Can I speak with John? Well, he’s in a meeting and has meetings all day. When can I meet him? Well, let’s see, his calendar is booked for several days… How about next week?
We still don’t know if we can use that raw material in manufacturing. When is this going to be resolved? Well, we had a conference call last Tuesday and we’re having a meeting next Friday so maybe then we’ll know. What about the issue of the inspection in India? Well, I heard they have a meeting next week, maybe it will be resolved then. We can discuss it at the Monthly in 3 weeks.
Isn’t it absolutely maddening? And yet, this is how our world turns. There’s a problem? Let’s have a meeting! Yeah, why not? Never mind that there are 1,500 people working in this place and everyone is throwing meetings into everyone’s calendars. I once did a quick survey to see how much time people spent on meetings and found Managers spend 30% of their time in meetings; Directors 50% and VP’s close to 80%. What a terrible waste of time.
Let’s accept that meetings can indeed be run highly efficiently, with issues discussed quickly, everybody being concise and to the point and decisions being made in every case (this, of course, is utopia. Reality is normally quite different from this level of meeting effectiveness). The really big deficiency with meetings is that they cause delays in problem resolution and accumulation in the number of problems to resolve.
But there is a better way. A way that makes meetings unnecessary, at least for this sort of purpose, i.e., resolving problems. And that is to work in NOW mode.
“NOW mode” is a term I use to refer to an attitude of “if the problem happens now, we resolve it now”. No accumulation, maximum effectiveness. But is this possible?
People meet for all sorts of purposes but the general case I’ve witnessed and the case I am interested in is that of problem resolution. Here’s the “use case”: someone in an operation encounters an unexpected event, something that shouldn’t happen: from a bad lab result to the reception of the wrong material to a delay in manufacturing. It has been my experience that in the vast majority of cases where the unexpected occurs, the person who encounters the problem can’t resolve the problem. I have also observed that when the unexpected occurs, people are stymied by how to resolve the problem, whom to get a resolution from, who will decide, etc. Thus, the net is cast wide and the number of people who are called upon is fairly large since you don’t really know how the problem will be solved and therefore you don’t know who exactly will do it.
Meetings, then, are the best known device in organizations to gather several people from multiple disciplines to look at this unexpected thing and figure out what to do. But they have a massive obstacle: everybody has to be physically in the room at the same time which then leads to the difficulty of finding time on everybody’s calendar at the same time; which is what causes the delay between the event and the meeting.
Luckily, we are now in an era where there is a very different and far more effective way of bringing people together and that is the social network. Let’s see how this can work in the workplace to eliminate the space of delay between event and discussion and resolution.
First, you need a social networking tool. I’ve used Yammer (which was acquired by Microsoft) and Moxiesoft‘s Employee Spaces but there are others you can try. They pretty much follow the ergonomics of Facebook but have features that are geared for the Enterprise. The purpose of these tools is to set-up virtual spaces where individuals can have text conversations through postings and comments on postings.
But conversations about what? And how does it help to replace meetings and, more importantly, to function in NOW mode?
It works like this: an employee anywhere in the organization encounters a problem; he/she posts the problem in the virtual place. This starts the conversation. You can have thousands of these conversations going on. This posting appears in the “activity streams” of other employees whom, of course, need to be monitoring those streams (like you monitor your email inbox). And this is where the magic happens, a phenomenon called Spontaneous Association. Due to a reflex that is totally natural in humans, another employee who understands the problem will post a comment indicating what should be done or what he/she will do. That then causes another employee, with a different skill set, to comment further, thus enhancing the course of action. And so it goes with people coming in and helping resolve the problem. I will do this, so and so will do that, oh in that case I will also do… And so on. This is Spontaneous Association and I have been observing it for 8 years in different organizations.
And this is how we work in NOW mode. Stop thinking that you need to meet. If you have a problem, post it now. If you’re not sure what to do, post it now. If you’d like to discuss a problem and cause some action, post it now.
The beauty of virtual spaces for the Enterprise is in how Cyberspace excels at connecting people. In a virtual space, people can be available all the time, and can be in multiple discussions at the same time. More importantly, through the “conversation” metaphor, people can participate in a conversation at different points in time, i.e., it is not necessary that everyone be present simultaneously, thus eliminating the problem of conflicting calendars. If you can respond now, you do, if you can respond a few hours later, you do. Either way, issues get cycled and resolved far faster than the meeting approach.
In my first experience at this in 2005, we observed problem resolution times collapsing from 4 months to a few hours within 6 months!
What happens to Leadership?
Spontaneous Association works best when it is not directed. Sure, you can follow a directed approach even with Virtual Spaces. You can let someone post the problem and then a Manager assigns responsibility to someone else to run with it. This, however, stumps Spontaneous Association (rather than leveraging it) and is both slower and less effective. Competent individuals combining their skills spontaneously can construct a course of action to resolve a problem far faster than one single individual can, unless he or she is a genius. Yes, there are those, but they are rare. Thus, I don’t recommend thinking of resolving problems that stem from unexpected conditions by drafting action plans and tracking them. It is way too slow.
Leaders, however, have an important role to play in the stream of activity that is generated by Spontaneous Association in virtual spaces – and this in two respects:
- There are individuals who lead simply because they are bothered by things that don’t work. They play an important role as catalysts of discussion and boosters against inaction or aloofness. You need to be careful because these individuals can also be instigators of lots of meetings. Their energy needs to be guided to operate through virtual spaces and to leave room for colleagues to react to the situation and resolve it.
- Then there are people in a formal management role – Managers, Directors, Executives. The role they play is on the one hand to give space for employees to take initiative and make decisions; they empower individuals by encouraging them to collaborate openly; but they also provide guidance by correcting employees who make incorrect judgment calls – or who make outright mistakes. They nudge the stream of action away from incorrect paths and they also instil a sense of urgency where it may be lacking. Finally, leadership sometimes leads and gets decisions made and stops ‘wheels from spinning’.
I am therefore clarifying that an open collaborative environment is not a recipe for anarchy. While action should not be directed from the top down, there is still a role for Leaders to play and it is an important and essential one. Leaders provide clarity of direction, of values and of how to make good judgment calls. They are leaders of decisiveness and clarity and they are leaders who coach and motivate. That is what Leaders do in an open community working in NOW mode.