Leading Online: Challenging and Changing Meeting Structures
By: Stephen J. Valentine and Dr. Reshan Richards
We’ve all been in a meeting that could have been handled through email. And we’ve all been part of an email chain that, due to its complexity, really should have been handled face-to-face. In both cases, whoever was leading the interaction could have done better.
Our leaders serve us best when they think about our time and our talents — how to save the former and give us the greatest opportunity to share the latter. Meetings often have the opposite effect; executed poorly, organized around the wrong set of tasks, or calling together the wrong group, meetings can waste time and reduce opportunities for people to share their talents.
We want to be especially critical of face-to-face meetings, since they cause the most disruption in people’s schedules, which means the most disruption in people’s ability to design their own best productivity patterns. If you’re going to ask people to take time out of their day to meet face-to-face, you should at the very least ask yourself if a traditional meeting, where people haul their laptops and themselves into a closed space, is the best use of everyone’s time.
We propose two ways to move away from face-to-face meetings: one is a rather idealistic rethinking of meetings and the other is a disruption of existing meeting patterns.
Rethinking the Ideal
If totally free from the typical meeting conventions, Online Leaders only arrange a meeting if they have thought first about the intended outcome of the meeting and determined that they cannot arrive at that outcome on their own.
Thinking towards meetings, Online Leaders define the tasks needed to reach their intended outcome. What will we need to do to reach the outcome? And how?
Next, they think about the available talents of the people in their community and in their extended network. An Online Leader might use his or her extended network to solve a problem rather than turning to a more established team within arm’s reach. They ask: Who can help me solve this problem? Who needs to be part of this problem-solving (or problem-framing) process? What team should I build around this issue?
Last, Online Leaders figure out the best way to meet. They embody Bob Johansen’s dictum: “The best leaders will get extremely skilled in choosing which medium — including in-person meetings — is good for what.”
But we’re not there yet, especially in schools. Due to the nature of school calendars, meetings often need to be scheduled months in advance. Faced with a long march of previously scheduled meetings, Online Leaders think about disruption in the name of time and talent.
Disrupting the Real
Do we need to meet face-to-face? Is there a way we could accomplish the same tasks without being in the same room at the same time? Is there a way, in fact, that not meeting in the traditional way could actually enhance the outcome of the “meeting”?
The Online Leader is committed to figuring out the best way to access people’s best work at a time in their day when they are most capable of producing that work. The interconnectedness of our computing devices means that meetings can happen asynchronously, matching up with people’s ideal work rhythms, aligning talents with tasks.
If Joe is a morning person, he can contribute to a shared document at 5 a.m.
If Jenny wants to both share information and seek input on it, she can create a Google Doc, share it, and ask people to add comments in the margins.
If a discussion is not progressing as it should in a face-to-face meeting, why not cut off the meeting and ask people to contribute to the discussion in a wiki-style space?
Facing a time-sensitive situation and having trouble getting all the key players in a room? Consider using Google Hangouts or asking someone to phone in.
None of these modes are intrinsically good or bad. More important is understanding what is gained and what is missing from each mode when making a decision about what type of meeting to organize.
If you plan to experiment with alternative meeting formats, first call your team together (yes, face-to-face) and explain what you will try and why.
Acknowledge up front that your online meeting might go awry. Explain that you are committed to moving some of your meetings online out of respect for their time and talent, and that you want them to become adept at participating in such meetings so that such meetings become another tool for the team to rely on as they seek to do meaningful work together.
Explain, too, that you expect them to participate vigorously, to be as curious and committed and engaged as ever. Replacing a face-to-face meeting with an online meeting grants people autonomy to do the work at a time that suits them, not to avoid the work altogether.
Be sure people know what they need to know about the technology. You might have to invest some time on training. In schools, we are often so busy that we can’t even think about upfront costs to make something easier six months from now. An online leader invests early to save late.
Finally, don’t go overboard; don’t replace all your face-to-face meetings all at once. People can feel disconnected if they don’t sit in the same room with their teams, so develop hybrid modes. If you can cut short some of your face-to-face meetings by digitally lengthening them, you will serve people’s needs (for time and balance) as well as their talents (they don’t have to perform on the spot always), and you will allow work to grow and iterate and mature for as long as possible.
Ultimately, establishing a questioning stance — Should we meet face to face or not? Will an online meeting actually enhance the work we are doing? — should improve your face-to-face meetings. Continue to call face-to-face meetings, sure. Just make sure you’re trading everyone’s time and attention for something truly worthwhile.
Stephen J. Valentine and Dr. Reshan Richards are the co-authors of Leading Online: Leading the Learning, Leading by Learning. Steve serves as Assistant Head of Upper School and Director of Academic Leadership at Montclair Kimberley Academy. He blogs at www.refreshingwednesday.com, is the coordinating editor of the Klingenstein Center’s Klingbrief and the author of Everything but Teaching (Corwin, 2009). Reshan is the Director of Educational Technology and a Middle School Math Teacher at Montclair Kimberley Academy. He blogs at www.constructivisttoolkit.com and is the creator of the Explain Everything app. He has an Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University, an Ed.M from Harvard University, and a B.A. from Columbia University.
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