Is Your Team Having Conversations, or Sitting Through Presentations?

people at a team meeting They may not have the wow factor of Guy Kawasaki evangelizing the heck out of Apple products on stage, but why should we be having conversations instead of giving presentations?

The Presentation Problem

We’ve all sat through dozens, if not hundreds, of presentations. That’s all well and good, but are we really getting the most out of a team if one person -the presenter- is treated like the fountain of all knowledge?

It’s easier to rally around one person’s ideas, so business leaders have traditionally been put on a pedestal. Brilliant public speakers too. Think a Guy Kawasaki, or Tony Robbins. The focus is on being magnetic, having a stage presence and, more often than not, selling a product or persona.

There is, of course, a time and a place for this, but if we want to learn from the work, and life, experience of others, there are better methods that have been proven to be more effective.

If we’re emulating people trying to have huge reach and mass appeal, like the Kawasaki’s and Robbins’ of the world, when our objective is communicating in a meeting with a small group, we may be missing the mark.

Focus On The Message

Of course it’s understandable that we want to show our best selves when we give a presentation. However, chasing that wow factor in our presentations can actually have the opposite effect, completely derailing their effectiveness and leaving us back at square one.

John Coleman, writing for HBR, has revealed the side effects of having “that tendency [in presentations] to want to save key findings for the last moment and then reveal them, expecting a satisfying moment of awe”. This is something he characterized as “the great unveil”. Withholding information to increase that wow factor, Coleman says, would actually lead to “one sided expositions” and “anemic conversations.”

Worst of all though, as Coleman puts it, they would “miss problems, or solutions that had already been tried and failed”, and if someone pointed these out to the presenters “in the middle of [the] presentation, [they’d] end up distracted and confused.” By focusing too much on giving a killer presentation they completely failed to get gain any value from the input of others. Their message inevitably fell on deaf ears.

But how do we make the message our main focus?

A “punchline first” form of communication, as Coleman calls it, can take us far. That means starting the presentation with an executive summary of key conclusions. Your counterparts can study them and keep them in mind throughout the presentation meaning everyone’s efforts will be aimed at testing these conclusions and finding solutions. No energy will be spent on taking up new ideas. Additionally, you’ll be opening the floor and making the most of group intelligence, which is, unsurprisingly, much more reliable than putting all of the burden on the presenter.

Have A Structured Conversation

“Inevitably, when I engage well with an audience, it feels much more like a two-way conversation. When I fail to engage, I realize I’ve fallen back into the presentation trap.”

George Bradt nailed it on the head in his Forbes article. There’s a way we can really drive home this idea of conversations over presentations and it doesn’t mean throwing your q cards out the window. Having a purposefully structured conversation can get everyone engaged on the topic and create an environment that is inclusive and collaborative.

You can do this in a number of ways. Firstly, disperse responsibility for key parts of the presentation. A good way to start is by assigning roles such as timekeeper and note taker, and most importantly, having a facilitator to run things. Doing this will start proceedings on the right foot and lead to an inclusive discussion instead of a static presentation.

We can also take Coleman’s “punchline first” approach even further by having required reading before meetings. Once again this will get everyone involved,

If we really want to get to the route of an issue, we also have to get rid of the notion that we somehow “own” the solution.

John Coleman’s team discovered this through trial and error:

“When we created a perfect solution in isolation and made it “ours” to present, we ignored the fact that each individual needed to arrive at the conclusions independently to really understand it, to believe in it, and to be willing to work hard to execute it.”

Conversations allow us to feel invested in each other’s stories instead of feeling like we’re being talked at or spoon-fed advice. Our meetings, and workshops, at Circles encourage conversation over presentation and storytelling over advice giving.

This reverses the focus. Kawasaki and Robbins are geniuses at having a mass reach and wide appeal, but depending on our situation, trying to copy that style is likely to have our focus in the wrong place. While they reach a huge amount of people, turning those presentations into conversations will let you be reached by a huge amount of people.

Seeking those different perspectives opens you up to a constant source of learning opportunities.

Why a Team Retreat Brings You More Than Just “Philosophical Wank”

Wait. What? Did he just say philosophical wank? Yes, exactly.

One of my colleagues, who we shall call Franko for now, came up with the term during one of our meetings. His decidedly British remark can be translated in any number of other ways; philosophical jargon, nonsense, patois, you name it. Our last team offsite was so fruitful, Franko had said, and we had to make sure our next one was going to be even better. The key was not to get sidetracked by the nonsense.

At Circles we work as a distributed team. It makes us understand the value of spending time together, and the fact that face time is essential for us to have a productive and successful team dynamic.

But what are the challenges virtual teams have to deal with? And how can face-to-face get-togethers help a team overcome those challenges? Here, I’ll discuss these questions, as well as offering up some of my own experience working as part of a virtual team at Circles.

1 – The challenges of working as a distributed/virtual team

The dynamics within a distributed or remote team are very surprisingly different when compared to a team that meets in an office on a daily basis. It’s hard to imagine until you’ve made the jump yourself. While having a remote team has many advantages, you will also be challenged to overcome the lack of proper communication that leads to decision making in a traditional office setting. More specifically, working around different time zones, dealing with different cultures and/or languages, and a lack of water cooler conversations are just a few more examples of things that can leave you feeling a little directionless when you first begin.

To overcome these challenges, we need to understand the importance of establishing trust and identity within a team, and solving the problems related to these factors, which are categorized as being technical and organizational (Kimble, 2011). Technical problems occur because, “relying solely on online communication tends to inhibit participation and the creation of trust and the sense of mutual responsibility that characterizes teamwork”. These problems can be solved by finding the right tools to support the needs of a virtual team. On the flipside, organizational problems are “fundamentally rooted in the ways in which people work and are managed”. These problems are solved by finding the right organizational fit or employee characteristics, culture and leadership.

As many authors have already discussed the solutions for overcoming these problems in detail, I’m not going to discuss all of them here. Instead, I will focus on one solution, regular face-to-face meetings for virtual teams, and will illustrate this using what we do at Circles as an example.

2 – The advantages of meeting face to face

So let’s assume you are part of a virtual team. You are using the right tools to facilitate proper communication, you have clear values and norms, great leadership, a good team atmosphere.. Basically a well functioning team without any problems. In this scenario, is it still necessary to meet face to face with your colleagues every once in awhile?  YES.

Here are some reasons from a trusted source..

Dr. Joseph Mercola (2005) has looked extensively at the underlying reasons why we should always have face-to-face meetings:

In-person meetings allow your brain to synchronize with others

Real life interaction triggers the inclusion of “multimodal sensory information”. This includes nonverbal cues (facial expressions, gestures, etc.) and ‘turn taking behaviors’, which play a large role in our social interactions and reflect the level at which a person is involved in any given interaction. It was found that only during face-to-face meetings, are these “neural synchronizations” established. In other words, a great part of the way we communicate is nonverbal, and though conferencing tech is coming on in leaps and bounds, video calls are still somewhat limited in transmitting the nuances of this type of communication from one side of the globe to the other.

Source & extra reading: Neural Synchronization during Face-to-Face Communication.

Face-to-face meetings work better when creativity is needed

Various studies have found a relationship between established trust within a team, and creative output. When feeling comfortable, team members are more likely to speak up, bring forward new ideas, or think and discuss outside-of-the-box ideas they would have feared having shot down otherwise. More in-person meetings leads to more trust, which subsequently leads to more creativity.

Google give a great example, cited by Newsweek’s Geoff Colvin (link below). The search giant invite employees to have free gourmet lunches at the company’s cafeterias. By doing this, Google is encouraging its employees to meet (new) colleagues, build trust, and stimulate creativity. They even measured the optimal queue waiting time for encouraging people to interact (it’s four minutes).

Source & extra reading: The creative power of meeting eyeball to eyeball

Source & extra reading: Measuring social capital in creative teams through sociometric sensors

So, physical proximity positively impacts collaboration, communication and decision making. The two factors mentioned above ensure team members feel part of their team, that they will help new hires ‘understand’ and clarify their position in the team. All of this boosts team morale and productivity while helping generate new ideas from within the team.

It’s great to know research is proving we need to keep seeing each other’s faces. But how often should we do so?

3 – Deciding on the right amount of face-to-face time

We’ve had a look at why it’s important to have face-to-face meetings when working in a virtual team. But what determines the right amount of f2f meetings? And what other team or company characteristics influence the necessity or frequency of face-to-face meetings?

Unfortunately there is not much research yet on this topic, so answering these questions with hard data is difficult. However, companies by their very nature are centers for diverse working dynamics, personality types and cultures. Different teams, as well as the people within these teams, will have different capacities for adapting to remote work. So, while some virtual teams will need no, or very little, face-to-face time, other teams will need to meet on a more frequent basis. There’s no real one size fits all solution. What we are dealing with is a wide-ranging spectrum. A team’s position on this spectrum can be determined by several factors, which I have identified as the following:

Stage of the company

When you are in the process of setting up a new venture it is important to build rapport with your colleagues, create a common goal, and set a clear strategy. So a team is likely to want to start off meeting in person more frequently at the beginning, before gradually decreasing this frequency over time.

Performance of the company & Clarity of tasks/roles: stability

When business is going well, when employees are clear about their roles and responsibilities or  when it’s possible to power through until the next big milestone (strategy update, acquisition, new market entry, etc.), organizing face-to-face meetings frequently might be unnecessary. However, if some employees are unclear about their role, or the chosen strategic path does not turn out to be as fruitful as was anticipated, a face-to-face meeting may be needed asap.

Interdependence

Additionally, the degree to which you depend on the work of your colleagues will have an impact on the importance and frequency of meeting face to face. Whereas some teams work in silos, and merely give weekly (or even monthly) updates about their work, other teams work closely together and collaborate on a frequent basis. When the output of a team’s work is not just a sum of its parts but a dynamic whole that involves learning and development as part of the process, having  face-to-face meetings more often is even more important.

Company culture & leadership style

As mentioned before, meeting face-to-face can enhance the establishment of trust among team members. As trust can be seen as an indirect outcome of company culture (hierarchical, flat, teal, etc.) and leadership style (strict, loose, etc.), which are often mediated by factors such as psychological safety, teams that lack a mutual sense of trust will clearly be in more need of frequent face-to-face meetings.

Location

Most obviously, location will also influence the frequency with which a team is able to meet in person. The amount of team members working from different locations as well as the distance that needs to be covered will have an impact.

Finally, it’s important to mention that most factors above are related to one another. For example, for a company that just started, the relative costs of getting the team together will be higher, so the location will play a bigger role in determining the frequency of face-to-face team meetings.

4 – How we do face-to-face time at Circles

Face-to-face at Circles

There’s a reason all of this is important to me, and it’s that I work as part of a virtual team. I used to be based in Barcelona and currently live in Santiago, Chile while most of our team at Circles is based in New York. So we’re part of this learning process. Face-to-face meetings have been a crucial part of my personal journey within the company.

I joined Circles a bit less than a year ago and was told from the beginning it was no ‘ordinary’ company. “We are a start up following the teal ideology and we value proactivity and openness”, René, one of the founding team members, told me during the interview process.

Fair enough, I thought. I knew a bit about Teal, the ideas intrigued me, and after I had a call with Dan, the owner of Circles, I decided to go for it.

Coming from a big multinational into a start up with a team of 7 was quite a change.

Although I started to understand working culture better day by day, I think it took me at least a month to feel comfortable in my role. By comfortable I mean that I  started to realize what was expected of me and began delivering on that expectation by fully understanding how I was supposed to go about doing this.

Still, my biggest challenge was finding my voice within the team. I think I experienced the typical struggles of a new hire in a remote team. You don’t ‘really know’ your colleagues, and they don’t ‘really know’ you, simply because you have never met in person. In a more traditional work setup the first step is meeting your colleagues, so that situation can certainly be isolating.

This all changed after my first team offsite, which was about 3 months after I started working at Circles. It was the first time I got to understand what the importance of face-to-face time is, and what it can do to team dynamics. It felt like it was the first time I was able to properly introduce myself, and this introduction was needed to gain the trust of my colleagues. This introduction did not only include a simple, “Hi, what’s up? How are you?”, but a weekend of fun and 2 days of hard work where they got to meet the real me.

After the offsite I felt more of a part of the team, I interacted more with my colleagues, was asked more often for input and could more easily ask someone else for a favor. I guess the neural synchronization (helped by a few Gin and Tonics) did its job…

The spectrum at Circles

All in all I think we currently found the right spot on that “face-to-face spectrum”. We’re a young company, so we’re still prone to geeking out on that “philosophical wank”. We’re still asking the big questions, but what we’ve really realized is that we need our team offsites and face-to-face time to help us make the important strategic decisions. The more we know each other, the better we work together. Ultimately, it’s essential to balance the benefit of increased work flexibility with a structure based around seeing each other on a regular basis.

Even though distance between team members makes it harder to get the entire team together often, Dan’s wish is to have an off site 6 times a year. Having that preset rhythm allows us to work in sprints wherein we all have a clearly defined set of tasks that need to be finished before the next offsite. In between off sites, we try to overcome the challenges of a virtual team like many others: communication tools, office hours, organizational norms… yep, we’ve been through it all.

With each offsite Circles is getting more effective (engaging less in philosophical wank and more in discussing actionable ideas). The next Circles offsite will be in a week. Time for some serious work, eyeballing & karaoke.

8 Signs You Just Had A Great Meeting

team What feeling do meetings transmit in your workplace? Sadly, when we ask a colleague how the day’s meeting went, we’re so often met with an apprehensive shrug or a sigh. Meetings just .. happen, right?

While we hope -for the sake of your sanity- you and your colleagues aren’t quite so jaded, the truth is that so many organizations are lacking an actual language for discussing how their meetings went. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about something we aren’t used to measuring in any discernible way.

According to a recent study carried out in the UK, we spend on average, a mind boggling 4 years of accumulated time throughout our careers in meetings. So it’s time we learn to communicate effectively what went well and what can be improved.

Here are a few tips to help you assess if you just had a great meeting rather than one that just … happened.

Were there clear outcomes?

It’s surprising how many times meetings end and people walk out unclear on what was actually achieved by said meeting. This kind of outcome is no outcome at all, and it can lead to meeting-dread within your organization.

Patrick Lencioni takes on the air of a Surgeon General describing a terrible disease when he writes about the effects of bad meetings in his book, Death by Meeting. They “generate real human suffering in the form of anger, lethargy, and cynicism”, he argues.

The way to ensure clear outcomes is by having a purpose for the meeting, facilitating it effectively and making sure there is a clearly set out agenda, all things we delve into below.

Did everyone get a word in…

As lead guide at Circles, Jonathan Hefter puts it, “you know you’ve had a good meeting when no one’s held back.” However, it can be tricky knowing when this is the case. Are cultural norms holding someone back? Maybe a Brit’s being too polite, an American too loud? Stereotypes aside, it’s difficult to know if everyone has said everything they wanted to.

While we can’t speak for someone in a meeting, what we can do is create a comfortable environment. See someone in the corner being particularly quiet? Could be because they’re using that time to think. They may have a brilliant idea, so ask them! In Circles online meetings we use a timer to allow everyone their turn to speak. Participants tell us it has really made them up their game when they know they’re going to be called on.

Without destroying momentum?

Everyone getting their say is great, but moderation is the key. There are important questions for the facilitator to think about at any given time. Why is the meeting grinding to a halt? Is it going off topic? Are people there who can’t add anything, causing them to nervously waffle for the sake of appearance (the bike-shed effect)?

Having a good facilitator is a key ingredient to a great meeting. They shouldn’t just be seen as someone who calls the shots. In fact, at times they could be there purely to facilitate, with no real stakes in the outcome of the meeting (aside from it being effective). What a facilitator needs, is the ability to step in if someone is going off topic. Also important is a deft hand at dispelling tension within a meeting, while also knowing when it’s useful to dive into head first (see below). A great meeting needs a great facilitator, someone who is a great handler of team dynamics.

Was there a healthy amount of conflict?

Many of the skills mentioned below are transferable with another profession, theatre. A movie or theatre director has to oversee a team and often deals with clashing personalities. In this vein, Patrick Lencioni says his cure for boring meetings is to allow drama to come to the fore. A facilitator should treat a meeting like they were overseeing the set of a Shakespeare adaptation. His suggestion is to replace “agendas and decorum with passion and conflict.” Doing so results in an atmosphere that compels people to get involved. It makes them feel part of a narrative that they can influence, rather than sitting there checking items off a list.

As Lencioni puts it, “the good news, [is that] there are plenty of issues at every meeting that have the potential for productive, relevant conflict.” The bad news? This style may not be for every team and can descend into chaos, much like the final act of a Shakespearean tragedy.

Was there a clear agenda?

Having an agenda doesn’t have to mean avoiding conflict. In fact, an agenda could be geared towards allowing time for airing tensions in a productive way. We use protocols to make sure meetings are carried out effectively and address important issues. Rather than just having objectives telling you what to address at any given time, protocols address the process itself giving the meeting clarity. Is something really holding part of the team back? Let’s pick it apart and really dig into the problem.

A great meeting is one where people feel safe bringing their tensions to the table. Our lead guide, Jonathan Hefter, who has facilitated his fair share of meetings, says you should “notice where the real tensions are, and welcome them.” It means you’ve created a space where people don’t feel they have to hold back. A purposeful agenda can allow a canny facilitator to do just that!

Did your meeting create other meetings?

It might sound diabolical. Coming out of a meeting to realize that, as a result of attending, you now have three more meetings on the agenda! But this is actually a sign that things went to plan. As Jonathan Hefter puts it, “don’t spend time on a money issue when it’s clearly more suited for the monthly finance meeting.”

Ian Fisher, who ran meetings as assistant editor at the New York Times for two years, used to employ a specific tactic when topics were brought up that were better suited to another meeting; he’d pretend he was a talk show host.  “I called myself Regis.” He explained to Fast Company. “Say what you want, but he knew when it was time to go to the commercial.”

Is the style a good fit for your company?

Some of the advice in this article is contradictory.

“Have a tightly knit and action packed agenda.”

“No, throw your agenda out the window and magic will happen!”

The fact is that a casual peruse through your social media timelines will instantly hit you with a barrage of contradictory information and advice, it’s enough to put anyone’s head into a spin! The only answer to this is in the real world and it’s called implementation. Try out agenda’s, try out no agenda’s. What gives your team the best results?

It ended on time

Much like a blog post, a meeting shouldn’t overstay its welcome. That means it’s gone off topic and people’s attention spans are waning. See this happening and it may be best to cut things short and leave the issue at hand for the next team meeting when people are coming in refreshed… so with that, I bid you farewell!

In a world of physical distance, circles facilitate authentic human connection.

In a circle, 3-12 participants contribute equally, share openly, and push each other to act.

We spent years with academics and practitioners, honing best practices and building a technology platform. Our circles have helped scale peer learning, sustain manager and leadership development, move live training online, onboard new employees, support career development, teach collaboration, and build community.

We’ve been grateful for the support and the referrals from our large corporate partners, schools, and communities who have been hiring us to help design, facilitate and manage Circles programs.

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