Tag Archives: lean management

4 Ways To Make Your Meetings More Meaningful

If you’re reading this, and you work for a company that does …anything…chances are that you hate meetings. You find them wildly unproductive and time consuming. Janet forgot to mute her line again, Karen and Bill are never on time, Debbie always wins the award for loudest snacker, and Bob is clearly working on other things.

This is a vicious cycle that results in more meetings! Don’t believe me? Check out my highly technical graphic of a typical workplace meeting…

Here’s the good news! You can break this cycle. Need to call a meeting? I encourage you to try one of these collaboration techniques below. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the level of engagement and outcomes from your meetings.


For the meetings that run too long.

Ok, so this first one isn’t as much of a collaboration technique…it’s really just logical. Let’s say you schedule your meeting from 2pm to 3pm. Have you ever actually gotten a full hour from that meeting? No. My guess is that you got 40 minutes at best.

Meetings are instantly less frustrating once you realize that it involves other humans, who have human brains. It is unrealistic to think that your coworkers are high-functioning robots and will show up right at 2pm and leave the second the clock hits 3pm.

Instead of getting mad at people for being people, schedule your meetings differently! If you know that your group usually runs 15 minutes over, schedule the meeting until 2:45, but book the room until 3. That way, when your group inevitably goes over the time limit, you’re getting the conversation you expected, but you’re not interfering with the group who has the meeting room next.

If your group tends to show up a little late, account for that time when deciding what you want to discuss. Then you’re not forcing an agenda that is too big for the actual time available.


For the meetings that have way too many people.

This is for those of you that have realized there are just way too many people in the room. This is usually because the person calling the meeting wants a lot of different opinions, or there are a lot of people that are insistent their presence is absolutely necessary. The good news is, this is typically out of good intent…everyone wants to be involved!

The concept is simple. It’s called Fishbowl Discussions and it’s taken directly from classrooms. So if it works with hyper and distracted children, it should be no problem for your co-workers. Basically, you have a group of anywhere from three to five people that are ‘in the fishbowl” In reality these people may be at a whiteboard, in front of a computer, or at a table. Throughout the meeting, they are the ones talking to one another and working out the ideas.

Everyone else is outside of the fishbowl. What can you do outside of the fishbowl? Show up late, leave the meeting altogether, check email, think of things to contribute to the meeting, daydream… anything nondisruptive really. What can’t you do outside of the fishbowl? Talk.


For the meetings that wander off in a million different directions.

It always starts with good intention… “Not to change the subject completely, but I think that it’s important to note…” Too late Jody! You just changed the subject! If this seems to be a common occurrence with your team, maybe it’s time you give LeanCoffee a try.

LeanCoffee is described as a “structured, but agenda-less meeting” and it really is effective. Actual coffee is optional. The core of this meeting style is very democratic in nature. Together, we decide what we want to talk about, and what’s most important to discuss first. It starts by setting up a very simple Kanban board. It is nothing more than 3 post-its that say: To Discuss, Discussing, & Discussed.

To kick things off, everyone attending the meeting silently brainstorms for about 2-3 minutes on topics they think are important. The etiquette is one idea per post-it. After that, everyone has the chance to pitch their ideas. Try to keep your pitch to 2-3 minutes, or else you’re kind of missing the point…

Once everyone gets a chance to pitch, we get to prioritize. Everyone gets 3 dot votes. Dot voting is a ~very complicated~ process. Ready for it? You draw dots on the posts its you want to discuss. You can even allocate all three of your dots to one idea if you feel it truly is the most important.

Finally, it’s time to actually start discussing your ideas. You start with the one that was voted most important and set a timer for seven minutes. After seven minutes, everyone silently gives a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Did most people give a thumbs up? Great that means the room feels good about the topic and we can move on. Did most people give a thumbs down? Set the timer for two more minutes and let the discussion continue. Re evaluate the thumbs up/down after the two minutes. Did someone try to put a neutral thumb? We will count that as a thumbs down.

The most important part here is after the meeting is complete. It’s the last sip of the coffee. Discuss your takeaways. After you’ve gotten through the topics, it is important to come back together to gain shared understanding.


For the meetings where someone’s idea always gets shot down.

Everyone has been in that meeting before. Someone has an idea with serious potential. If only you didn’t have Negative Nancy in the back corner giving 100 reasons why there’s no way it will ever, ever, … ever work. That negativity can spread pretty quickly. Next thing you know, a potentially great idea was shot down before it even had the chance to work.

This is where 6 Thinking Hats comes in handy. The concept is pretty simple. We all put on a “hat” of the same color at the same time. Different colors represent different mindsets. For example, when we all have the white hat on, we are only allowed to discuss factual things about the idea. This would include data, information, what we know, what we need to learn etc…

Now to do this, you need someone to make sure the process of 6 Thinking Hats is not being violated. If a team member starts to talk about their feelings when we are supposed to be discussing facts, the appointed “process person” is responsible for saying something along the lines of “that’s a great point, let’s save that for when we are all wearing the red hat.”

Each hat has a different, yet important purpose that allows conversation to flow more smoothly and allow for fully understanding an idea or problem.

When using 6 Thinking Hats, you’re allowing the conversation to flow in a manner that actually makes sense. No longer are you sitting in the room wondering what the hell is going on and how we got here. When everyone is thinking in the same mindset at the same time, it allows us to think in a more analytical manner collectively.

So, if you’ve made it this far, I assume you hate the way your meetings are currently run, and maybe you’ve gotten some improvement ideas. The challenge is to actually try something new in your next meeting. Remember… insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

If you don’t actively work to make your meetings more productive, you can’t expect anything to change. But hey, at least you have Candy Crush on your phone when the meetings get too unbearable.


Building Teams of T-Shaped people

Are your teams made up of T-shaped or I-shaped people? If that question causes you to cock an eyebrow, let’s ask it another way: If one person calls in sick tomorrow, does their job still get done, or does the office collapse into a state of violent anarchy? (Note: Other options may lie somewhere in the middle…)



“Hey guys, are we thinking this through?”

“Damn it man, there’s no time! Steve is out sick and no one else knows Javascript!“


A T-Shaped person is an individual who has deep knowledge of a specialized skill set in addition to a range of acquired tangential, related skills. They are also known as generalizing-specialists or “Renaissance” workers. In comparison with the “T” shaped individual, “I” shaped individuals focus mainly on their own specialized skill-sets, often view the workplace as a competitive environment, and tend to work within disciplinary silos. When a team is comprised of highly specialized I-shaped people, there is little room for any kind of structural change. For example, what would happen if Baracus suddenly quit the A-Team? Who else could pull off that look? Face? Murdock?


THE A-TEAM -- Pictured: Mr. T as Sgt. Bosco "B.A." Baracus -- Photo by: Herb Ball/NBCU Photo Bank

“Girl, please.”

Benefits of Teams of T-Shaped People

A team of T-shaped people (aka. cross-functional team) complements one another with both their specialized knowledge and overlapping skills to form a high performing unit.

Cross-functional teams experience less internal bottlenecks and contention for one person’s time.

T-shaped people can view situations from different perspectives, bringing not only their specialized knowledge to the table, but wide-ranging experience in other areas as well.

T-shaped people help fill skills gaps and take on new skill sets quickly. This then leads to higher overall team productivity and greater flexibility.

Such teams are not limited by a single point of failure (SPOF). Should Steve leave the team, Amy has sufficient knowledge to keep the project going.

Building Cross-functional Teams

Step 1: Understand

Start by mapping all of the disciplines or functional areas necessary for your team to complete projects as columns on a graph.  Then, work with each team member to assess their capabilities or expertise from one through ten in rows going vertically. Be sure to understand ahead of time what it means to be a 1 or a 10 in each area to avoid arbitrarily assigning numbers. Once complete, you will have a big picture view of your team’s capabilities as a whole.

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 2.14.34 PM

Originally posted on Scrumtalks

Step 2: Plan

At this point, you can begin discussing strategies to help fill in the empty spaces. Be sure to create a clear process for closing skill gaps, enlisting the help of designated “experts” in specific fields to design collaboration procedures. When done in a positive manner, from a position of support (not judgment or blame), this can drive some great discussion and re-energize employees.  With a solid plan, time, and consistent effort, teams will eventually grow into cross-functional units.


c08819dc22526597e1e9673e55fd3716“I love it when a plan comes together…”

“Ugh, God George, we know.


Step 3: Implement

With the skill gaps identified, and strategies in place to fill those gaps, it is now time to work with management, team leads, and your experts to execute.

Provide ongoing training for all employees on topics relevant to your business’ core functions, to standardize the horizontal portion of the “T”. As skilled as Dwight might be in competitive helicopter aerobatics, unless your organization plans on expanding into the airshow market, it doesn’t make sense to invest time into turning the rest of the team into amateur stunt pilots. It does however, make sense to have Dwight pair with other team members on Ruby so that the next time he ends up in the hospital due to a helicopter-related accident, his co-workers are able to carry on his portion of the project without him.



Rest in Peace, Dwight

Make sure you have a solid workflow in place. Increasing employees’ skill levels won’t do much to boost performance if there are inherent problems in the processes they use to work together. Creating a value stream and identifying areas of consistent churn to streamline will help mitigate frustration and can even help uncover additional skill gaps that need closing.

Set clear expectations. This may seem obvious, but simply saying to your teams “improve yourselves!” will not yield positive results. You’ll have to clearly define what success looks like on an individual level, a team level, department level, etc.

Work with employees on an ongoing basis to understand their core competencies, evolving skill sets, and emerging interests. Things change. Staying informed means you can adapt the strategy as needed.

Create focused learning activities around bottlenecks.

Build cross-team communities of practice around technical specialties, domain knowledge areas, or any other areas of interest.        

Work with team leaders to establish an environment that encourages continual learning activities such as pairing, job shadowing, lunch-n-learns, book clubs, and open discussions. Empower employees to be honest with their T-skills and discover solutions for the areas in which they are not experts. Build continual improvement into the culture by encouraging collaboration and support from all levels. The goal is to make employees feel comfortable asking for help and running experiments so that they can grow their expertise.

Finally, help create consistent boundaries for workloads and job functions. Being a T-shaped employee does not mean become a master in everything and employees with broad skills should not be driving initiatives outside of their core function, especially when there is an expert on the team. Just because accounting expert, Dirk, cross-trained Lawrence on processing payroll, does not make Lawrence the new accountant.



Deal with it, Lawrence.


By following the above guidelines you can optimize your teams, leveraging their strengths and building their individual skill portfolios in the process. However, just because you may have have all capabilities necessary to do the work, it does not necessarily mean you have a high-performing team. To achieve high-performance, teams will need to have the right communication and collaboration processes in place. This area is often the most challenging for teams, but it is critical for sustainable success. Want to know if your teams are maximizing their performance potential? Take our 1-Minute Agility Self Assessment to find out!

The Multitasking Myth

As a parent of an ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) child, I have had the unplanned but eye-opening experience of learning how to deal with ADD.  Why eye-opening?  I have to admit, I have always been skeptical of the validity of some of today’s conditions that become accepted by the medical community at large.  The sheer rate of new conditions grows each year.  When my child was first diagnosed, I wondered if ADD was truly a legitimate issue or if it was created by pharmaceutical companies who conveniently happened to have a medication to manage the condition.  It also seemed to me like a convenient excuse for those who were lazy, unmotivated, or simply capable of handling the daily demands of the modern world.  I have since learned that I was completely wrong.struggling

After experiencing the effects of ADD has on my child and consequently putting together a plan to manage it, I have seen a 180 degree turn in my child’s ability to deal with the anxiety that accompanies ADD.  My child has gone from a very challenged student to a peak performer at school almost immediately.  Also, my child’s satisfaction level with achievements and self-confidence is at an all-time high.

There are three things we implemented which have directly contributed to the successful turn-around:

  1. A sustainable and recognizable daily routine
  2. Prioritizing what is most important, communicating it to our child, and focusing on that list one item at a time
  3. Constantly re-evaluate #2 and adjusting  accordingly

Since being introduced to ADD I have become familiar with the effects it has on performance, self-satisfaction, and self-confidence.   I have also noticed similarities between these effects and the effects of multitasking on performance, self-satisfaction, and self-confidence in the workplace.  Over the years, I have even seen a number of cases of what one could term as “artificially-manufactured ADD”.

Why make this comparison?  Because many in the business community treat multitasking in the same way I first treated ADD; the effects on productivity are really over-hyped and those who can’t multitask effectively are just lazy, unmotivated, or incapable of handling the tasks of today’s business climate. 

Multitasking is not a modern concept; in fact it is believed to have been around for a long time.  Today’s work environments drive multitasking demands on our time almost by default.  CNN describes multitasking as “a post-layoff corporate assumption that the few can be made to do the work of many”.  I’m not sure if I completely agree with this viewpoint, but some studies show that multitasking is a less efficient approach to work than focusing on similar types of tasks at the same time, or focusing on one specific deliverable at a time.   There are many suggestions as to how to address and minimize the effects of multitasking or how to operate to avoid it.  In my experience, the best way to minimize performance loss of multitasking is similar to the approach we have taken to counteract the effects of ADD with my child:

  1. Be consistent and predictable wherever possible
  2. Prioritize your work and single-thread your efforts whenever possible
  3. Constantly re-evaluate #2 for updated priorities and adjust when needed

Highly productive teams groom, prioritize, re-groom, and re-prioritize their work constantly.  They also are consistently inquiring about priority and adjusting accordingly.  Most importantly, they work to keep their efforts as single-threaded (one item at a time) as possible to maximize their productivity.   The effect on your group’s performance, as well as your group’s output quality and agility, will be greater than you think.

Want to learn more ways to create high-performing teams? Check out another post by Mike Jebber – Team Building: Diversity Uncovers What Experience Can’t.