Meeting behaviour in a recession

By Martin Vogel

difficult meeting

As a practitioner in medialand, I learned the value of creative behaviours – ways to open up thinking and new ideas in order to develop better products.  I particularly admired a book called Sticky Wisdom by ?What If!, a group of consultants who – while challenged with punctuation – cut through the fog regarding innovation.  Sticky Wisdom demonstrates that creativity needn’t be the preserve of a particularly talented cadre of employees.  It can be cultivated through techniques and exercises to encourage freshness of thinking, open mindedness, and a determination to incubate abstract proposals to tangible reality.

The book seems to point to a more attractive way of being in organisations.  It provides ways to challenge the bureaucratic reflex which closes down ideas with criticism before they have even had a chance to develop, and it shows how to facilitate behaviours which display respect to one another.  So it is perhaps not surprising that organisations have drawn on creative behaviours and tried to apply them more widely.  As a freelance consultant, I have been struck to find the ?What If! model and others like it being adopted as templates for meeting behaviours in general.

There was a certain sense in this during times of growth.  When opportunities were plentiful and the environment fast-changing, leaders needed to foster innovation and nimbleness to stay competitive.  But I’m beginning to find that emulating creativity behaviours doesn’t work quite so well in the downturn when hard choices and prioritisation replace the land-grab as the modus operandi.  If people are feeling uncertain about their future, and contemplating cuts in their operations, the playfulness and sense of possibility in creative behaviours sit uneasily with the rigour and decisiveness that the situation demands.  The environment is still fast-changing and uncertain.  It still calls for innovation and flexibility.  But the cost of making the wrong call is now demonstrably high.  The challenge is how to retain the courage to take creative risks while being guided by a robust assessment of the context.

There’s still a place for thinking imaginatively but this is as likely to be focussed on brainstorming ways to strip out cost as to develop new things. For management teams who have to think through the implications of a financial shock, it is important to identify which of the creativity behaviours can still be helpful and what other kinds of meeting behaviours need to be encouraged.

Three creativity behaviours advocated by ?What If! are still worth drawing upon for this kind of meeting: freshness, signalling and courage.

Freshness is all about thinking about your issue from different perspectives. When people are experiencing changes which threaten their own or their organisation’s security, they are inclined to hold to what they know. So it can be useful to find ways to re-imagine what you do and how you do it as this can open up productive thoughts about how to meet the challenge of the recession.

Signalling is about conveying how you want people to engage with your ideas – whether you want them to suspend judgment to build the ideas creatively or to provide critical evaluation to test the ideas in the business context. It seems likely that there will be more of the latter going on in the present climate.  But sometimes you will want people to suspend judgment.  So they need to know which mode they are expected to be in at any given time

Courage in relation to creativity is about stepping up with your ideas and taking risks to realise them. Hard choices and cutbacks demand a different kind of courage of management teams – to face up to reality with honesty and to be candid about the potential consequences of different options. Only with this kind of honesty can they make good decisions about how to proceed.

These behaviours are particularly helpful at the start of the thinking process, when there’s a premium on generating new ideas and fresh perspectives.  When it gets to the point where difficult decisions have to be made, it’s no longer about opening up ideas but filtering down.  Here are some behaviours which would be helpful in that context.

Help to solve problems – This is about driving towards clarity and direction. Teams which have cultivated ways to open up thinking may find it difficult to recognise when this needs to stop. Possibilities need to be nudged towards decisions by filtering against pertinent criteria: the strategic context, the organisation’s purpose and its priorities.

Keep to the point – When people are feeling insecure, they can be tempted to bring into the discussion issues which are not strictly relevant to the matter in hand. It is important to give people space to surface how they are feeling and to report wider concerns, but these shouldn’t be allowed to overwhelm the main agenda.

Negotiate your dual role – Management meetings bring together people who simultaneously form a team of their own and represent the teams that they lead. They need to help each other to work together well – overcoming baronial thinking in order to collaborate and share responsibility while also representing their people effectively.

Everybody speaks, one at a time – It is vital to find ways to ensure that everyone contributes and that they are heard without interruption. It is partly the responsibility of each individual to speak up but it is also important to find ways to channel the discussion in varied ways. Typically in whole group discussions there will be one or two individuals who usually occupy the airtime, so breaking up into smaller groups can elicit contributions from those who are normally more reserved.

Acknowledge viewpoints – This is the counterpart to freshness and signalling. It concerns keeping an open mind to what you hear and showing receptiveness to ideas and, when judgment is required, exercising it constructively so that people’s contributions are respected. This is particularly important in a time of crisis when emotions may be running high.

Set groundrules – Establish expectations about meeting behaviour at the start of each meeting. Mark Horstman and Michael Auzenne at Manager Tools offer a wealth of resources on running effective meetings and setting groundrules is one of their top maxims.  Their suggestions include: keep to time and switch mobiles to silent.  How people use technology in meetings is a vexed issue.  I was at a meeting recently of a well-regarded national institution where about a third of the people round the table were sitting behind laptops.  This might be an aid to personal productivity, but it is really bad for group dynamics.  Laptops create barriers around the table and when people use them to multitask they say that the subject of the meeting is not important to them.  A culture of respect is the prerequisite for effective meetings.  Groundrules help bring this about.

Image courtesy sbblackley.