One-Word Story, a Team-Building Icebreaker

This is just like the clap-pass icebreaker, but words replace a hand-clap.   It’s just as fast and energizing, with one change:  It can be harder to let go into the flow of the story.

SET-UP

The group can either sit or stand in a circle.  Tell them they are to tell a story as a group using only one word each.  Choose the first person and ask them for a word, then cue the next person and the next and the next.  Limit everyone to 1 word and keep them moving.  Like clap-pass, rhythm helps.

DEBRIEF

Ask participants what it was like to participate and enjoy their answers.  You’ll hear things like:  “It was hard to let go of the story I wanted to tell!”   “I didn’t want to get stuck with words like ‘the,’ ‘and,’ ‘or, ‘it,’ when I had a really great word in mind.”  “My brain froze because I liked my idea for a story better than the one we were telling.”

This icebreaker is a microcosm of being in a team. We want to contribute, and we want to contribute what we think is best or coolest, regardless of what the team – or the client, if you are a consultant – needs.  If you want to go deeper, ask about how a team might introduce fairness into its work together.  What may come out is how 1 or 2 people with the loudest voices or strongest egos always have more influence on the team’s conversations and work.  We have a deep instinct for fairness.  We all have control needs too.  How are you balancing those needs?  This icebreaker can help you raise that question.  Answering it might be a simple as agreeing to take turns or occasionally impose arbitrary and artificial limits on speaking times.

 

 

 

CG #61 – Culture is what you do right here, right now

That’s just the culture here. We can’t get anything done quickly.”  Organizational culture has gotten a reputation for being difficult to unravel and nearly impossible to change. Is your organization’s culture really a trap you can’t escape?  That’s up to you.

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Reading Time: 2.2 minutes

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Culture is a verb, not a prison sentence. Here’s how one dictionary defines it:

Culture: v. To maintain (tissue, bacteria, etc.) in conditions suitable for growth.

“But that’s the problem!” you moan. “My organization won’t let me take risks or grow at all. I have to wait for someone to die to get promoted.”

Which brings us to the definition of culture as a noun: Culture n. “The attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.”

Culture is what you do, not who you are. 

Attitudes. Behavior. Conditions. Groups. That’s what culture is. If the behavior that is characteristic of your organization is getting you down, make a tiny change in one of the above 4 elements.   Here are three examples.

Change a Condition

A workgroup was moved into a new building with a dispiriting floor plan. Instead of the natural gathering places and interesting configuration of their previous space, this office was one uniform row after another of depressing gray cubicles. “It’s awful.” a coaching client of mine said, “People are fighting more, and no one smiles or jokes anymore. I want to quit.”

She didn’t quit. Instead, she placed a small table in a central location with a message board above it. Soon food started appearing there – lemons from the tree in someone’s backyard, tomatoes and zucchini from someone’s garden, a box of doughnuts. Then notes started appearing on the message board. As people lingered to eat, they talked and joked with one another. The fighting subsided.

Change the Group Behavior

The meeting was the same every month: There was no project goal, no meeting outcome, no agenda. There was only a plate of cookies and a request by the CIO to figure out “how to create partnerships between IT and our client groups.” This group of senior managers ate cookies and went through the motions for 9 months. They’d meet for the rest of their lives because the culture did not allow pointing out the mistakes of leaders, and it did not believe in structuring meetings.

A newcomer suggested a meeting evaluation, and it took 3 flipchart pages to capture their discontent, and only 2 more highly structured meetings to agree to stop meeting, a first in this compliant, meeting-bound culture. “We can’t solve on partnership problems in isolation.” is what they told the CIO. “Makes sense,” he said.

Change Your Behavior

“…so we need a new design for the group by Friday. I need your very best thinking..” It was Wednesday afternoon and this was the first I’d heard of this from my C—level client.   It was a typical moment in this hard-driving, last-minute culture. I was booked solid for the rest of the week.

I tore out a piece of paper from my pad and started drawing the design. “I can do it right now,” I said.

“What? “ Now my client was flustered. “Don’t you need time to talk to people and think about it?”

“There’s no time for that.  We have 20 minutes left. Let’s take our best shot and your admin can type up our first draft while we agree on next steps.”

She frowned as I drew and labeled boxes. “Why are you putting that there?” she asked. Then she grabbed her pen and pulled the paper toward her. We had an engaging design session for the next 15 minutes.

Keep it tiny and matter-of-fact

When culture is in your way, it’s tempting to think you have to make a dramatic attempt to change it. What if, instead of trying to change the culture, you focused on not letting the culture change you in one, tiny way?

Just because the office layout is unfriendly doesn’t mean you have to be. Just because the meeting culture is dysfunctional doesn’t mean you have to throw away your skills. If the deadline demands are routinely impossible, why not make a first draft part of the way you work? Just because the culture is rigid, doesn’t mean you have to be.

Remember:  Right here, right now, the culture is up to you.

 

CG #59 – Does Your Productive Group Fall Apart at Times?

Groups excel at tasks, and flounder with projects.  Learning to recognize the difference will revolutionize your meetings.

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Reading time: 2 minutes

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A task is something that can be accomplished in one step.  A project is anything that is more than one step.  Tasks are speedy and give you an immediate feeling of accomplishment.  Projects are speedbumps on the road of life.

Very few of the things on a typical to do list – or a typical meeting agenda – are tasks.  Most of us have items on our to do list – or our meeting agendas – that we move to the next list or the next agenda.  These are often projects rather than tasks.

Look at your list right now:  Is the item you move from list to list a project rather than a task?  If it is a project, you’re smart to avoid it.  It’s going to gobble up a lot of time and demand your complete attention.  And it’s going to send your group into one of those long, unproductive discussions.

 If you want to get things done, you put only tasks on your to do list. If you want your group to get things done, you put only tasks on your agenda.

Analyze Your Task List/Meeting Agenda

Here’s a typical to do list:

  • Wash the car
  • Mow the lawn
  • Do the laundry

There is a project lurking behind every one of these items.  I can’t wash the car without first parking the car away from my neighbor’s cars, finding a hose, getting a bucket, soap and a sponge, and putting on clothes I don’t mind getting wet.  It’s a project to wash a car, not a task.

If I put “wash the car” on a meeting agenda, then ask the group to help me wash my car, pandemonium will erupt.  The group will split according to the task they each think comes first.  One person will ask for the keys to the car.  Another will tell me – at length – how much they love using Dawn dishwashing detergent and do I have any while someone else warns me of the damage dishwashing detergent will do to my car’s paint job.  While they are arguing, 3 people will already be in the parking lot squirting each other with the hose and getting my neighbor’s cars wet.

My project just turned into a nightmare.  Unproductive meetings are just like this.  Which brings me to 3 principles of working with groups:

  • Groups are fabulous at tasks
  • Groups fall apart over projects
  • Groups tend to turn everything into a project

If you want to see the full flowering of the dynamics lurking in your group, throw a project at them.  If you want their help working on a project of enormous complexity, give it to them one small task at a time.  That’s what meeting planning is for:  to break down the big, undigestible project into tiny, group-sized pieces.

Task or Project?

In order to make improving your meetings a quick, easy task instead of an enormous, time-chewing project, take this tiny step today:

Look at your task list or list of agenda items and ask yourself:  Which of these is a project rather than a task?  It’s probably the one you’ve been avoiding, and now you know why.

CG #58 – Cut Your Meeting Time in Half

There’s a reason professional writers write faster than the rest of us.  What they know will cut your meeting time in half.

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Reading Time: 2.6 minutes

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“…my argument is that you should write quickly but edit slowly; and you can buff your words and pick better words when you’re in the editing phase and (can) take your time.”

“Yes, you’re right and you say it in the right order. I’ve habitually done it backwards. I’m editing a blank page into even blanker before I get going.  [laughter]. I’m deleting from nothing.

–A conversation between authors Daphne Gray-Grant and  Arthur Plotnik.

I’ve been studying how to write faster with author Daphne Gray-Grant. Her 4-step process cuts writing time in half:

1. Make a mind-map that shows you what you’ll be writing.

2.  Draft fast without editing, evaluating or thinking.

3. Take a break.

4. Edit slowly and thoughtfully.

If only this were easy to do.  I’d like to tell you it gets easier with practice, but that isn’t true. It is very, very difficult to make a mind map when I am on deadline.   I want to dive in and just get it done.  Giving in to this urge will slow me down.

Even when I get this first step right, it is very, very difficult to write a terrible first draft without improving it as I go.  When I see a clumsy construction, a word that isn’t right, a typo, it’s like the world will come to an end if I don’t clean it up right away. RIGHT NOW.

It’s as difficult to write a terrible first draft as it is to get through 3 minutes of brainstorming or round robin without heading immediately into an open discussion.

Open discussion is the meeting equivalent of editing a blank page.  The biggest problem with open discussion is it happens too early.  Discussing before all the information is out on the table is editing a blank page.  It’s deleting from nothing.

How NOT to do it

 Here’s how open discussion erupts.  The leader asks a question.  Someone gives their answer.  Maybe another person gives their answer, maybe two more do.  But the 4th person to speak is no longer responding to the original question.  They’re responding to what the first three people said.  They’re agreeing or taking exception or evaluating what’s already been said.

They are editing, not drafting.  And they are editing a blank page.  The minute someone writes a sentence, someone else jumps in to improve it.   That’s what slows your meetings down to a crawl.

The whole point of a meeting is to get to the editing stage:  You want to look at a problem together and edit, evaluate and choose as a group.

You can’t do that with a blank page.  You need a draft before you can edit it.

How to meet like a writer

1. Create the draft first without editing.  Round robin is best for this, or post-it brainstorming. (5-7 minutes)

2.  Clarify what’s up there.  If you don’t understand every word, you don’t yet have a draft.  Do not edit, evaluate, weigh in or advocate.  Just clarify. You are still drafting. (3 minutes)

3. Theme, categorize or combine to make the information easier to edit. You are preparing your draft for editing. (5 minutes)

Editing

4. Cross-off the items everyone agrees can be eliminated. Don’t push to remove anything.  Give people time to think.  You are editing. (1-2 minutes)

5. Prioritize the list that remains.   Struggle is normal here.  You are editing. (5-10 minutes)

6. Agree on action plan for the first 1-3 on the list. This can be a bit peppier, as you are now through editing. (3 minutes)

You can go from a blank page to coordinated, enthusiastic action in 35 minutes if you’ll separate drafting and editing.  Or, you can have the same meeting over and over, run out of time and make little progress on your goals.   It really is that simple.  But it’s not easy.

It’s a discipline

I like author Steve Chandler’s definition best:  “Discipline is remembering what you want.”

CG #55 – Working at Your Peak Without Burning Out

You can do anything 25 minutes at a time.  You’ll do it better if you take a short break every 25 minutes.

Word Count: 677

Reading Time: Under 3 minutes

Dave is standing on the dock, covered in sawdust.  He’s been remodeling the galley of his trawler for the last few days.  Being a trawler – a boat designed with visibility in mind, – it’s quite easy to see his progress.  Being Dave, I’m expecting an entertaining conversation.  Dave is a tugboat captain in Alaska in the summer. .  “Most days, I have a lot of time to think,” is how he describes his work life.  During the winter, he lives aboard his trawler.  Most days, I understand very little of what Dave says.

“I’m about 6 boat units in so far, probably take another 3 to finish this.”

“What’s a boat unit?”

“The minimum amount of money it takes to complete the smallest project on the boat.  It’s also a way to estimate time.  A 1-boat unit project takes 2 or 3 hours.”

I soon started seeing the usefulness of Dave’s boat unit idea.  I noticed there was a meeting unit, and it didn’t vary much across groups or organizations.

A meeting unit is the time a group can stay focused a task without tangents.

I saw that groups can work like the wind for 25 minutes, then they need a small break from that relentless focus.  They rest by cracking a joke, making a personal comment, staring out the window, or checking email.

When I designed with the meeting unit in mind, I had to do less facilitation.  Much less, especially in long meetings.

About this time, I came across the Pomodoro Technique, by Francesco Cirillo.  Cirillo has developed a simple time-management technique based on the writings of memory expert Tony Buzan.

According to Buzan, if you work for too long without a break, your understanding may increase, but your ability to remember what you understand decreases  Subsequent work can’t benefit from what you understand unless you can remember it.  The highest quality work comes from this equation:

Understanding + Remembering + Rest = Learning.

During a rest period, the brain converts understanding to learning and makes it available for use, just like fertile farmland makes use of a rainstorm.  Too much rain for too long and the water runs off carrying valuable topsoil with it.  Even a brief let-up in a rainstorm allows the soil to absorb and be enriched by water.  Taking a break does for the brain what a break in a storm does for the field.

To grow the best crops, a farm needs the optimal mix of nutrient-rich soil and moisture.  To do its best work, the brain needs the optimal mix of understanding and memory.

The Pomodoro Technique achieves this optimal mix by alternating work units with rest units. A work unit is the unit of time the brain can balance understanding and remembering to produce its best work.

The work unit alternates with a rest unit, the length of time the brain needs to consolidate what it’s understood from the work unit.  A work unit and a rest unit produce a learning unit, which makes the next work unit better.

Using the Pomodoro Technique is simple:

1. Set a noisy kitchen timer for 25 minutes and work with complete focus on a single task.

2. When the timer goes off, no matter how you feel about it, set the timer for a 3-5 minute break.  During the break, do something that gives your mind a break.  This is not answering emails or talking to a colleague about the problem at hand.  A quick walk is good, making some tea, a doodle, or just staring into the middle distance.

3. After 4 pomodoros, take a longer break, about 15-30 minutes.

I’m using the Pomodoro Technique right now.  I find  it remarkably helpful for all sorts of tasks.  If I love the task, I don’t burn myself out with my enthusiasm for it; if it’s a task I hate, I know I can get through it 25 minutes at a time.

CG #53 – Refresh Your Team in 30 Minutes

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a “refresh” button for the exhausted team?  There is.

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Word Count: 544

Reading Time: 2.2 minutes

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It’s February as I’m writing this.  Groundhog Day has come and gone, and the reality of 6 more weeks of winter is sinking in.  Your team could use a pick-me-up.  The Appreciation Circle may be just the thing.

You may be thinking “Oh no, not another awkward, artificial act of forced intimacy at work!”   I did.   I’ve never been more wrong.

My first appreciation circle was with strangers during a week-long workshop, and I was nervous.  We’d worked together on team projects for the past couple of days, and some of us had eaten lunch together.  I’d had almost no interaction with some of them.  What if I couldn’t come up with genuine things to appreciate about everyone? What if their appreciations of me were so off I couldn’t accept them graciously, or pretend to?  I was full of trepidation as I sat down to write my list.

The instructions were simple:  1. Write down on thing you appreciate about each of your teammates, 2. Sit in a semi-circle with the person receiving appreciation facing the semi-circle. 3. Designate a recorder for each person. 4. One person at a time makes eye contact with the recipient and says what they appreciate about them.  This includes the recorder.  5.  The recipient says thank you to each person – nothing more or less.  6.  When everyone has spoken, the recipient gets their written list and trades places with the next recipient.  A new recorder is chosen.

An appreciation circle takes about 30 minutes for a team of 5-7.

My first surprise was how easy it was to come up with one thing I appreciated about each person.   Even the most difficult person had a quality or had done something I valued.  It was fun to think the appreciations up and fun to deliver them.  Best of all, I found myself looking for things to appreciate in people over the next few days, which was a delight.

The second surprise was what happened to people when they were being appreciated.  Being allowed to only say “thank you” slowed them down.  You could see them letting in what others appreciated about them.  Their eyes got softer and more open.

But it was my experience in the center of the circle that surprised me most.  People said the most lovely things to me.  It was like being bathed in light.  It didn’t matter whether I thought they were true.  It wasn’t like that.  It was like being given a really thoughtful gift, one the giver had poured their caring into so much that you could feel it.  The real gift they were giving was their vulnerability in wanting to give you something of value.

Here’s the thing about an appreciation circle – it’s a chance to learn something you can’t find out by yourself:  What other people value most about you.  What specifically they like about what you did or how you are.  It’s very particular to them and that experience, which makes it easy to receive.

My first appreciation circle was 15 years ago.  I still have my list.

 

CG #49 –Dodging the Communication Deficit

Talking at people creates a communication deficit, yet I’ve got to get them understanding and moving on this year’s goals.  Help!

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Word Count:  644

Reading Time:  About 3 minutes

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Morty was a gifted presenter.  His ability to turn big, fuzzy ideas into complex, technical realities seemed like magic.   Although Morty was mesmerizing to listen to,  his presentations left his audience confused and irritated.

Morty and I had worked together on many meetings over the years.  His goal for this year’s annual meeting was to leave his audience deeply connected to his vision and energized about working on it.

He had an hour in the team’s annual team meeting and was planning to present for most of it.  As we talked, I suggested he start by asking his audience – all engineers – what they thought his top 3 goals were.   Asking first is my strongest recommendation for reducing the communication deficit.  (Just a reminder:  The speed of thought is 4 times the speed of speech; the more words your spew, the smaller the space your words occupy in your listeners thoughts.)

When you ask first, you’ll hear two ways to reduce the communication deficit:

1.  You find out what you don’t need to say, which means you won’t bore your audience and lose them.

2. You will hear what is on their minds, enabling you to make your presentation relevant to them.  This helps them focus their speedy thinking on the topic at hand.

You’ll get 2 additional benefits:  Your audience will feel respected and cared for. This is true even if they are completely off the mark, and need to be reeled in, provided you do that with care.

But this may be too much too soon, as it was for Morty, and that’s alright.  The thought of asking his engineers about departmental goals first made Morty so uncomfortable, we went with option #2: Break up his presentation into smaller chunks and pause for a round robin check-in after each chunk.  He was willing to try it.

Five minutes into his presentation, he stopped to check in with his audience, asking them “How is this sounding so far?”  He used a round robin format, adhering strictly to the steps:

1. Give everyone a minute in silence to gather their thoughts.  (Time it, or the extraverts will break the silence.)

2.  Give each person 10 seconds to share their thoughts.  (Time this too.)

3.  Do not interrupt to comment, and don’t allow anyone else to either.

The results were visible.  I saw Morty’s face open up and his shoulders relax as he heard each thoughtful, considered response.  I saw the engineers lean forward in their chairs and put energy into connecting with Morty.  Best of all, I watched Morty engage with his group, summarizing the key points said and nodding

Best of all was what he did next:  He went back to his slides and skipped over those that were no longer necessary.  The slides he did show, he related to the comments he’d heard in the round robin.  Now the engineers were nodding as he spoke.   Listening to the group for just 10 minutes helped him tell his story in a way that included everyone on the room.

I get goose bumps thinking about it.

Your Turn

You don’t have to be an executive to do this.  You can be someone leading an agenda item in a meeting, someone presenting to a group, or a member of a group that is spinning its wheels.

The principle is the same:  Ask first.  Use the Round Robin structure.  It will take mere minutes.

You wouldn’t dream of going on and on about yourself to a stranger at a party.  That’s considered boorish.  What is it about a business meeting that turns us into the stranger at the party we all back away from?

Leadership is going first.  Be the first to ask.

 

 

 

CG #47 – The Truth About Icebreakers, Part 2

It’s easy to say “Do the work in a way that allows the team to build itself,” but is it easy to do?  It is.

Reading Time: 3 mins

“Why are we doing this?”  “Didn’t we do this last time?”  “You want me to do what?

These questions precede every ice-breaker I’ve ever been a part of.  Three minutes later, everyone in the place is engaged, smiling, talking, and doing.  After twenty minutes, just try and stop them!  It’s like throwing yourself in front of a fast-moving train.

What makes icebreakers so irresistible?

ACTION. You get just enough information to get moving.

ENGAGEMENT.  The goal is clear.  The task is interesting.  Or confusing. Or frustrating.  It doesn’t matter which.   Even as you react you’re getting pulled in.

INTERACTION.  Everyone has something to do, and you need each other to accomplish the task.  You have to talk to each other.

STRUCTURE.  There are steps, clearly outlined.  There are roles, clearly spelled out.  You can see the progress you’re making.  If you follow instructions, you’ll succeed. So you do.

It’s no accident that icebreakers are more energizing than the rest of the meeting.  They’re designed to be.

Let’s change that.  Let’s make every part of your meeting drive to action,with interaction and engagement for all.  Let’s structure it that way.  I know it seems backwards that structure leads to fluidity.  I know you want to say that open discussion is the only truly democratic process, that too much structure shuts people down, that we’re all adults and we know how to behave.  But that’s not my experience.

Structure precedes performance.  Just ask the musician who practices scales every day, or the dancer who takes class, or the athlete who works out.  The structure you ingrain frees you to express and and create.

Meetings aren’t democratic.  Just ask the CEO or your boss.  There are guidelines, guardrails and hard choices to be made.  You won’t all be delighted. That’s just the way of it.

Adults act according to what they believe to be true.  If those beliefs are correct and held by all, woo-who!  If not, we’ve got trouble.  And we don’t want trouble.

We want the way teams do their work to build the team.

Structure is what makes this work, just like structure and planning make icebreakers work.  The table below compares the structured approach (“Builds Teams” )to common meeting tasks with the unstructured approach (“Doesn’t”).  The third column (“Because”) is why the unstructured approach gets in the way of building the team.

Continuing to use an approach that tears down the team undoes all the progress you made with the icebreaker.

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Subscribers to my Collaboration Genius newsletter, get the details for all these methods and a few others as well.  Isn’t it time you subscribed?  I’m low maintenance, funny, and the information is useful.  The sign-up box is in the upper right-hand corner of the page.

CG #46 – The Truth About Icebreakers, Part One

Icebreakers don’t build teams.  That’s why you can’t get enough of them. 

Word Count: 657

Reading Time: 2.5 mins

 “You can’t get enough of what you really want.”

–Author Unknown

“We want to do some team-building over our 3-day meeting. We’ve allowed 20 minutes for that. How about an icebreaker?”

I hear this a lot, and although I’m sympathetic about time constraints, I’m not encouraging.  The truth?  Using icebreakers as a team-building Hail-Mary Play doesn’t work.

Because icebreakers don’t build teams. They don’t break down silos. Icebreakers do not, in fact, break ice.

Asking an icebreaker to do any of these things is folly.   Even worse:  Planning a moment of group enlightenment that will finally, finally, finally make the team function as though they are a single unit is…how can I say this?  It’s mental.  Madness.  Utter lunacy.  This extends to the longer team-building activity that is expected to create intimate and resilient bonds amongst co-workers who may not even like each other.

This takes me back to an outdoor team-building activity I was in:  The log walk.  I topple off balance beams, even when they are lying on the ground, as this one was.  (Just typing the word “balance beam” makes me feel unsteady, and I’m sitting down.) When I looked like I was about to fall off the “log”and screw up the team score, one of the Directors reached out her hand to me and I grabbed on.  But it was our eye contact that steadied me.  And it changed our relationship completely, just like these intense team-building activities are supposed to do:  I’d have trusted her with my life after that, and smiled warmly at her when I saw her at work, which felt good.

So far, so good.  The problem?  It was impossible to translate that good feeling into workplace effectiveness.  There was too much in our way:

1. No one else on the team had that experience with her, so they continued to distrust her and talk badly about her behind her back.

2.  This isolated me from my peers, because, when I defended her, they started mistrusting me.

3. Eventually, our connection backfired, because this director needed to be seen as interacting with everyone equally.  Our bond became politically dangerous and awkward.  We’d spent 3 days at an offsite creating that.

Another problem with this just-add-water, instant-intimacy approach to team-building is one of calibration.  It’s hard to know how much togetherness a team can handle.  Artificial, intense experiences do not build resilient, enduring relationships.  It only feels like they do.   Some of your team may find a big slug of togetherness too much to assimilate, while others thrive on it and are profoundly affected.   Can your group build deep bonds out of this difference or will it splinter them?  It’s enough to make you ignore team-building altogether.

Which would be sad.  It’s better to remember the two cardinal rules of workplace intimacy:

1. Intimacy you can trust is intimacy that matches the context.

Teams exist to get work done, not to heal your childhood wounds.  So, what use can we make of icebreakers?  They are great warm-up exercises to help people arrive in the here and now, and learn about each other in tiny, bite-sized pieces.  Tiny pieces they can digest without choking.

Peak emotional experiences are hard to sustain for the same reason a boa constrictor can’t move after swallowing a pig:  Digesting takes center-stage, rather than chugging along in the background.

2. Intimacy is like sweat:  It’s the by-product of hard work, not its focus.

And, like building muscle, strengthening your team is happens in tiny increments over time, not in a single event.

You can build your team by the way you do you work, without adding any time or heavy loads of indigestible intimacy.  This works better than a 10 minute, lively and participatory icebreaker followed by 50 minutes of presentations that promote passivity and the lopsided involvement of open discussions.

I’ll list tips for how to do this in next week’s Collaboration Genius.

CG #44 – Why Your Boss Has Stopped Listening

Word Count: 727

Reading Time: About 3 minutes

Welcome to the leader’s dilemma:  Staying open to input without dying from all those tiny cuts.

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Leader:   “It’s time to plan the annual Christmas party.  Where would you like to go?”

Staff 1:  “Can we really afford to do this?’

Staff 1:  “I want to have a Hawaiian theme this year.”

Staff 4:  “I don’t have any Hawaiian shirts.”

Staff 2:  “I don’t like Hawaiian food.”

Staff 3: “I love the music though.”

Staff 5: “If we’re going to do a Christmas party, I want to veto country-western music.”

Staff 6:  “Can we have a dunk tank?”

Staff 7:  “I want to bring my family this year.”

Staff 2 to leader: “We’re discussing the Christmas party and you’re looking at your Blackberry.”

Leader: “Sorry about that.  Have you decided where you want to go?”

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Is it any wonder the leader reaches for her Blackberry as soon as she can?   She opens a conversation, knowing she needs input.  But the conversation like being stabbed with 1000 tiny knives:  an irrelevant comment, a complaint, a suggestion from left field, everybody has their agenda to advance.  It’s no surprise that an open discussion goes this badly:  Groups don’t do well with so little structure, and leaders are exhausted by the amount of complaining they are subjected to.

The surprising thing is that this despair-inducing volley continues to play out in meeting after meeting when there are much more effective choices.

Let’s replay this with a more skillful approach from both the whine-resistant leader and the complaining staff.

+  +  +  +  +

Leader:  “It’s time to plan the annual Christmas party.  Is everybody willing to spend the next 20 minutes agreeing on a venue an approach?

Staff 1:  “I can spend 20 mins on this, but no more.  Let’s go.”

Staff 2:  Me too.”

Staff 3-6:  <head nods>

Leader:  “Staff 1, can you watch the time for us?  Thanks.  Let’s start by looking at the plus-delta list from last year:

Pluses:

  • The DJ was very popular
  • The food was great
  • The location was convenient

Deltas:

  • Can we bring spouses?
  • The music was too loud
  • Can it be shorter?
  • Can we skip the speeches?

Leader:  “Can someone summarize the themes for us?”

Staff 3: “A speech-free dinner with our spouses and some eclectic, quiet music.  Good food in an easy-to-get-to location.”

Staff 2:  “I also hear we shouldn’t structure it and we should keep it short.”

Leader: “What else?”

<silence>

Leader: “Do you want to add anything to the list for this year?”

Staff 5: “Can we go back to the same place?  The food was fantastic!”

Leader: “Here’s the trade-off:  If we include spouses, we’ll need to go someplace less expensive.  How shall we decide which is most important?”

Staff 1:  “That’s a tough one.”

Staff 6: “Can we ask employees to pay for their spouses dinner, or drinks, or something to defray the expense of bringing a spouse?  I’d hate to penalize single employees by going to a lesser restaurant.”

Staff 1: “We’re at 15 minutes.”

Staff 4:  “How about we ask for some hard numbers so we can make an informed decision?  How many spouses would be coming, what is the cost per person, what was the alcohol tab from last year.”

Staff 3: “How much would we save at a less expensive restaurant.”

Staff 5:  “I like that approach.”

<pause>

Leader:  “Excellent.  I’ll ask Admin 1 to get this for to us for next week’s meeting.  Thanks everyone.”

Staff 1:  “18 minutes.”

Leader:  “Thanks, Staff 1.  Well done, team.”

+ + + + +

Staff:  You don’t have to fawn over your leader.  Just help them get their decisions made. Help them help you.

Leaders:  You don’t have to let every discussion go free.   You don’t have to let any of them go free.  Using a meeting process like plus-delta, starting a conversation with brief, relevant data, asking for help, and keeping your group tightly focused on achieving a result are all welcome.

And here’s a tip for both staff and leaders:

When every option is met with an objection or criticism, it sucks the energy from the room.  Instead, ask each objector for a suggestion.

Even better, make “If you oppose, you must propose” a standing ground rule, and watch your leader put away that Blackberry.