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.

Avoiding ‘the Tyranny of the Immediate’

Managing an enterprise requires keeping the focus on “the main thing” and not being distracted by the daily tasks and deadlines that always seem urgent.

Some years ago I was consulting for a federal-government client of about 30,000 employees on an ambitious organizational-change effort. The prospects for this effort appeared good. Its external environment was changing quickly, its senior leaders seemed quite committed to the change effort, and most employees thought that change was long overdue, as did many of its key stakeholders and customers.

Yet, after six months and an excellent start, our project slowed down. I asked the people leading various change task forces what was going on, and the most frequent explanation was this: “Oh, that was OBE” — overtaken by events.

I was struck by the demeanor of these people. They were all eager for change, but they talked about the project being “OBE” in a very matter-of-fact manner, as though they never expected it to succeed. Some had invested hundreds of hours in their project; surely they felt a lot of disappointment. Yet they might as well have been reporting on the weather. Why was that? When I asked one of them (a savvy veteran of the agency), he paused, smiled and said, “Think of it this way. Our deputy director starts the daily senior management team meeting by discussing what he just heard on NPR an hour earlier. So it’s no surprise that they get distracted. In this organization, ‘short term’ means this week; ‘long term’ means this month.”

This organization’s leaders, like so many, were victims of what some call “the tyranny of the immediate.” What pops up in the email inbox becomes the current priority. Everything seems to be due by close of business today. Work life is a series of urgent (but not necessarily important) tasks and deadlines.

The tyranny of the immediate has many causes. One of them, sadly, is that some people get hooked by the rush to meet endless and urgent deadlines, by feeling constantly in demand and terribly important. But for those of you who aren’t impressed by 16-hour workdays and a BlackBerry that never pauses, there are ways to avoid this condition. Here’s a starter list:

Turn off the visual and audio alerts made by incoming emails. They only reduce your productivity.

Consult periodically with a diverse set of important stakeholders and customers. Ask them about their priorities and expectations of your organization. This allows you to be proactive in keeping your finger on the pulse of your immediate environment. If you don’t seek out feedback from the groups that you’re most interested in, you’ll continually be in a reactive mode — responding only to those who are complaining or have an axe to grind.

Practice “managing by wandering around.” Visit operational units to learn about their successes and challenges. Visit partner organizations to see how they’re dealing with trends that are affecting you. And take one or more members of your team with you on these trips, so that you have a shared experience to examine together.

Take some quiet time. The tyranny of the immediate, by definition, provides no time to reflect. But reflection and analysis are especially important when we’re paddling in turbulent waters. And quiet time only occurs away from the action of daily operations. Whether it’s a formal staff retreat, a book on a very different topic or a long walk with a trusted friend, be sure to give yourself time to reflect and rejuvenate.

Create a “kitchen cabinet.” Gather a small group of trusted people whose judgment you respect and use them as a sounding board. Share your ideas and concerns, and ask for their candid reactions. It helps if they bring different perspectives. And they must be people who want you to succeed and expect nothing in return.

Perhaps most important, remember this: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” This advice comes from Jim Barksdale, a wise and super-smart high-tech leader who served as a senior executive at companies including FedEx and Netscape. Barksdale preached this over and over; everyone in his companies knew he was serious about his mantra.

Keeping the main thing the main thing may sound a bit cutesy or simplistic. But it’s incredibly important and equally hard to do. It requires knowing what the “main thing” is for your organization, namely what the key objective or principle is that you’ll always embrace and protect. At 3M, the main thing is to continually foster innovation; 3M people never badmouth a new idea. At the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the main thing is neutral competence and credibility.

In their book “Great by Choice,” Jim Collins and Morten Hansen describe private-sector firms that have excelled in turbulent and chaotic environments. Every one of them has maintained a fanatical consistency even during the most trying of times. They act consistently with their values, with long-term goals and with performance standards. They don’t overreact to great times or depressing ones. They eagerly support innovation when its potential is supported with evidence. They understand and protect their main thing.

The tyranny of the immediate is as much a threat to our public agencies as it is to private firms. Our work world isn’t about to slow down, technology will continue to bombard us with more information, and customers and managers will keep reacting to multiple issues they regard as urgent. But we can prevent the tyranny of the immediate from controlling us. We have to, if we’re to focus on our main thing.


People Just Naturally Resist Change, Right?

Not so fast. What many people fear about organizational change is loss.

I have a client who’s a real challenge. She is the director of a medium-size nonprofit with about 15 full-time staff, 30 part-timers and dozens of committed volunteers. She’s smart, passionate about the organization’s mission, and cares about the people they serve. She has made many improvements during her 15-plus years of leading the organization. Unfortunately, many of her accomplishments are lost on the staff and volunteers because they can’t get past their perception that she is allergic to any and all change.

When I ask the staff and volunteers why they see her that way, they make comments like:

• “She gets surprisingly defensive when we talk about a different way to manage a program. We never criticize her, but she takes our suggestions as personal attacks.”

• “Whenever I bring up a new idea, her first (and second and third) reactions are routinely negative.”

• “When she sees us working on an innovation, she asks so many questions and demands we do so much research on it that we finally just let it go. It’s not worth the hassle.”

You get the idea.

I gained an appreciation for the staff members’ concerns last year when the director asked me to facilitate a staff team that was developing a new method for managing customer information. The organization’s customer knowledge sat in various information silos, and staff didn’t know what they already knew about their customers. Over the next six months, the director and I met several times about the project, and I encountered an ongoing stream of negative comments. Nothing that we did pleased her.

At one such meeting, I noted that she seemed pretty defensive about the team’s ideas. She got angry. “Russ, I’m tired of hearing people say that I’m always defensive, or that I resist change. I’m not afraid of change, but I’ve invested too much of my life in this organization to put up with changes that take us backwards!”

I reflected on her comment for several days. It was heartfelt. She was very frustrated that she was labeled as “resistant to change.” And then I remembered a powerful message from a great book on change: “People don’t resist change … they resist loss.” The quote comes from “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading,” by Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. I think the authors are absolutely right.

Pick up almost any book or article on change, and there will be a passage on “dealing with resisters.” The assumption is that there are always people who resist change, and many resist any and all changes. I think Heifetz and Linsky’s message is far more accurate. Sure, there are some folks who routinely get upset when their orderly world is altered. I have a friend who gets angry each time he goes to the supermarket and finds some items placed on different shelves. But it’s not the fact of change that most of us oppose, it’s the perception that we’ll be worse off because of it.

In the director’s case, she worries that her staff members carry out changes without thinking about the unanticipated consequences of their actions. As she put it to me, “They get enthusiastic, which is great, and then they move forward without consulting key stakeholders. They forget to learn what happened when we tried something similar in the past. They don’t appreciate the ripple effects created by any change. How can I support a new initiative that solves one problem and creates three new ones?” Fair question.

Our staff team made much better progress in the following months as we learned to anticipate the director’s questions and tried to see her concerns in a positive light: She loves the organization and wants to be sure we don’t lose its core strengths as we innovate. We also invited her to play devil’s advocate at times, asking her to anticipate negative consequences of our plan and tell us how to avoid them. We incorporated many of her suggestions into our plan. And when we made the final presentation to her, she was beaming.

So the next time you’re working on an innovation, keep in mind that your real challenge isn’t the fact that it involves change. Your challenge is what people think they’ll lose. Everyone will benefit if you ask those who will be affected these questions:

• If we implement this project as planned, how might it help you and your colleagues?

• What problems might it create for you? What will be harder for you?

• What about its impact on our customers?

• What changes should we make in the plan to ensure that has a positive impact on staff and customers?

• Can you help us monitor implementation so that we learn early on of any problems?

Engaging in this kind of open, candid conversation will help you create a better product or program. And those people who’ve been labeled as “resisters” may just turn into advocates.

‘Hire for Attitude, Train for Skills’

The way a successful airline finds employees who fit in with its distinctive culture holds lessons for the public sector.

Some years ago I was the director of a nonprofit agency. We provided services to handicapped individuals and their families. The work was hard, the clients really needed our services, the staff was highly trained and very committed, and we took pride in the impact we made on people’s lives.

But Bill, one of our most talented staff members, was a puzzle to me. On one hand, he was creative, funny, very persistent, smart, and usually got great results. Some of our multi-problem clients made real progress from Bill’s services. On the other hand, he often came across as the “smartest guy in the room.” He didn’t suffer from a small ego and didn’t hesitate to tell other staff when he had a better idea. His arrogant attitude won him no friends in the agency. To be fair, his ideas often were superior, but that only made matters worse from his colleagues’ point of view.

I tried to help Bill see that arrogance wasn’t in his interest, that other staff who might learn from him weren’t open to his ideas, that he could be more effective by teaming with other staff when working with a given family. Bill would have none of it; he saw himself as the brightest star in our agency. Ultimately, he had to leave.

I thought long and hard about what I came to call “the Bill problem”: great skills, creative ideas, lousy team player. What could I have done to keep Bill and help him soften his sharp edges? Then I came across a book about Southwest Airlines, Lessons in Loyalty: How Southwest Airlines Does It–An Insider’s View, and it totally changed the way I looked at the ways managers hire and develop staff.

The author, Lorraine Grubbs-West, cites nine lessons she learned as a senior executive at Southwest, from developing a culture of continual learning and creative methods for “onboarding” new employees (immersing them in the unique high-energy Southwest culture) to maintaining high standards for employees while giving them enormous support and quality training. But the most powerful lesson, for me, was the very first one: “Hire for attitude, train for skills.”

As I read on, Grubbs-West’s point became clear. It’s not that Southwest doesn’t value skills. Rather, she’s arguing that we can’t train people to have attitudes (just as athletic coaches like to say that “you can’t teach speed”) that are valuable to our organizations and that attitude is at least as important as skills in building the organization. Southwest’s message is also that our attitudes don’t tend to change dramatically during our lives, and when they do change, it’s not because of some employee-development program. As the author puts it, “Hire ‘nice’ ’cause you can’t train ‘nice.'” Organizations can most certainly train for the skills they need.

Southwest’s approach to “hiring for attitude” is easy to describe, but hard for many organizations to implement. The company:

• Makes people want to work for Southwest. The company’s ads convey its love of creativity, individuality, irreverence and humor, as well as its commitment to what it calls “positively outrageous customer service.”

• Defines the kinds of employees it wants and communicates that widely. Over the years, the company has identified the key attributes that build and sustain its culture (thinking outside the box, preference for a team approach, taking the job seriously but not himself or herself seriously), and it focuses on those throughout the recruitment process.

• Uses its marketing and public-relations strategies to support its recruiting efforts.

• Makes all of its employees recruiters. Southwest employees are continually “interviewing” applicants for jobs at the company. They notice how applicants greet the receptionist, how they respond to people in the hallway, and so on. Southwest employees love the company culture and are determined to hire only those who will contribute to it.

Fine and well, you might be thinking, but what about people whose skills are both wonderful and rare but whose attitudes don’t fit well with the organization’s culture. Shouldn’t we make exceptions to the Southwest rule and hire such people?

Yes, there are such people, and if their skills are not only rare and wonderful, but also well suited to achieve very high organizational priorities, you can make the case to hire them. In my experience however, there are very few such people. Sadly, I’ve seen many people hired (or retained) because their skills seemed to be indispensable to the organization’s success, only to cause far more problems than they were worth because of their attitudes. And, of course, once such people are hired, you have a very difficult time parting company with them.

Most public organizations would do well to follow the Southwest example: Know the attributes your culture needs, rigorously assess them during the recruitment process, and hire (primarily) for attitude. Just make sure it’s the right attitude. Don’t hire people like Bill.

To access an archive of Russ’ past columns at, click here.

*this column originally appeared on,  Nov /09 /11  .copyright c. 2011.