Close Encounters of the Productive Kind

All too often, the first meeting of a collaborative group is a waste of time. Here are some ways to keep that from happening.

We were having a lively discussion in a class I teach on collaboration. The topic: how to get the most out of a collaborative team’s first meeting. The students offered several useful points:

One suggested, “Develop a team charter — establish your ground rules, when and where you’ll meet, who your customer is, what roles the members will play, what each agency partner can contribute.”

“It’s too early for that,” said another. “You need to discuss people’s initial ideas of the project. What’s the need, why does the project matter, who are the stakeholders, and the like.”

A third focused on relationships, arguing that “the best thing to do early on is to spend time getting to know each other — what does each person bring to the table, what’s their past experience with this kind of work, what do the members have in common?”

“Discuss the project goal,” said another. “That’s the one and only important task for a first meeting.”

We talked for a few minutes until another member of the group startled us. “Frankly, I don’t think any of this is realistic,” Joan said. “Think about it — first meetings are often hard, especially if the members don’t know each other, or if there have been past tensions between them or their agencies. As far as I’m concerned, the purpose of a first meeting is to get to the second meeting!”

There was a long pause, and then a number of participants started to smile, nod and voice agreement. They recounted the many first meetings that seemed entirely scripted, with leaders saying all the “right” things while everyone else in the room wondered what the real agenda was (and discussed that very question at a “meeting after the meeting” later in the day).

As a hard-headed optimist, it seemed too negative to me. I’ve seen some first meetings go very well. But there was also a lot of truth to the comments. When a collaborative process starts with a formal team meeting and the participants don’t know each other, it’s often like a first date. We conceal more than we reveal, we’re sizing up the others, we’re trying to figure out whether this relationship has any potential, we’re self-conscious and perhaps anxious and don’t always project our best selves. Often there’s also a good deal of posturing as people try to establish their place and demonstrate their importance in the project.

What to do? Here are two possibilities for the first meeting of a collaborative group when members don’t know each other or have had mixed experiences together in the past:

Option 1: Set low expectations and focus on the project goal. This option accepts that the main function of the first meeting is to get through it, but it adds one important substantive discussion: Insist on an initial discussion of the goal. What need are you trying to meet? What would success look like? What’s a first draft of the project goal?

Option 2: Do enough pre-meeting preparation to ensure that the first meeting isn’t really a first meeting.

I much prefer option 2. The idea here is to “start before you start” through some preliminary activities that will allow you and the participants to come to the first formal meeting ready to get down to work.

Here’s a starter list of possible exploratory steps and questions to ask:

• Contact everyone who’s invited to join the team and discuss the project’s necessity, its likely goal and why that person is needed for the project Ask for their initial impressions.

• Have someone senior in your agency contact senior people in the partner agencies to discuss such topics as why the project matters and how their agencies can participate. Doing so increases the likelihood that other leaders will designate talented people to represent them on the team.

• See if you can line up some resources to support the project (this sends a strong signal that leaders back the effort). Most people are impressed when funding has been programmed for the project; other types of resources can include personnel who are dedicated to the project and information technology.

• Do some homework: Was this kind of initiative tried before? If so, what were the lessons learned? Are any of the participants from that prior effort still around? What can they advise?

• Do more homework, about the partner agencies and the people they’re sending: Are any of the agencies or individuals rivals? Who will be glad if the project succeeds? And who will be mad?

• Are there some “veto holders” who aren’t on the team but who could kill the project if they chose to? What are their interests and concerns?

• Who are the customers and other stakeholders who will benefit from this project? Find out how the team’s work can help them; see if some of them can attend one of the team’s first meetings (to put a human face on the project).

Yes, first meetings of a collaborative team can waste your time and make you wonder why on earth you signed up for the project in the first place. You can avoid that by taking the time to “start before you start.” If you do, you may be surprised how productive a first meeting can be.

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