary to solve the problem
·       Follow-up meetings- gather only those needed to status the problem and plan for solution. (Crises are abnormal events so standard information systems aren’t likely to be adequate to status progress and brief meetings such as daily stand-ups are needed.)
Think about how the crisis solving team can be structured so that few meetings are needed. For example, if a manager is available with the necessary problem solving skills that manger can be part of the team and be responsible for reporting status so that other team members need only concentrate on problem solving.

Work Meetings

Many work tasks require collaboration of knowledge workers and collaboration requires communication. Work communication can be informal face to face or electronic involving just two or three workers or it can be formal meetings involving large numbers of workers. Managers are involved as organizers, facilitators, workers or all three roles. Useful guidelines for work meetings include:
·       Separate status reviews from working sessions
·       Keep working sessions small and informal
·       Keep status reviews from becoming working sessions
·       Exploit modern technology including all forms of electronic communications
·       Develop agreed upon guidelines for electronic communications
·       Hold working sessions and status reviews at fixed times and places so that people prepare and attend automatically
A fundamental principle is to minimize information latency* by means appropriate to each situation. If possible co-locate team members to reduce the need for frequent meetings to exchange information.  [* Information latency is the time between when information is generated and the time it is available to others depending on the information for the next steps in their work.]
The availability of inexpensive large screen display projectors, n to one video switches and inter/intra nets makes it cost effective to set up special work rooms where teams of 10 to 25 knowledge workers can gather with their laptops and software tools to simultaneously work and share work results. Many organizations now use such facilities for teams to gather for intense work and information sharing periods of three to four hours two or three times weekly. These sessions must be well planned and workers must come prepared to work and share results in real time. Planning, documenting work and time consuming tasks are performed in between sessions in the work rooms. This approach is called by a number of names but Integrated Concurrent Engineering (ICE) is a common name. This approach is effective because it reduces information latency from minutes to seconds or hours to minutes. It is proven to reduce cost and schedule of complex projects by factors of three to ten.
 If you are responsible or desire to be responsible for teams of knowledge workers I recommend you become familiar with ICE. Don’t let the term engineering dissuade you from investigating this approach for any knowledge worker activity.   There is adequate information on the web so I will not include the details here. Start with:
Observation, Theory, and Simulation of Integrated Concurrent Engineering by Chachere, Kunz and Levitt, CIFE Working Paper #WP087, STANFORD UNIVERSITY, August 2004, or
The Integrated Concurrent Enterprise by David B. Stagney, MIT Thesis, 2003.
Knowledge workers spend much of their time in work meetings and much of the time not in meetings in their ubiquitous cubicles. If your organization is housed in cubicles consider arranging the work space of small teams; those with two to eight members, in a common cubicle. This can often be done by removing partitions or rearranging the cubicles. The objective is to enable the small team’s members to see and talk to each other from their normal workstations. This eliminates the need to get up and walk to another cubicle to ask a question, sending an email or calling a meeting to obtain data from teammates. Information latency is greatly reduced for the small team thereby increasing its efficiency. Yes, it likely increases unproductive social conversation but this loss is more than offset by the increase in efficiency for most teams. For teams larger than about eight it makes more sense to use the ICE technique mentioned in the preceding paragraph.
If you work in a large enterprise with multiple locations it is likely that you and your organization are involved in work spread across locations. In such cases it is impossible to physically co-locate workers but virtual co-location is possible with modern teleconferencing and collaboration software. In planning uses of this technology seek to drive information latency as low as practical as well as to coordinate and status work. In my experience these modern techniques are effective if workers that must interact electronically are first brought together in one location for a day or two to get to know each other. Face to face interaction enables workers to learn each other’s work style and quirks. This makes it easier to understand each other later when interacting via electronic communications in spite of the filtering imposed by these methods.
Be aware that small organizations may not know how to organize to work big projects and large organizations may treat small projects the same as large projects and overkill on status meetings when informal communication is adequate. This is because the methods needed to effectively manage projects do not scale with the size of the project. Methods don’t scale because much of the communication that takes place in the work place is informal communication. Let me explain how this impacts work with extreme examples.
Informal communication is completely adequate if everyone involved in a project is located in the same room. Information needed by one worker from another is available by direct asking. Information needed by all can be posted on the walls so there is little need for formally scheduled meetings. Contrast this tiny project with a giant complex project involving several enterprises located in several different parts of the country or world and each enterprise using its own data bases of project information as well as shared data bases. Workers do not even know who is responsible for generating the information they need, let alone being able to ask for it, without there being formal organization, organization charts, descriptions of responsibilities and similar documentation plus the many types of meetings associated with large projects. Note however that within each separate part of the project there is informal communications working locally as always.
If you are responsible for a new project that is either much larger or much smaller than those you and your organization are experienced with it is wise to call in someone with experience with projects of the size of your new project to help you avoid serious mistakes in organizing the project and structuring the meetings necessary to ensure effective communications.  Mistakes in organizing the project or structuring meetings lead to major time wasters that are also money wasters and threaten the success of the project.
The discussion above is couched in terms of projects because projects have limited lifetimes and organizations that do project works face these problems repeatedly. All organizations are faced with project work from time to time. However, the principles apply to other work types and problems of scale arise in the initial stages of setting up an organization or when the size of the organization increases or decreases in size substantially.
I now digress from discussing work meetings with a personal story about the effects of scale on organizations. Feel free to skip this story as it is just an example of the principles described above applied to manufacturing. I was responsible for two manufacturing plants, plant A producing a product at a rate of about 100 per day and plant B a similar product at a rate of about 1000 per day. Applying the methods that are the subject of this course we had improved the effectiveness of plant A to the point that we had the space and skills available to absorb plant B’s work, which would make plant A even more cost effective. My boss, supporting the move but having a lot more experience in manufacturing than I, told me that my plant A team wouldn’t be able to handle the new work because of the difference in rate. Having the arrogance of ignorance I told him my plant A team was a crackerjack team that was familiar with the materials, processes and machines involved with the higher rate product and I was confident they could do the job. Well the boss was right. My team was indeed familiar with everything involved but the difference in rate. They tried to use the work flow management techniques that worked well at a rate of 100 per day on the 1000 per day production line and these techniques were inadequate. I won’t admit to the amount of money we lost before we got proper work flow management processes in place for the higher rate production but I will say that I was reminded of it several times by the top level financial people in the enterprise.
Problem Solving or Brainstorming Meetings
Problem solving meetings are part of crisis meetings and are in a class of meetings that involve brainstorming. Problem solving meetings are particularly prone to wandering off focus and wasting time. If the meeting room has a white or black board, or an easel, then there is a simple technique for making a problem solving meeting effective. You can use this technique as the meeting leader or as a volunteer secretary. The approach is to write down on the board or easel just the key things needed to keep the meeting on track and to follow a logical sequence of discussion. This sequence is as follows:
1.     First get agreement from the group on the definition of the problem to be solved. If it is your meeting you should have defined the problem in your planning (see next section) and be ready to define the problem with your introduction.
2.     Gather data. In a true problem meeting this means using a tool like a fishbone diagram* to guide brainstorming on the possible causes of the problem. [*Fishbone diagrams, also called Ishikawa diagrams or cause-and-effect diagrams, are diagrams that help collect and organize the causes of a certain event. Consult Wikipedia for a more complete definition.] In a brainstorming meeting you are gathering ideas. Be open to all ideas and write each down for all to see. Make sure everyone has the opportunity to offer ideas. Gather all ideas without evaluation, i.e. make sure ideas are not critiqued in real time.
3.     After all the ideas are written down thin and organize the gathered data. This means consolidating data that is similar into one item, throwing out data that doesn’t seem relevant after brief discussion and identifying any obvious hierarchy or relationships between the remaining data items.
4.     If a fishbone diagram has been generated then prioritize the candidate causes collected so that actions can be assigned to determine if each cause is a root cause of the problem. Some causes are likely the result of other more fundamental causes. It is important to track causes back to root causes. Otherwise solutions may only correct symptoms and not the root causes. It may be that additional data is needed to identify root causes. If so, assign actions to collect the needed data, schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss the new data and close the meeting.
5.     Once root causes are identified brainstorm to collect possible solutions to the root causes if possible solutions were not collected as part of the brainstorming in step 2. Follow the same procedure as for collecting and evaluating causes.
6.     Thin and organize the alternative solutions as described in step 3.
7.     Discuss pros and cons of each alternative and make a decision on the best if sufficient information is available. If additional information is needed then assign actions to gather the information.
8.     Define the steps necessary to implement and monitor the effectiveness of selected alternatives, assign actions, schedule any necessary follow-up meetings and close the meeting.
Using a board or easel to write down relevant information at each step keeps the group on track and having the information available visually to all attendees aids their thinking. Being the recorder of information helps you guide the meeting and keep it focused. Once the members of your organization become familiar with the process outlined here the meetings tend to stay focused because they recognize that the process works and doesn’t waste their time. Whereas it is possible to use a computer and projection screen in place of a white board or easel it isn’t as effective unless the computer operator is particularly skillful in capturing and organizing data. For most people it is easier and faster to use a board or easel.

Make Sure Meetings Are Disciplined- Guidelines for Effective Meetings

The reason for most meetings is to communicate, i.e. gather or disseminate information as efficiently as possible. If meetings go beyond gathering or disseminating information then they become time wasters.  Plan your meetings, have an agenda and a time limit. Planning a meeting means thinking through each candidate item on your draft agenda and answering the following questions:
·       Does this item belong in this meeting?
·       What information must be communicated and/or gathered for each item?
·       How do I introduce each item to focus the discussion so that I get the answers I or the organization need?
·       How do I decide when this item is ready for closure?
·       How much time is it likely to take to discuss and close each item?
If you think through the questions above you can limit the items on the agenda to those that can be covered adequately in the allotted time and you are prepared to conduct an effective meeting. If you are not prepared you risk wasting everyone’s time by getting off track or onto unnecessary topics. Don’t be discouraged if this looks like it takes a lot of planning time. With practice you become proficient at this planning and find that it takes only a few minutes to plan an effective meeting.
Start meetings on time and end them on time. Make it clear that you expect to start meetings on time and do not wait for late arrivals. They soon learn that they are expected to be on time and most people do what is expected of them. If you wait for late arrivals you not only waste the time of everyone present but you condition everyone that it is not necessary to be on time for your meetings. As a result your meetings are always late in starting due to waiting for late arrivals and waste the time of those that arrive on time.
Establish intended outcomes for the meeting at the beginning and get agreement on outcomes. Make sure you have a process to capture actions. It is sufficient to identify the action and responsible person in the meeting. Hold a follow-up one on one with the actionee to discuss details, set up guidelines, due dates and what is expected at midterm and final reviews. These details are critical to ensuring that an actionee understands what is expected but they are not important to other meeting attendees.
Keep on schedule, summarize key points frequently and use group problem solving tools as appropriate. Use your judgment on the necessity of keeping and distributing minutes since the necessity depends on the type and frequency of meetings. Formal organization meetings that are scheduled monthly typically require minutes and weekly staff meetings typically do not as long as actions and other decisions are documented.
Discussing details of problem resolution and issuing detailed instructions to an actionee during meetings are just two examples that result in ineffective meetings. It is the responsibility of the meeting leader to keep the meeting focused on the agenda items. Other items will come up and it is necessary to quickly judge whether the additional item is relevant to the success of the meeting or should be dealt with at another time. Items that are not relevant can be deferred to another meeting, to a one on one, or assigned to someone to resolve outside of the meeting. Although such items must be dealt with quickly make sure you take the time to listen effectively to people bringing up items not on the agenda. They have decided, rightly or wrongly, that the items are important for the group and if you cut them off before they complete their explanation you frustrate them, and thereby demotivate them.


1.     Develop straw man agendas for the following meetings for your organization:
1.     Weekly Staff Meeting
2.     Monthly All Hands Meeting
3.     Crisis Meeting to Address an Apparent Case of Fraud in your organization
4.     Status Meeting on a current project in your organization.
2.     Review your answers to the exercises in the middle of this lecture and assess the effectiveness of your organization’s meetings according to the guidelines covered in lecture 21.
3.     Identify any changes you need to make to improve the effectiveness of meetings in your organization.
4.     Incorporate plans for these changes in your action plan.

If you find that the pace of blog posts isn’t compatible with the pace you  would like to maintain in studying this material you can buy the book “The Manager’s Guide for Effective Leadership” at:
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