Success Subversion

It's yet another weekly management meeting. Everyone shows up, sits down and takes turns reporting progress on assigned projects. At first glance this looks like a great way to ensure accountability for performance, but it could be sabotaging your company's future success.

How can this be? Surely something as simple as meeting to track performance is basic MBA 101 on how to run a company, right? Well, some CEOs disagree. By challenging the assumption about these types of meetings, they've found something remarkable - competitive advantage.

It's not that tracking performance is wrong, but there are other ways to issue status reports on projects more efficiently.

E-mail, intranets and oldfashioned paper can allow data to be absorbed more quickly than verbal presentations at meetings. Why not use the invaluable time spent in management meetings doing the thing we always wish we had more time for - solving problems?

This sounds great, except for one snag - we don't like revealing problems! We'd rather reveal our "great performance." We worry that divulging our problems could make us look weak or incompetent, or diminish our brilliance in the eyes of those who could promote us. Even worse, the more paranoid among us fear it could make them targets for retaliation or manipulation.

Of course there are organizations where these could be real fears, but cultures like these have deeper problems than ineffective use of management meetings. For the rest of us, using meetings to share and solve problems versus displaying our great performances may offer a better opportunity to improve performance.

Examples of organizational successes using this methodology are out there if you search. For example, a story in the Dec./Jan. issue of Fast Company describes how one manager at the Toyota Georgetown plant used his time in management meetings to demonstrate his good performance on projects he was assigned until plant manager Fujio Cho (now the chairman of Toyota worldwide) said to him, "We all know you are a good manager, otherwise we would not have hired you. But please talk to us about your problems so we can all work on them together." Of course, the rest is history now that Toyota has surpassed GM in sales supremacy. Could it be that Toyota's meetings were different from GM's?

Focus Meetings on Problems

Meetings that focus on problem-solving versus reporting on good performance seems to offer companies key benefits such as:

  • More efficient use of time. Time is scarce. Companies that use face-toface time for problem-solving take advantage of the power of human dialogue instead of wasting it on monologues. They create solutions and address decisions on the issues that matter. Project status reports are important but this one-way data can be transferred using other more efficient means. Time is money. Where do you want to spend it?
  • Higher motivation. Solving problems generates more positive energy than status reports do. Celebrate and acknowledge good performance, but do it in moremeaningful ways than selfproclamation in short slots of meeting agendas. When a strong staff is free to expose real issues and work on them it pulls the team together.
  • Profits: It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how Toyota got to the top. Organizations that continuously seek improvements by finding and resolving problems succeed in any market. Tolerating a culture that avoids facing challenges in order to "look good" or satisfy personal interests can lead to failures. This has toppled the largest of companies.

Make It Happen

Shifting your company's culture to embrace problem-solving meetings can be tough. It takes more than an email announcement or a speech. Here are some ideas:

  1. Assess management meetings to determine if they really are necessary. If not, distribute information from those meetings using other methods.
  2. If the meeting is important, shift the agenda from focusing on performance accolades to sharing and solving problems.
  3. Challenge those who say they don't have problems. Are they playing hard enough? Are they holding their cards too close to the vest?
  4. Notice the level of defensiveness in the culture. Are people coachable? Can they disclose issues easily? Can they take feedback professionally rather than personally?
  5. Start leading by example. Share your problems first! This idea can be difficult, but it shows you are serious, and it allows you to start challenging the group. Start asking questions like:
    • "Even though we are performing well, what's not working or can be improved in your department?"
    • "What is your greatest personal challenge or concern we should be talking about today?"
    • "Where in your area are you having the most problems?"

None of this means that project performance status shouldn't be on the agenda. A few accolades can be appropriate, but surfacing and focusing on problems and projects that are offcourse so that the group can work together on resolving them is critical for sustaining competitive advantage and profits.

Is this something that everyone is ready for? No. It requires a strong, confident staff. Only solid teams thrive in an open and supporting culture. On the other hand, weak teams don't have the courage to disclose their issues and accept help. But then, if that's the case, perhaps they have another problem.

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