Organizations create the illusion that they can be manageable. This article expands on that notion to argue why teamwork is critical for business success and why meetings are different from workshops. You can be better at running meetings or commissioning workshops. I am sharing bellow one practical advice on improving your next meeting’s agenda and one recommendation for your next workshop. You can learn more about this in the next IAF Congress in Oceania.
Sir Richard Branson in an interview once said that companies cease to be manageable with more than 100 employees. Nevertheless, I have seen the failure or success of one-person firms depending much more on the external circumstances rather than on the will or the skills of their respective owners. If this is true for the smallest, what happens in larger companies?
Managing a large organization is like managing a country. By definition, a government is composed of a varied number of organizations that supposedly respond to a President or Prime Minister and obey her direct orders, right? Nothing is furthest from the true as we all know.
The overall performance of any business or not-for-profit organization depends as much on external factors as on management talent. Jim Collins and a number of fellow researchers published in Good to Great a seminal study about a number of ‘great companies’ that outperformed their competitors with a strong and sustainable stock value. But just 10 years later, the economist Steven Levit observed that those companies were not so great anymore and one of them actually closed down. Even the most extraordinary well-managed companies cannot resist my ‘50% chance of survival’ law.
Would this mean that the best and largest companies today are going to collapse one day? The Roman empire survived for more than 1.400 years but it eventually was dismantled and disappeared. Back in 476 AD, the pace of technological innovation was very slow. Today, in the dawn of the XXI century’s digital revolution, external circumstances are much more volatile and unpredictable. The old saying ‘whatever goes up must always go down’, will eventually apply to the stock value of today’s high-performing companies.
But there must be a secret for high-performing companies successfully enduring external circumstances. I am not talking about the businesses booming in the video game industry or entertainment such as Netflix, Activision or Nvidia, where profits abound by default. I am talking about companies that started 10, 20 or more years ago, such as Microsoft, Apple, Google or Intel. Or companies that reinvented their service offers such as Vodafone or Virgin. What makes such giants remain kick-ass performers given their size and their de facto unmanageability?
Teams are all that matters
The majority of successful enterprises in the world thrive on successful group collaboration. This is most critical when an organization is a growing start-up. Imagine when Exxon, the Volkswagen group or Boeing were start-ups? Without a successful team of intrepid visionaries as founders, these companies would never have become what they are today. For stable businesses like Oil&Gas or industrial manufacturing, their growth requires brick after brick another piece on the wall of what becomes a large bureaucratic organization. Start-up spirit is lost and the main drive of the organization becomes what has driven the growth of the Roman empire – to conquer and to replicate the standard practice.
Start-ups that learn to survive in more unpredictable environments get a different kind of organizational DNA. They tend to rely much more on the delivery of teams rather than that of single individuals’ cooperative work. These are the kind of organizations where people huddle in meeting rooms that normally have the supporting technology they need for group creativity and problem-solving.
Visitors of the most fashionable companies today such as Google, Facebook or Apple are impressed by the informal nature of such huddle rooms with seamless visual collaboration technology such as video conference and digital interactive surfaces everywhere.
Meetings and workshops
Teamwork management is a completely different ball game than individual-work-that-needs-to-be-coordinated. Smart companies have learned to understand the difference and thrive on the former.
Individual workers that need to accomplish a collective purpose, such as attaining an aggregate sales objective or holding a certain level of budget expenditure, are often convened in meetings. Whereas the members of a team that is working to deliver a certain group output, such as a new product or solving a complex problem, they normally require a workshop.
What is the difference between a meeting and a workshop?
Essentially, the quality of the group output. Coordination meetings have a loose set of objectives and pack a number of agenda items within a certain amount of time. Typically people attend such meetings to watch presentations that inform about someone else’s progress. If time is well managed, the meeting host collects sufficient information to make more informed decisions about the control actions each person is expected to take. However, the problems associated with business meetings are so well documented that it is worthless mentioning them here.
Workshops try to overcome all of the ‘coordination meeting’ well-documented problems. Whereas a meeting is chaired by the team leader or a designated member of the team, the workshop leader is a neutral figure that is not actually part of the team. In a workshop, the meeting event (or events) are carefully engineered by someone that is trained as a group facilitator or, at least, has some trainer’s experience.
Agile is lean
The software makers learned well the difference between meetings and workshops. The Agile movement is a response to the failure of the dominant software development project management paradigms (including waterfall) and borrows many principles from lean manufacturing. Scrum is a programming method in many ways similar to a workshop. It has an underlying set of principles from the Agile manifesto, derived from the concept of self-organization, and defines a simple set of roles, responsibilities and meetings which are facilitated by a ScrumMaster that keeps the team focused on its goal.
To govern vs to facilitate
“Conventional wisdom suggests that effectiveness comes from a strong leader, a clear mission, and technically competent subordinates. Yet more is involved if a team is to realize synergy. The key issue is how the parts act together – participation.” (Blak, Mouton and Allen, 1987 cited in Williams R.B, (2007) – More than 50 ways to build team consensus).
By default, the design of a workshop specifies the number of steps that the group must undertake to accomplish a certain outcome from A to B. Such outcomes can be both tangible and concrete as well as experiential. Whereas in ‘coordination meetings’ such kind of group transformation is rarely produced.
I promised to offer one practical piece of advice to improve you next meeting agenda. From the many resources available I selected the `time flow picture’ from the book More than 50 ways to build team consensus.
The time flow diagram is an alternative way to post your meeting agenda. Some people feel time as being more important than money. Representing your agenda in a time flow communicates that agenda goals are within reach during the time that is planned for the meeting.
When do you know when to stop trying to govern and simply to facilitate teamwork that creates synergy in your organization?
This is probably the one million dollar question for reaching higher levels of performance in the organization. The synergy notion that was quoted above is not a chimera, it can be reached with well-designed workshops. Agile methods such as Scrum, that are based on the notion of self-organization are proven widely effective. Seminal work of Harison Owen with Open Space Technology in business organizations is also a demonstration that leap frog results are possible. Yet my promised advice is to start with baby steps, you crawl before you walk.
The ToP (Technology of Participation) is probably the best firs step if your organization is not yet mature in terms of a culture of employee engagement and participation. ToP offers a simple and robust method that anyone who has a strong background in change management and training can grasp by reading Laura Spencer’s book Wining Through Participation.
My recommendation for your next workshop is to hire a facilitator (the IAF has a database of certified professionals) that can run a ToP workshop designed according to your objectives. How to have a more collaborative culture in our organization? How to have more effective virtual meetings? How to implement an extranet that engages your customers and connects them to your company brand? These are some examples of workshop topics you can commission.
If you are already a trained facilitator you can use MeetingSphere a software designed for running ToP and other types of workshops at a distance. We will be hosting a session during next IAF Congress in Oceania explaining how MeetingSphere can be used in virtual workshops.
Cover image credits: https://uxmag.com/articles/don%25E2%2580%2599t-have-a-meeting-throw-a-workshop