Switching to lean meetings, and “strong opinions, weakly held”

I am intentionally mixing two metaphors, two meanings for the word “lean.”

The first is to simply note the idea of walking meetings: typically one-on-one meetings where the participants agree to walk instead of sit, which helps to make us more lean. This is basically a health-oriented adaptation, like getting a standing desk. (I think of Nilofer Merchant’s line, “sitting is the new cigarettes.”)

My personal situation — working in a home office in Beacon NY — means that most of my “meetings” are done my phone or Skype or Hangouts. I am going to experiment with some of those being walking meetings too, where I let my counterparts know that I will be walking during the meeting, and they can do so too. I wonder how that will be received. I think I will limit this experiment to one-on-one meetings, at least to begin with, or analyst briefings where I am one of a dozen or more analysts on the line.

The second use of lean meetings is derived from the ideas of lean manufacturing, development, and organization. Many people use the term “lean meetings”, but in many different ways.

  • For some it means short and sweet, like a daily 10 minute standing meeting.
  • For others it means an open meeting, where the agenda is open, and anything can be discussed, for as long as necessary.
  • For others it means an extremely directed meeting, intended to ratify a decision that has already been pushed to consensus by earlier side meetings.

We have to distinguish between working sessions and meetings. If I sit down with two colleagues and we work together to hammer out a user scenario for a product, that isn’t a “meeting”, that is a working session. My feeling is that as we shift toward cooperative work, more of our time together becomes “working together’ and less is involved in “meetings” dominated by discussion intended to inch toward consensus or share status updates.

I will share a few thoughts on making meetings lean in the emergent business:

  • Eliminate all group meetings that involve status updates. Rely on task management or work media tools instead, and perhaps, a weekly mechanism for reporting, like 15five (see Feedback, coaching, and deliberate practice in a busy world, although I think it needs to be tweaked to be less hierarchical, as they have suggested they are working on).
  • In my experience regularly scheduled meetings have a tendency to expand. Better to make meetings situational: caused by a specific issue. As a rule of thumb, meetings don’t need an agenda, they need a focus.
  • Several tight and focused meetings are better than one longer meeting shifting from topic to topic, even in the rare case when the same people need to be involved in all topics. In Kaizen, there is a great effort expended on building one-on-one consensus in side conversations, so that the meeting to ratify is very short. Avoid inviting people not essential to the meeting: there are better ways to catch people up on progress made.
  • Schedule less time than you think the meeting will take, and push out any side discussions to be handled one-on-one. Break on time even if you aren’t “finished”.
  • Use the same tools in the meeting that you use everyday for tracking work plans and progress. I recently mentioned Zynchro (see Zyncro is a very innovative and powerful work media tool), a task management tool that includes a click box on every task “to be covered in the next meeting”, making it simple to pull tasks together for review in a meeting.

Lastly, less is more. Approach the work with the goal of remaining connected with other you are working with, but with a bias toward action, and the ethos of “strong opinions, weakly held”, as attributed by Bob Sutton to Bob Johansson and Paul Saffo, both formerly of the Institute for the Future. He also is the father of the variant “fight like you are right, listen like you are wrong.”

A couple years [sic] ago, I was talking the Institute [For The Future]’s Bob Johansen about wisdom, and he explained that – to deal with an uncertain future and still move forward – they advise people to have “strong opinions, which are weakly held.”  They’ve been giving this advice for years, and I understand that it was first developed by Institute Director Paul Saffo.  Bob explained that weak opinions are problematic because people aren’t inspired to develop the best arguments possible for them, or to put forth the energy required to test them. Bob explained that it was just as important, however, to not be too attached to what you believe because, otherwise, it undermines your ability to “see” and “hear” evidence that clashes with your opinions. This is what psychologists sometimes call the problem of “confirmation bias.”

In the context of meetings, offer your opinion, but be willing to follow the opinion of others if the issue falls into their area of expertise, or if they have an interesting new take on an old issue. In a world based on weak ties, we have to be weakly tied to our own opinions, as well.

[Update: Sunday 26 May 2013 — Several folks asked me about the place for “fat meetings”: longer format meetings, meetings with longer agendas, with larger groups of people. There is still a place for fat meetings. Not all meetings need to be as short and small as possible. For example, you might hold a regular quarterly companywide meeting to celebrate wins, or to share general news. Or a product team might hold a post launch meeting after every new major release. Some of this is ritual, a part of company culture building, and some of it is informational. But we should keep clear in our heads what we are trying to accomplish. Having an open-ended brainstorming session with three members of a development team is not really a meeting, it is a kind of work, as opposed to an opportunity to review status, ratify or make decisions, or otherwise discuss or plan work activities. I don’t think of “working together” as “meetings” but if you do want to call them meetings, they are fat meetings.]