You’re sitting around the table, listening to one person after another drone on and on about topics that you find irrelevant and frankly boring, while the work you really should be doing has to wait until this interminable meeting is over. Adding to your frustration is the fact that earlier in the day, your boss blew you off (again) for your 1:1, when you’d hoped to get help handling a couple of big issues dogging you lately. It makes you wonder: Why are we having so many useless meetings that prevent us from getting work done, while we’re avoiding the kind of meetings that can actually help us make progress?
That’s the question author and CEO coach Kim Scott brilliantly answers in her groundbreaking book, Radical Candor: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean. The ultimate goal of practicing radical candor, says Scott, is to create a culture of guidance where teams have the kind of self-correcting quality that enables them to solve problems collaboratively and quickly. To do this, a successful leader must keep everything flowing smoothly by determining who needs to communicate with whom, by what means, and how frequently. For a team that works in close proximity to each other, this can be a daunting task, and for distributed teams the challenge becomes infinitely more complex.
In this edition, I share some of Scott’s ideas about the kind of meetings that are essential for a well-oiled team to run smoothly and tips for making each meeting productive and satisfying for all who join. I have paraphrased and shortened the content, and in many cases, added new content to reflect how these ideas can be adapted for those who lead distributed teams.
- 1:1s: These meetings, ideally held once a week with each team member for 30-50 minutes, give leaders the best opportunity to listen and clarify what direction each team member wants to head and why, what’s blocking them, and how you may be able to help. (Note that this is not the place for depositing all of your pent-up criticism that may have accumulated all week! Read Scott’s book to learn when and where critical feedback is best given.) Think of these 1:1s as sitting down with someone for coffee or lunch, rather than approaching it as a formal, overly structured meeting. At the same time, you will want an agenda to guide the conversation, which your team member should take the lead in creating. Agree on how detailed the agenda should be to achieve shared goals, and when it should be shared.
Career development conversations should occupy much of the time in these meetings, especially in the early going. Be prepared with questions to demonstrate your caring and curiosity. (One of Scott’s favorites: What can I do or stop doing to make XXX easier for you?) Use video if you can’t be together in the same room. And never, ever cancel a 1:1 unless it’s absolutely unavoidable. And even then, reschedule it immediately instead of skipping it. Download a sample list of questions here
- Staff meetings. A well-run staff meeting can save everyone time by alerting each other to problems, sharing updates efficiently and making sure everyone’s on the same page. Here’s where your team can review key metrics, make updates, and identify important decisions that need to be made. (This is not the place to have those debates or make those decisions. See below.) By asking everyone to contribute updates in a shared area in advance (e.g., via a Google doc or Office 365), the actual meeting time can be spent more productively, reflecting and discussing what went well, what didn’t, what’s ahead, etc.
Include a “study hall” period as part of your staff meeting, allowing everyone about 10-15 minutes of silent time to make updates and read others in a shared document, flag areas of concern or overlap, or pose questions for answering, later on. Allocate a few minutes for everyone to write in what their teams did that week that others should be aware of and another few minutes to read others’ “snippets.” Don’t allow side conversations; require that follow-up questions be handled after the meeting. Finally, identify key decisions and related debates the team needs to have, who must be involved, when and how. Identify decision “owners” and required participants.
- “Big Debate” meetings. This is where impending decisions will be discussed, but not made. This crucial distinction can help lower stress and allow people to make their case and listen openly to others, without the pressure of having to make a decision. Allocate a sufficient amount of time for needed discussions; make them open-ended for important decisions. Invite those your team has identified in your staff meeting (See above). Others may be invited to observe, especially those most affected by the decision. The debate “owner” is responsible for capturing and distributing notes. Agree on norms such as: Everyone checks egos, titles and affiliations at the door. We will work and learn together to come up with the best solution. There are no winners or losers. We will be prepared to argue opposing viewpoints as well as our own. The output from this meeting should be a clear, concise summary of the available options, trade-offs, relevant facts and issues, criteria for decision-making, and a recommendation to continue debating or to move onto a decision. Such debates can include both asynchronous and synchronous conversations, especially when key participants work across multiple time zones.
- “Big Decision” meetings. These almost always follow “Big Debate” meetings, with similar logistics and meeting norms. Participants may be somewhat different from those in the “Big Debate” meetings, but will usually include many of the same people. Since it’s vital that decisions made here are final, make sure to include the final approver, or delegate that authority to the decision owner. If you have a vested interest in the outcome, make sure you are present. Restate the decision-making criteria and shared goals at the outset. Try using a virtual conference space to allow people to weigh in ahead of time, ask questions, provide responses, or make comments, especially important when working across time zones. The decision owner communicates the final decision, along with rationale and implications, to all affected stakeholders immediately after this meeting.
- All-hands meetings. These are designed to help bring people along, whether it’s to persuade them to come onboard with a big decision that’s just been made, talk through the implications of an impending change, or share new directions or priorities. These meetings are especially important when you have a large team or more than 10 or so. When members span multiple time zones, give everyone a heads-up far enough in advance so people can readjust their calendars as needed; and ensure that the time you choose is not wildly inconvenient for anyone, especially when the topic is critical. Allocate sufficient time for conversation, including Q&A. Ensure that remote participants have an equal opportunity to be part of the conversation, which often means opening up multiple channels of communications, such as video and chat.
- Making work visible. This isn’t so much a real-time conversation as an ongoing exchange of information, where people can see each other’s progress, bottlenecks, completed work, resource flows, and other important information that can affect the work of the whole team. Scott recommends creating the equivalent of Kanban boards with sticky notes, which can easily be moved around. (For virtual teams, several apps are available that mimic the use of sticky notes, which can be used in both asynch and synchronous conversations.) Not only can everyone on the team get a quick snapshot into everyone’s progress and activities at any time, but the use of visual progress reporting helps make team members feel more accountable to meet their commitments and more likely to jump into help others meet theirs when needed. Another bonus: Team members tend to have a new appreciation for the work others are doing when it’s easier to see.
- Listening by “walking around.” When team members work in different locations, it’s not easy for a team leader to walk around to hear and see what’s going on, get a feel for the environment of each member, or offer guidance or suggestions. “Walking around” for a leader of distributed teams can take many forms, always with the permission and knowledge of all team members, of course! Examples: Participating in chat forums, scanning Slack channels, reading wikis or blogs, joining others’ meetings, or opening a “drop-in” clinic at a predictable day/time for an unstructured exchange of information or a social check-in.
To create a culture where everyone on the team gladly offers and accepts guidance from you and fellow team members, you’ll need to start practicing “radical candor,” described in detail in Scott’s book of the same name. As a result, you may be inspired to create a new meeting “architecture” that will help enrich and accelerate the work of your team. Start with the meetings now in place, and ask your team questions like: How can we make better use of our time together? How can we share more online in advance? What kinds of conversations do we need to have that we don’t have today? How can we create better opportunities to learn from each other? Then introduce the concept of having different kinds of meetings that serve different purposes, with a goal of helping people work together more collaboratively and efficiently. You may end up having more meetings, but you’ll be amazed at how much more work your team can get done, more quickly, as a result.
Questions to stimulate necessary conversations for 1:1s and team meetings – downloadable PDF checklist from Guided Insights
Evaluating the options – meeting face-to-face or remotely – downloadable PDF checklist
Communicating in Times of Change – downloadable PDF white paper