CG #56 – Are Your Meetings Messy Enough?

A plan is like a wax mold:  When you pour the hot metal in, the wax form you spent hours perfecting melts away.

Word count: 633

Reading Time: 2 minutes

*     *     *     *     *

“Hermione, when have any of our plans every actually worked?  We plan, we get there and all hell breaks loose.”

–Harry Potter, The Deathly Hallows

*     *     *     *     *

“We’re going to have fun, right?”

My 17-year-old niece is looking at the planning grid for our upcoming trip to New York City, her first.  I don’t usually plan my vacations, but everything my niece wants to do requires a timed ticket.  We’ll be taking the subway everywhere, so those directions are on the grid.  I’ve also included suggestions for stuff my niece might enjoy when they are near what she has asked to do.

After assuring my niece that having fun is the outcome we’re after, I run the grid by two seasoned parents.  Seasoned parent #1 is says:  “You won’t be able to do all that.  Better scale it back.”  Parent #2 says:  “This is fantastic!  I want to take this trip.  Send me a copy?”

Based on this feedback, I decide the grid is ready for use.

What a plan does

  • It clarifies your desired outcome.  Check!  Ours is fun.  17-year-old fun.
  • It gives you a clear path to your outcome. Check!
  • The plan isn’t the outcome:  You can’t let the plan bully you with its neat boxes and black-and-white certainty.

Just Add People…But First:  Einstein

Einstein’s study of Brownian Motion is not his most famous contribution to science, but it may be his most profound.   Brownian Motion refers the random twitching of pollen grains suspended in a drop of water.  The water was still.  What was making the pollen jump around like that?

Einstein’s calculations showed that, as the molecules that made up the water bounced around randomly, they occasionally bumped into the pollen grains making them twitch.

Let’s say the plan is the pollen, and the world at large is the water, which is full of molecules – let’s call them people – moving randomly.   When you launch your little pollen grain into the world of jostling molecules, all hell breaks loose.

For example, the subway is late, or it’s rerouted or both:  It’s all detailed in the 5 pages of service changes posted in every station. Who knew thousands of people would be willing to stand in 20-degree weather for hours to see the Empire State Building?  And, I have grossly underestimated the importance of shopping to a 17-year-old female. Grossly underestimated it.

When the grain of pollen is your meeting agenda, you arrive late, the materials didn’t get to everybody, your quietest member launches into a passionate, long speech, 2 team-mates get into an argument, and your star performer challenges you about not being invited to a key meeting.

This is NOT the meeting you planned.

 You have a choice.  Do you rigidly adhere to your idea of how the meeting was supposed to go, or do you abandon the plan altogether and let yourself be led by the group?


 It’s not the plan’s fault that your meeting is being buffeted  by random events.  It’s not anybody’s fault. 

But without an outcome, you might be itching for something or someone to blame  You need a third option:  Flex the plan in favor of the outcome – the result – you’re after and let the people take you there.  When you know the result you’re headed for, you can welcome the messiness of human interaction.  That messiness is going to get you there faster, better, and with more energy.  There’s no need to tidy the messiness away, and no need to tense up when your perfect plan is being eaten up by what’s actually happening..

When your group has a clear outcome, they will find the most efficient path to get there.  The route they take may not look like your agenda.  It may look bumpy and inefficient, like pollen moving for no apparent reason.  That’s OK.  Enjoy the ride.

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 #52 – Taming the Small Group Report-Out

No one wants to deal with long meandering report-outs and stacks of flipcharts.  And, good news!  There’s a better way.

Word Count:  678

Reading Time:  Under 3 minutes

Let’s say you decide to use small groups in your meetings.  You understand that open discussion isn’t easily converted into action, much less commitment.  You’ve seen for yourself how presentations create a certain passivity in those presented to.  You want to amp up the participation in your meetings without losing control.  Small groups can do that.

In your next meeting, you put 8 people in 4 pairs to generate ideas for 2014 goals.  It works!  Each pair generates a list of 10 ideas, which they’ve written on a flip chart.  Their report out to the larger group is interesting and takes a little longer than you hoped.  When they’ve all finished sharing their results, you have a moment of pure panic:  What do I do with the 4o items on the flipcharts?  I can’t throw them out because I asked for them.  We do not have time to narrow them down to a manageable number.  You vow to never, ever use small groups again.

There is a better choice:  Simply ask your small groups to report out their top 1-3 picks, rather than their entire list.

Here’s how:

1a.  Structure and time the work of the small groups (7-10 minutes).  If you don’t use a meeting process for small group work, you’ve just set several open discussions in motion.  Open discussion in small groups is just as inefficient, rambling, and subject to tangents as they are in large groups.

I recommend Likes and Concerns, Stop-Start-Continue and the Plus-Delta evaluation for small group work.  Just pick the one that’s most appropriate for the topic at hand:

  • Like and Concerns asks participants to list what they like about something and then to list what their concerns are.  It’s the best process I know for getting feedback to a document or proposal or vision or goal.
  • Stop-Start-Continue asks participants to give themselves advice about what to stop doing, start doing, or continue doing.  It’s best for things that already in progress, but need to shift.
  • Plus-Delta*  evaluates something in the past, like last year’s performance or the meeting we just had.  It’s also good for a temperature check on something you do regularly.  In the plus column, list what is working well, in the delta column, list what you’d like to change for next time.  (*delta is the mathematical sign for change)

1b. Limit the report-out to the number of items you have the time to deal with.  This asks the small groups to prioritize their lists and only share their 1-3 picks.

1c. Ask each of the groups to write their picks on a single flipchart. That’s one flipchart each for the likes, the concerns, the stops, starts, etc.

In the above scenario, I’d ask for the top pick from each of my 4 trios.  That would give me 4 items on each flipchart, a manageable number.

2.  Ask if there is anything missing from the list  (1-2 mins).  Always ask.  Sometimes the best ideas come at this stage.  If the new idea is similar to what is already up there, challenge it.

3. Clarify the lists.  Read each item and ask “Is this clear?” (3-5 mins)  Correct them on the flipchart until everybody is satisfied.  Do not wordsmith – just make notes or draw arrows.  Move quickly, as though you are late for an appointment.

4. Commit to doing something with the list of concerns, deltas, stops and starts.  Make it small. (1-3 mins) The simplest action is to assign items to future agendas, or to a sub-group to work on.  One manager I worked with reports: “We were able to design the agenda for our next meeting using the “concerns” list.

You can do this in 20 minutes.  With practice, you can do it in 15 minutes.  Best of all, it’s a high-quality, focused and energizing 15-20 minutes.

CG #51 – Peace of Mind or the Unenforceable Rule?

What if it’s not reality that has you stressed, but the unenforceable rules in your mind?

Word Count: 715

Reading Time: 3.2 minutes

I just fired my new tax accountant, Bob.  Well, fired may be too strong a word.  Let’s say I relieved him of a certain responsibility:  Contacting the IRS on my behalf over a bill they’d sent.  The IRS likes to send me notices every few years telling me I owe them thousands of dollars.  That never turns out to be true, but it does require a phone call to straighten out. The first time, I made the mistake of letting them try to help me solve “my problem.” As the IRS clerk romped merrily through the past 5 years of my tax returns reading me the riot act, and displaying a stunning disregard for my privacy, I broke into a cold sweat.  The call ended with a tongue-lashing about my slipshod record-keeping.  The entire call was a virtual strip search.   Since then I’ve learned to limit the call to the tax year in question and get off the phone fast.

So when Bob told me he was going to handle my latest IRS notice by offering up information about previous tax years, I went berserk.  The only thing worse than having the IRS use my personal information against me was having someone I employ helping them.

Even worse was what happened in my mind while I was on hold with the IRS for the next hour and 10 minutes.  I had an outbreak of Unenforceable Rules.  That’s what psychologist Fred Luskin calls it when we hold ourselves or others to a standard that we can’t enforce.    Here’s what it sounded like:

“Bob should really know better.”

Ah – there it is:  The word “should.”  “Should,” “Always,” and “Never” are 3 words unenforceable rules like to hide behind.   Unenforceable rules fool us into thinking something is wrong when it just isn’t what we prefer..  That’s how they destroy our peace of mind.

And they come in so many colors!

We can have unenforceable rules for:

Others – My boss should communicate more, give me the assignments I want, notice how hard I work and offer me a raise.  My partner should remember I don’t like lime green, take out the garbage, be kinder.

For ourselves – I should be more disciplined, exercise more, get up earlier, be further ahead than I am.

For the Universe at large –   Life should be fair.  Evil should be punished.  Goodness should prevail.

If you aren’t quick enough to catch yourself saying “should,” there is another way to spot an unenforceable rule:

Reality.  The gap between what is happening and what you think should be happening is created by an unenforceable rule.  The one you’re using to make yourself miserable.  You destroy your own peace of mind when you choose an unenforceable rule over reality.  Reality doesn’t care what you think of it.  It just goes on doing what it does.

I know that may be a little difficult to accept.  Although I bet it matches your experience.  The teenager who will pick up their clothes only when you are standing over them.  The colleague who says they hate being late, but always is.  We cause ourselves so much stress by choosing to insist on a “truth” we’ve never experienced.

Regain your peace of mind and keep your standards high

If I soften the language of my unenforceable rule, my peace of mind floods back in.  Instead of “He should know better,” I say “I wish he knew better.”  Instead of “My boss should have given me that assignment,” I say “I’d prefer a boss who would give me assignments that challenge me”  I can think those thoughts without getting angry.  It softens the hold my unenforceable rules have on my thinking and restores my peace of mind. I start to see other possibilities.  If I prefer an accountant who responds to the IRS differently, perhaps I’ll go find one.

I think it’s up to each of us

Here’s an experiment I’m currently running:  When I react, I stop myself to identify the unenforceable rule that causing my distress.  Then I soften my language about it.  Instead of “This is taking too long.”  I think “I wish this wasn’t taking so long.”  So far this is working 100% of the time.  If you decide to try this, let me know about it in the comments.


CG #50 – What to Do When Your Actions Say “Shut Up”

We all have those painful moments when our words and actions don’t match.

Word Count: 581

Reading Time: 2.5 minutes

“If I look away when you’re talking to me, it’s because I get overloaded.  If I try to take in everything that’s coming through my 5 senses, it causes a train wreck in my brain.  I look away so I can listen.  Sometimes I’ll have to stop you.  Please know I want to hear what you have to say.”

That’s how Tony introduced himself to me, and I was so glad he did.  It saved me the embarrassment of reacting when he stared off into the distance or abruptly changed topics, and the awkwardness of asking about the effects of his brain injury.   It did something much more profound:  It made me his ally.  Now that I knew how his brain worked, it was natural to adjust my delivery to the way he took in information, and to check in as we went.

There are times we all need to do what Tony did to make the conversation a success.  I’m talking about the times our words and behaviors don’t match.  Rather than become a stiff, off-putting technique geek, do what Tony did:  Confess to the behaviors that get in the way, and invite others to help you.

What Behaviors?

When I’m pressed for time, I do things that aren’t pretty.  When I’m hooked, I do things that are just awful.  When I’m excited about something, I can be obnoxious.  Anxiety can turn me into a self-centered jerk.  No matter how much I want to listen, I interrupt.  I talk over people, or barely let them finish their sentences.  I get overly intense.  I pontificate.  I get snarky.  I over-react.  I subvert my own processes.

My actions say “shut up,” even as my words say “I’m listening.”  As the research confirms, when the words and actions don’t match, we “listen” to the actions.

The Tony Solution

When I catch myself doing the things that say “shut up,” I’ve learned to stop myself.  When I can, I align my words and actions.  When I can’t, I confess to the mismatch progressively, like this:

1.  “I’m interrupting you  (talking too much, being a jerk, etc.).  I’m so sorry.   I get this way when I’m (anxious, excited, hooked, etc.).  I’m going to stop doing that if I can.”  That usually does it.  When it doesn’t, I go to the next step and say,

2. “I can’t seem to stop doing this.  How is it for you that I’m (interrupting, etc.)?”  Asking for feedback can’t help me reset.  On rare occasions I find that what I’m doing isn’t the problem I thought it was.  I still will do what I can to align my words and actions if I feel out of control.  If all else fails, I do this:

3.  “I can’t listen right now.  Can you listen to me first?  Then I promise to return the favor.”

Best of all is when I can let people know I may need their help beforehand:  “I’m angry about this.  I may get feisty.  If that starts getting in our way, please ask me what I’m anxious about.  That usually does it.”

This is Not an Excuse for Bad Behavior

There is a vast difference between asking others to excuse disruptive actions we have no intention of changing and making them our allies while we take full responsibility for managing our behavior.   Tony skillfully navigated his limited options.  Let’s make him proud.

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!


Word Count:  644

Reading Time:  About 3 minutes


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 #48 – How Big is Your Communication Deficit?

Speakers speak at 125-175 words per minute.  Listeners think at 450-600 words per minute. That’s a ratio of at least 1:4.  

Word Count: 661

Reading Time: 2.6 minutes

“We’ve tried everything with this group.  We’ve told them about the new process, we’ve changed their incentives, we’ve told them again, we’ve given them training after training – we’ve done everything, and they just won’t use it.”

“And you’re committed to this new process no one is using?”

“We have no choice – it’s mandated.”

Ah.  The mandate. Maybe it’s a new regulation in your industry, or an edict from the CEO.  You didn’t get any input, and now you have to deliver the bad news to your team and live with the consequences.  It’s understandable that you want to get this over with quickly.  So you present and teach and answer questions.  You communicate.

And the more you communicate, the more of a deficit you create.  Every word you speak causes the listener’s thoughts to multiply like bunnies.

It’s simple math:  Every minute you talk, you fall behind by 325-375 words per minute.  You cannot push information fast enough to outpace my ability to interpret – and misinterpret – it.

There you are, going on and on about how this mandate is, um, required, and 72 other synonyms for “mandated,” so you have to do it and shut up, shut up, shut up, stop freaking me out with your questions can’t you see I’m stuck with this too and just do it because it’s mandated.

“Any questions?,”  you then ask.  But it’s already too late.  If you’ve talked for 10 minutes, we’re already 3250-3750 words ahead of you. Catching to us is going to take a lot longer than 10 minutes because we can only do that at the speed of speech, which will generate the much faster speed of thought and we will get farther and farther out of synch.  All your speech will be about the mandate.  And all my thoughts will be about how the situation affects me.

We have a communication deficit of epic proportions.  Many teams are living with such a vast communication deficit that they need hours of catch-up to get current.

And that’s the situation when no one has misheard,  misconstrued, or misinterpreted anything.  Finding and correcting that is going to take much longer.  If two people have gotten something wrong, it’s going to take forever.  If you’ve talked for 20 minutes, the situation may take longer to resolve than you have time left on this planet.

Are you starting to understand why communication strategies so often backfire?  Many, many competent, conscientious leaders are stuck in this communication loop that pushes their team away from them, even as they do everything “right.”

A better approach

Your employees don’t need more words coming at them.  They need someone to listen to the words that have piled up in their brains while all that information was being pushed at them.

Somewhere in that 450 words per minute is the idea you need more than you need to be protected from negativity or be in control of the situation.  You may be too blinded by anxiety to see the genius hidden behind what looks like resistance, or the loyalty disguised as opposition.  You may believe that you don’t have time to listen to any of this.

Which isn’t quite accurate, is it?  I think you have a clear choice.  You can make room for some of those thoughts as you deliver the message and be able to channel all the energy behind them.  Or, you can listen to them in tiny installments for months and years, like a million paper cuts.

A Communication Word Problem

If thoughts outpace words 4:1, and you have 2 ears and 1 mouth, how long should you speak before pausing to listen?

I can’t wait to hear your answers to this.  Please give me an ear-full in the comments.

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.

Screen Shot 2013-10-24 at 10.17.46 PM

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 #45 – Collaboration and Your Myer’s-Briggs Type

Yeah, I know:  I used to poo-poo it too.  But did you know that the MBTI can protect you from groupthink like nothing else?  It’s true.

Word Count: 686

Reading Time: About 3 minutes

+  +  +  +  +

“You can’t say that!”  Norma was staring at me like I’d just sprouted horns. “You can’t ask people a question like that.”

“What’s wrong with ‘How can you talk so much?’  I really want to know how extroverts can keep talking and talking.”

Norma and I were both INFPs.  As participants in an MBTI workshop, our task was to come up with questions we wanted to ask extroverts.

“It’s so…abrupt.”  Norma narrowed her eyes at my name badge.  Next to my name were the letters “INFP.”

“I don’t think you prefer feeling,” she said.

Norma was right.   By the end of the workshop,  I was ready to admit I was an INTP, not an INFP.  Changing that one letter required a complete remodel of who I thought I was.  That remodel took months.

INTP and INFP differ by only one letter, but they are worlds apart.

This difference becomes clear when we look at how each of these types solves a problem.  An INTP approaches a problem or decision in this order:

FIRST, she thinks about the logical consequences of various courses of action.  She spends 28 minutes of every hour doing this. (Thinking Preference)

SECOND, she opens to all the possible courses of action.  She spends 18 minutes doing this. (Intuition Preference)

THIRD, she considers what has already been done, how that is actually working, and whether any change is necessary. She spends about 10 minutes of every hour on this. (Sensing, not her preference)

LAST, she spends about 4 minutes of every hour considering how the action she’s considering will affect the people involved. This does not come easily. (Feeling, not her preference).

An INFP reverses the 1st and 4th steps:  Feeling first, 28 minutes, Intuition second for 18 minutes, Sensing third for 10 minutes and Thinking last for 4 minutes.  Relying on impersonal logic to solve a problem is hard on the INFP; considering the impact on people is hard on the INTP.

Simply looking at a 4-letter type code won’t show you how opposite these types are.  It won’t show how these two types will run into trouble.  And the type code alone won’t show you how big that trouble is.

But use type to show how each type approaches solving a problem and you’ve got the Rosetta Stone of collaboration. 

Briefly summarized:

The inability to think in sync makes a mess of your meetings. 

Norma and I were out of sync.  We were repelled by the other’s most natural approach to our task.  It took work for each of us not to make the other bad, wrong or somehow broken.   Reconciling our differences seemed impossible, so we reached for a structure that would help.

When you structure a meeting so people think in sync with one another, you’ll see the synergy, energy, commitment and productivity that’s been eluding you.

I’m not talking about groupthink, where divergent points of view are silenced.  I’m not talking about Robert’s Rules of Order, which is often used to overwhelm a minority view while pretending to include it.  I’m talking about a structure that helps a team step through a conversation together.  This synchronization makes it easier for them to include and be affected by even the most divergent viewpoint.

Norma and I took turns explaining our points of view and paraphrasing them back to each other.  We were soon laughing about how opposite they were. We agreed on an approach to our task, and finished before any of the other groups.

Which points to another strength of collaborative meeting structure:  Time.  Helping people to think in sync moves more quickly than open discussion can, gets you higher quality decisions than Robert’s Rules can.

Structure is the difference between building your dream house by piling all the lumber on the empty lot, and hoping for the best, or using the design and building process to help the architect and contractors sync up and produce their best work.  Proper structure makes collaboration inevitable.