Have you ever been in a meeting where the flow of energy of a discussion seems to dip or get blocked around one or two attendees? Not only are they not actively contributing comments or questions, something gets communicated non-verbally, perhaps not intentionally, that inhibits the free flow of ideas.

What is actually happening in such situations? How do meeting coordinators and leaders deal with this kind of “Black Hole”?

Meetings move at the speed of the slowest mind in the room. – Dale Dauten, Business Author

If this is true, who are the “slowest minds”? What are the reasons for the “slowness”? Is this due to inattention, a lack of experience, unfamiliar vocabulary or context, a personality trait – or something else? What kind of management challenge does this present?

How do we define meetings as “effective”? The traditional metrics are: time-efficient, minimum redundancy (repetitive discussions), focus on the key topic or decision to be made, clarity, etc. Basically, these measure the process in just two dimensions: (1) process and (2) content. The usual questions are: Can a meeting be scheduled at a convenient time, start promptly and end as scheduled, with the objectives having been achieved?

In the interests of time efficiency, most meeting coordinators try to “advance the agenda” by not dealing with “the slowest mind”, hoping/intending to bring that person up to speed in a separate 1:1 meeting. The priority is often to get a decision where less than 100% consensus is an acceptable outcome. However, when some participants may not agree or understand fully, they will not be able to support the execution or solve problems that may arise later.

Is the process of holding a meeting the same as establishing a manufacturing assembly line for thoughts? Is this the metaphor that is the mindset of the participants?

The mechanistic model of a meeting as the act of bringing together the functional bodies/parts that are needed to accomplish a task or make a decision may be sufficient for situations where the problems are well-known and actions to be taken are also known, as they were in the Industrial Economy. The right people come together to discuss a concrete plan for whatever needs to be done. The outcome of the meeting is to define specific tasks and who will be accountable for each action. The value of people and their knowledge has traditionally been embodied in tasks related to the production of physical assets.

In the Knowledge Economy, where work, especially innovative problem-solving, requires analytical and creative thought, how can productive interaction among workers be encouraged? As creative work is typically non-linear, sometimes we don’t know what exactly what is the problem to be solved, or what will be the optimal series of steps. The essence of creativity is exploration of possibilities, which brings uncertainty in terms of resources needed: time, money, and effort. In a team meeting, different perceptions of risk are inevitable and expected and can be divisive or, worse, dismissed.

Each meeting is an experience where complex personalities are asked to interact. A linear thinker, who is rational, may care that the topics are discussed clearly and based on facts and logic. Another participant may care that he/she is given (and encouraged to give) the opportunity to be heard, to get validation that their participation is valued. How can a meeting experience be designed so that it works for all the participants?

Wouldn’t it be helpful if more attention focuses on the “user experience” and the “user interface” = the process how the meeting is conducted?

This kind of “design-thinking” comes from IDEO, where an innovation team typically includes one critically important archetype, “The Caregiver”. Such a person is empathetic and brings a nurturing attitude toward the internal team and toward external relationships as well. This is not a call for a psychologist in every team as much as a reminder that, especially for knowledge workers, creative people (e.g., software engineers, not just “artists”), their humanness is an essential part of who they are and what they do. They are not assembly-line workers, manufacturing a marketing or sales strategy as a linear sequence of well-defined tasks. Their creative energy cannot be completely released or harnessed unless their humanness is acknowledged.

From the perspective of maximizing the value of the Human Capital assets, i.e., the quality of the people-to-people interactions is critical to the outcome of a meeting. While this seems obvious, how many meetings are conducted with the intention and goal of achieving positive- feedback interactions? Maybe we should be measuring the number of positive-feedback loops and how many network connections/associations (of ideas) that result? As in complexity theory, isn’t this a way to understand how energy propagates?

In this mental model, the “slowest mind” is a node that not actively communicating. The “slowest mind” might not belong to the participant with the least knowledge or experience. That person might naturally like to think more critically, or to explore perspectives that may be peripheral to the main topic, but could still be relevant in the long term. What can be changed in the way we think of a meeting that might make it easier for that person to participate?

Maybe a particularly challenging scenario would be one where the “slowest mind” is actually the key decision-maker in the meeting! This can happen in traditional companies where working teams are composed of bright young people using advanced technologies, e.g., data science, that the older executives may not understand these tools as fully. This is another kind of challenge to be explored in a separate article.

A simple solution could be to add alternate channels of communication, like Google Docs, or Slack, or some other collaborative platform, to run at the same time so participants can have on-going 1:1 or 1:many conversations without interrupting the flow of the meeting itself.

We can also learn from the Agile/scrum process of software development style of “stand-up meetings”. The objectives of a “scrum meeting” are:

  1. Keep the team in sync on how things are going
  2. Allow for corrections in the sprint (phase of development
  3. Build trust among team members
  4. Encourage personal planning
  5. Make progress visible
  6. Help the team self-organize

Clearly, this process is about encouraging “group flow” through clear, meaningful communications, incorporating individual accountability as well as trust. When that happens, the participants can feel the bonding energy and are inspired by it. A “dopamine rush” can be felt in the brain, as a literal manifestation of group flow. Without resorting to actually measuring dopamine levels in the brains of the participants, what are signs of heightened dopamine levels? Obviously, the most important correlation is with increased attention/engagement.

Ideally, a leader who the team feels inspired by will be someone who understands and values this way of sharing empathy and human connection. If he or she is not naturally skilled in this direction, they can still build effective teams (and have productive meetings) when they include and support others who can supply this psychological glue.

Businesses today are far more complex and teams are more diverse than ever, made up of specialists in areas with different styles of communication needs. In meetings, the challenge is to encourage and maintain flow of energy when the overlap of interests (and attention) may be thin. We may feel that an obvious requirement is all members of a meeting SHOULD be attentive and “interested”. That is an unrealistic expectation.

Who can afford to have a Black Hole drain the energy in our team meetings?

Read more about Advantary Advisor, Po Chi Wu.

Categories: Insight

Po Chi Wu

Visiting Professor in the College of Engineering at UC Berkeley, and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Business and Management at The Hong Kong University of Science & Technology. A highly successful international venture capitalist and entrepreneur, he has lived and worked both in the United States and in Asia, and brings a unique perspective and the rich context of more than 30 years of experience and insight into the challenges of innovation and entrepreneurship.

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