“You can never make the same mistake twice because the second time you make it, it’s not a mistake, it’s a choice.” — Steven Denn
This statement sounds about right when you’re the only one responsible for the mistake! But what if the mistake is being made by a group of people?
For example, do you find it easy to identify and fix the mistakes your team is making at work? Depending on your level of psychological safety, even discussing these problems openly with your coworkers can seem next to impossible.
What if the mistake is being made across your entire 10,000 person company? Is repeatedly making that mistake truly a choice, as the quote implies? Or are these types of problems simply out of your control?
Here’s the bad news: fixing mistakes that are made by groups of people is much more difficult than fixing your own mistakes (this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise!).
And here’s the good news: it’s possible to fix widespread team mistakes and it can actually happen within meetings—let’s find out how.
To Fix Group Mistakes, You Have To First Identify Them
Raise your hand if your team regularly sets aside time to ask: “What’s working? What’s not working? How can we get better going forward?”
If your hand is still up after all three of these questions, odds are you are working on an agile team running regular retrospectives. Retrospectives are a type of team meeting which serves as an opportunity to reflect, discuss what could be improved, and determine which processes should continue.
The goal is to encourage continuous improvement based on honest team feedback. (As an aside, 80% of all agile teams run retrospectives, so if you’re not part of the majority yet, come join the rest of us!).
Even if you’re not working on an agile team, stopping to inspect how your work is going in order to find ways to improve going forward could be the difference between your team consistently making the same mistakes or making changes for the better.
But here’s the kicker—even if your team regularly runs these meetings, how often does your team actually change as a result? Most of the time teams say they’re going to fix a problem, but nothing changes in the end.
Many teams simply pay lip service to change because of the intimidation factor or a lack of buy-in and commitment. But just because new processes or team rules are challenging to implement doesn’t mean we shouldn’t face those challenges head-on. As a famous swamp muppet once said: “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
So the question is: if meetings that focus on continuous improvement are the best way to identify and fix your team’s mistakes, how do you run them effectively to actually lead to change?
Enter The Triangle of Success
Meetings that focus on continuous improvement and lead to real change rely on three factors: people, process, and follow-through.
People: Invite the right people to the meeting.
Process: Facilitate the meeting to encourage full team participation and to help the team focus on the most important topics. This is particularly important to encourage people to speak up, especially if the team is distributed.
Follow Through: Commit to those action items. After the meeting is over, your job isn’t done! Now you have to actually do something to change.
What makes “Continuous Improvement Meetings” so difficult is that, in order to succeed, you have to get all three aspects of the triangle right.
For example: Imagine you’ve invited the right people to the meeting and are following a process that enables everyone to have a voice, but there’s no follow-through after the meeting is over. Was the meeting a success? Unlikely.
Or, imagine you’ve invited the right people to the room and you are following through on your action items, but you didn’t create space in the meeting for teammates with softer communication styles to participate. Will the entire team truly buy-in to the change? Probably not.
5 Tips for Hosting Meetings That Lead To Continuous Improvement
Here are five practical tips you can follow to invite the right people into the room, follow a good process, and encourage follow-through:
1. Invite The Minimal Number Of Responsible People
Some people suggest that you should never invite more than 7 people to a meeting. While that might be difficult advice to put into practice, make sure that the meeting invite list is limited to only those who are directly making or being impacted by the decisions made in the meeting.
For each person on your meeting invite list, ask yourself, “If this person wasn’t able to attend for some reason, would we still be able to effectively identify and analyze our team’s problems?” If the answer is “yes”, then that person should likely not be invited in the first place. If they aren’t adding value to the conversation, the meeting is a waste of time for you and them.
Keep in mind that this might even mean disinviting your boss! Self-organizing teams perform better in the long run and sometimes, the best way for your boss to help is to empower their team to work together with little intervention.
2. Remember That Remote Participants Are Team Members, Too
Do you have a remote team? The answer to that question might not be as simple as it first seems.
According to agile coach Mark Kilby, there are three types of distributed teams: satellites, clusters, and nebulas:
- Satellite teams are where there is “a central and co-located group of people and one or more individuals that work remotely from the group”.
- Cluster teams are where there are various groups of co-located workers who work together, but each group is geographically dispersed from one another.
- Nebula teams are where all workers work from separate locations.
In all of these cases, according to Kilby, your team is distributed. But no matter which type of distributed team you are on, it’s important to ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to participate in the meeting.
If you’ve ever been the only person dialing into an otherwise co-located meeting, you know how hard this can be in practice!
One solution is to designate one co-located person on your team to “buddy up” with a single remote participant. If that person is having trouble being heard, it’s the buddy’s responsibility to make that happen.
Another solution is to require the team to become a nebula. In practice, that means if only one person is dialing in, make everyone dial into the meeting or join via video chat even if the rest of the team is in the same office space. This will help level the playing field, and foster empathy for your team’s remote counterparts.
3. Use Facilitation Techniques
Have you ever run a meeting in which getting anyone to contribute feels like pulling teeth? *raises hand*
No one likes to hear the sound of crickets when your ultimate goal is collaboration.
This is where good old-fashioned meeting facilitation can help. According to Sam Kaner, co-author of The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, facilitators have four responsibilities:
- Encourage full participation. Facilitators help foster a respectful and safe environment in order to invite everyone on the team to contribute their ideas.
- Promote mutual understanding. Facilitators help the group understand each other so that they can achieve shared learning.
- Foster inclusive solutions. Facilitators help the group find solutions that take into account divergent opinions and perspectives.
- Cultivate shared responsibility. Facilitators help empower the group to take ownership of the outcomes of the meeting.
So what do skilled facilitators do in practice?
Here’s an example. In order to create space for introverts to participate (responsibility #1 above), facilitators might choose to use brainwriting to rapidly generate ideas.
Like brainstorming, brainwriting is a technique that enables groups to rapidly generate ideas. But brainwriting differs from brainstorming in that individuals are asked to privately write down their ideas on sticky notes or pieces of paper before sharing with the group. Not only does brainwriting parallelize and speed up the idea generation process, but it also encourages everyone to participate on an equal playing field.
Here’s another example of how to effectively facilitate open discussions:
In order to ensure a wide variety of opinions are taken into account (responsibility #3 above), facilitators might ask, “Are there any other perspectives on this?” or “How might someone else see this?”
Asking questions like these creates space for people to contribute to the conversation who otherwise might not feel comfortable speaking up.
4. Follow The Energy
Imagine for a moment that your team identified a problem that needed attention, but there was a disagreement about how to fix it. What would you do to agree on the next steps?
On some teams, the most senior person on the team gets to make the decision.
On other teams, no decision is made until the entire team agrees on next steps.
How does your team make decisions on what to do next?
If you don’t immediately know the answer to that question, consider this: There are eight different decision making models, ranging from autocratic (in which one person decides) to consensus (in which everyone has to agree).
Another way to make a decision is via consent. In consent-based decision making, the group agrees to make a decision once a “good enough” solution is found. Instead of waiting for the best path forward, you wait until no major objections remain, and then commit.
One way to put consent-based decision making into practice is to “Follow The Energy”. I first learned of this technique from retrospective expert Diana Larsen.
Here’s how it works.
- List out all potential action items your team is considering.
- Ask your team to judge the relative impact of each action item (in the picture below, we are using t-shirt sizes).
- Ask your team to judge the relative effort it would take to complete each action item.
- Finally, and most importantly, ask everyone on the team to put a dot next to the action item they personally have the energy to work on.
Whichever action item has the most “energy votes” is the most likely to actually be worked on. Even if some people would prefer a different action item, they consent to work on the one with the most energy.
5. Focus On One Thing At A Time
Let’s face it, change is hard. Even small changes. How many times have you told yourself, “I’ll get a head start on writing my monthly report!” and then scramble to meet the deadline when the 31st of the month seems to creep up on you?
That’s because you, like the rest of us, are naturally resistant to change. Breaking these bad habits of procrastination are easier said than done.
When we’re in a Continuous Improvement Meeting, many of us make it worse by trying to fix too much at a time. We talk about the top 5 or 10 problems we’re facing, come up with potential solutions to each, and call it day.
It’s no wonder then that nothing changes after a meeting is over!
So instead of having surface-level conversations across many problems, have a deep conversation on a single problem. Really spend time analyzing the root causes of the issue, for example using the 5 Whys Technique.
The 5 Whys Technique helps you understand the underlying causes of the issue at hand by having you ask ‘why’ five times.
Here’s an example in action:
Question 1: Why was the report submitted late?
Answer: Because there weren’t enough people to pitch in
Question 2: Why weren’t there enough people?
Answer: Because the company staff has a high churn. People quit faster than they can hire
Question 3: Why is there a high churn?
Answer: Because the company lacks a strong culture
Question 4: Why does the company lack culture?
Answer: Because there isn’t a team or person assigned to fostering it
Question 5: Why isn’t there anyone assigned to fostering culture?
Answer: The core team never prioritized it
By using 5 Whys, you can connect the dots between a late project and poor company culture.
Of course there is no guarantee that 5 is the magic number of times to ask “why”, so feel free to stop the exercise once you arrive at the root cause.
Then, and only then, start coming up with potential achievable fixes that your team can immediately work on.
By limiting the scope of the conversation, you decrease your Work In Progress (WIP), thereby increasing the odds you will actually follow-through on what you committed to changing.
Now Start Improving!
No team is perfect, and frankly, perfection shouldn’t even be your goal. Stopping to run regular meetings that focus on continuous improvement is the first step to reducing the odds your team will make the same mistakes again and again.
So don't dread that next meeting but instead encourage it and watch your team succeed, together.
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