how can I make our team meetings more collaborative?

A reader writes:

I manage a department of 20 people, who are devided in smaller teams of two to three people each. Each small team is in charge of exactly the same tasks but for a different geographical area. Some of the challenges they face on a daily basis are part of bigger issues that concern the wider team, so communication between them is really essential.

I try my best at recruiting people who are team players and enjoy sharing information and like to see the bigger picture. I also have monthly meetings with the whole department where each team explains what they are working on, problems they have if they need some help, etc. My hope was that this would invite an open discution and information and ideas would flow between them.

But during these meetings, no discussions arise. Each team presents their part, everyone nods, the next team presents their part, everyone nods, and you get the picture. I have also tried organizing workshops and discussing this in smaller teams, but nothing seems to work. Do you have suggestions for how to get a large team of people to openly discuss ideas, challenge each other, and all in all get a better synergy between everyone?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 54 comments… read them below }

  1. kiwidg1*

    My #1 suggestion is to get them out of their smaller teams occasionally. If you can cross people over into other teams, even for short periods, it helps them understand the similarities and differences of a team and helps them create connections with the other teams.

    When those connections are made, they’re more likely to want to go ask someone on another team how they handled XYZ, and thus collaboration is born.

    1. Quinalla*

      Yes, this is hugely helpful in getting people to collaborate outside their typical small team. It is something I always encourage my mentees to take advantage of when cross department (or whatever applies at your company) groups are forming up. Even if the group may not seem like a big deal, those connections you form with others on the team are very valuable.

      I like Alison’s suggestions on how to completely overhaul the current meeting and evaluate if it is something that is even needed and other ways to encourage collaboration.

  2. Anononon*

    I think good moderation and facilitation of these discussions are key, especially when there is a history of zero actual discussion. The OP needs to be vocal in these discussions in what she’s looking for. Also, like Alison said, the OP may just need to accept that these meetings just aren’t as useful as she thinks they should be.

    1. Not A Girl Boss*

      Right, and actually asking the questions you want answered is important until people get better at ad-libbing.

      It feels like this meeting would really benefit from doing some data trending. Make some buckets, have people report when they have an issue in each of those buckets, then look for trends that span the entire department. Then the meeting can be more structured “if you look at this trend slide, the number of times we have to re-send information has doubled this month. Anyone have any idea why that might be?” is actually way more useful than listening to 10 teams give individual status reports (yawn).

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        Right, and actually asking the questions you want answered is important until people get better at ad-libbing.

        This right here. (And I also liked Alison’s suggestion of doing group problem-solving on a mutual issue versus commenting/critiquing each team’s top items.)

        What stood out to me in the letter was that there was a proscribed format for the meeting that everyone is dutifully following and participating in, but that’s not what the boss actually wants. I find the best way to get people to do what you want is to specifically tell them what that is – it’s not a 100% method, but it’s a fair sight better than doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Small group and workshop meetings aren’t going to help if you don’t state what you want and set the meeting up to get there.

        I think it’s important, too, to figure out what problem you’re trying to solve by collaborating (i.e., regions 3 and 5 have seen an increase in llama shearing jobs, while llama shearing is way down in region 2 and flat in regions 2 and 4 – what the successful regions doing that have increased their business and is that repeatable in other regions?). If you’re not collaborating for a reason, it’s just another management buzzword.

  3. Look Over There*

    Once again going deep hiding for this one… I love my boss’ staff meetings (ok love is a strong word, but I’m not kidding they work and are productive!). Here’s the format for anyone who is struggling with the dreaded round robin of doom!

    Everyone updates a ppt deck with their 3 top things that they or their team (as appropriate) is focused on for that week ahead of the meeting. At the beginning of the meeting there is a round-robin but you only have 2min or less to expand on your top 3. At any point anyone on the meeting can ask that a topic from someone’s top 3 can be put on the agenda for additional discussion. Then there are a few standing items that are discussed/updated on, again very short.

    And then last the agenda items requested are discussed in more depth. This format helps because it lends itself towards discussion about things that the whole team needs to know about (or most of the team) If it’s something that affects only 1-2 people then they are encouraged to speak outside of the meeting and the format works well for calling out “Hey Fergus, I didn’t know that you were working on that. I’ll call you this week because I have some ideas that might help” instead of Fergus and Jane wasting the time of 8 other people with a topic only relevant themselves.

    It’s a great format for teams that have similar focus and goals but have individual responsibilities.

    1. Not A Girl Boss*

      We have done a similar meeting style, where the status is updated so anyone who cares can go look at it… but in the meeting, you are only allowed to discuss “brags and blockers” – so if things are just plain going to plan, you skip your turn.
      We also avoid discussing the actual solution to blockers in the meeting – just say “hey Sue, I need to get with you about the Smith project, its behind because we haven’t received their contract back yet” or whatever.

      1. Look Over There*

        That’s similar to what ends up happening in my meetings. The round robin is super short, think 10-15 ‘top 3′ finished in about 5-7 minutes.

        Wakeen: My top 3 this week will be performance appraisals, working on the green teapot project, and the release of the new bat mobile design

        Fergus: My 3 are performance appraisals, the quality project, and I’m working a shortage of yellow paper

        Jane: Hey Fergus can you call me later about the paper I need to know if that affects my binder project which is #1 on my list followed by performance appraisals, and finishing up the TPA report that’s due next week. Just a reminder I need everyone’s TPA inputs by noon tomorrow, thx.

        Boss: Good reminder Jane, is anyone going to have a problem getting their information to Jane tomorrow?

        Lucy: Oh hai everyone… I’ve got the finals coming up in the llama competition, I’ve hit a roadblock in my pinecone release, and I was going to report a problem I’ve been working on the origami project but that may be related to Fergus’ yellow paper shortage – Can we put that on the agenda, it sounds like more of us may be affected by this

  4. Archaeopteryx*

    It sounds to me like the difference is between wanting some vague idea of collaboration as a good thing philosophically, versus actually having a need that collaboration would fulfill. If you want your teams to interact more but I can’t point to what or why or what’s happening when they don’t, it may not be necessary.

    1. tiasp*

      Or perhaps they are doing it as they need to one on one. That’s what I’d be doing if I had a specific issue and I wouldn’t necessarily bring it up at a group meeting if it didn’t involve everyone.

    2. allathian*

      Yes, this. I really liked Alison’s answer to this question. These meetings may be completely unnecessary and collaboration for collaboration’s sake is awful, if the team members are self-motivated individual workers who don’t need to collaborate to actually get their day-to-day work done.

      Our team meetings usually start with our manager making an announcement or two about our next few weeks’ schedule and some more strategic things on her plate, then we have a quick round-robin because we work independently but sometimes need to collaborate or at the very least to share information.

      Twice a year we have team development days where we brainstorm to improve our processes, etc.

  5. Alex*

    I see my own department so much in this question. My boss seems to think that having a “productive” team meeting is the most important thing, as though it legitimizes us as a department.

    Let me share what *does not* work: Forcing people to contribute to an agenda and putting people on the spot for thinking of something to talk about. This is how my boss wants it to go–she wants an explicit list of things, written down, with checkmarks and bullet points.

    At the beginning of the pandemic, our agenda-forcing ways fell away and we started having more unstructured meetings. These were SO MUCH MORE productive. I think the reason was because people didn’t have to figure out whether or not an issue was “worth” being put on the agenda–we just talked naturally about work and stuff came up that might not have otherwise.

    Unfortunately, my boss very much wanted to go back to the forced agenda checklist type meetings, and so we have, and our meetings are back to being totally useless.

    1. Lavender Menace*

      I think the format, and whether it’s productive, really depends on the team and the individual members. While I don’t think anything rigid and forced is productive, as an introvert unstructured meetings strike fear into my heart. If someone asks for agenda items ahead of time that everyone can contribute to, that gives me time to think a bit and add some things to the list that I can then plan how I want to address/bring up if I am leading that area. The unstructured “let’s just throw things out there” types of meetings, IMO, tend to privilege folks who are good at thinking on their feet and don’t mind speaking up in meetings without having time to think ahead of time. Usually if someone asks for on the spot items we’ve already moved on by the time I’ve thought about what I want to say.

      1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

        I know what you mean, but when it comes to introversion, there can be a difference between being good at thinking on your feet versus finding it easy to get/take the floor to speak. The latter is something that can be dealt with through better moderation, regardless of a meeting’s structure.

        For example, I’m an introvert, but I like unstructured brainstorming meetings in settings where I know I don’t have to work too hard to get heard. I know what I want to say, and I don’t need it to be fully thought-out, but my problem is that I struggle to get the floor in larger groups. Having agenda items ahead of time doesn’t really help things all that much – sure, it means I get to serve but I can easily find myself struggling to get back into the fray of discussion. It’s a classic introvert problem that isn’t addressed all that well without active moderation – the effectiveness of any format can be too easily derailed by people who hold court and crowd others out, and a moderator can make space for for members who struggle to make space for themselves.

        1. allathian*

          I’m introverted in the sense that social contacts drain rather than energize me, but when I get going I also take a lot of space in our team meetings, to the point that the person who’s running the meeting occasionally tells me to tone it down. I also don’t hesitate to speak up in our town hall meetings, with up to 150 attendees. But I prefer structured meetings, because they ensure that those who aren’t as willing to speak up get their voices heard and that allows me to feel less guilty about taking up so much space. I’ve been working on this, though, and recently it hasn’t been as much of an issue. The other day after a meeting a coworker even asked me on IM if I was OK, because I’d been so quiet. I think I talked more than she did at that meeting, but I guess she’s just used to me talking even more than I did that time. I just told her that I’ve been working on listening more and talking less during our meetings and that was that.

      2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        Yes! This is apparently an introvert thing according to Susan McCain in Quiet. Extroverts don’t mind thinking out loud and sometimes (like my partner) have to do so in order to know what they think. I prefer to keep quiet until I’m done thinking, then if it’s not too late, I’ll share my conclusion, not necessarily all the dead ends my thoughts may have gone down before I came to that conclusion.

  6. Indie*

    Coming from software development, I would say to look at some of the techniques that have been successful for the past 10 years. Scrum and Kanban are the most popular. By the way they are structured communication happens organically. My first reaction was that once a month is too spaced out, the individual teams are forced to prepare these reports and just wait for their turn to speak. A weekly will be much more likely to surface immediate issues. Also, from a culture perspective, encouraging people to go outside of their “bubble” to seek help, putting in place some channel of communication for everyone in the group (internal wiki, slack channel, yammer,…) should also generate discussions, just not in the format above.

    1. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

      I agree. If you need to solve problems in a 2 or 3 week time frame, a monthly meeting isn’t useful.

    2. ThePear8*

      I came down here to the comments thinking of Scrum! We used it when I worked on a smaller team, but I still use a form of agile on my current team. I think by having short daily stand ups and weekly meetings where we can simply bring up any issues/questions/ideas or cool things, it is much more useful than if we just had one big long meeting once a month.

  7. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    My department has this exact type of round the room (virtually now) update on what we’re working on. I loath it. We are also (due to COVID) supposed to submit a weekly written summary of what we are working. So it’s redundant. The worst is that the grand boss acts like our live updates are new information, so obviously she isn’t reading the weekly written summary; and then, the next virtual meeting, when I update on almost the same projects I’m working on, she acts again like it’s new information, making these meetings a sisyphean punishment. If the grand boss came into the meeting with a specific task/problem that we all can provide input in (rather than 2 people who might have insight while the rest of us witness them), that might make it more productive.

  8. Trout 'Waver*

    Round-robin meetings are the worst for status updates. Have one team present each month, with a forecast, major clients, issues, and lessons learned. Lead and facilitate that discussion. Or if one team makes an advance that you want other teams to copy, have the meeting be explicitly about that. Reward the team and have them present their ideas and then lead a discussion on how to help the other teams implement the solution.

    Also, if you want to encourage collaboration: If someone comes to you with an issue that another team has worked on or solved, redirect them. Instead of going into trouble-shooting mode as the boss, say something like, “Our colleagues in Kyrgyzstan worked on that issue last quarter and I think they have a solution we could piggy-back off. Let’s go talk to them.”

  9. Dust Bunny*

    I feel like I’ve seen similar letters before, either here or on an other advice site, and I always wonder what the LW expects. A Hollywood-style hash session where the underdogs come up with a brilliant solution that saves the day?

    If the problems your teams are facing are part of a bigger picture, they may not feel that trying to handle them at the team level is going to achieve anything. If they’re not in a position to change the underlying issue, why meet and gab about it?

    So, do what Allison suggests, but also be realistic about what you think your teams are going to get out of this and if they’re actually in a position to fix it.

  10. Not For Academics*

    Easy answer, your choice:

    a) stop having pointless meetings
    b) make them have a point for the attendees, not just you

    1. irene adler*

      Thank you!

      If meeting after meeting, attendees just say their piece and then sit there, it’s a meeting that is not providing value for them.
      Maybe ask the attendees on how-or if- they value group collaboration. Or find out what they would value in terms of group activity.

      Maybe the best for this group is small (2-4 people) meetings with each other in an informal format as they go about their day.

  11. Chickaletta*

    I recently dealt with a similar problem where a group of about 20 people who were supposed to be making decisions and sharing ideas , but were just providing status updates. What we did to fix that was to make their reports about future events, not past events. We went from “tell us what you’re working on” to “talk about what is coming up in the next 1-6 months”. That alone created more discussion because when people hear someone else’s upcoming project, they started to think about how it might affect their area. “Have you alterted IT?” “We should really communicate that to X group of people”, “Let’s get feedback from blah blah blah before we make any decisions on that”. The end result was a robust, meaningful conversation instead of boring updates.

    1. Sparrow*

      This is what worked best in my last office, as well. You talked either about what was currently causing you challenges or things that you were starting to plan for the future. However, we had a pretty good sense of how our work might relate to the work of the others present and often had specific things we wanted to run past them. If OP is currently the only one positioned to really see where the teams’ work overlaps or identify spots where they could help each other troubleshoot, she’s going to have to actively facilitate the conversation and ask those questions herself.

      OP might also talk to the employees one-on-one and get their thoughts on the meeting and what would/would not be helpful for them. It might also be that there is some utility to the round-robin reporting, but that it’s happening far too often. I attend a reporting meeting comprised of representatives of the various units in our organization, and most of the meeting is just explaining what we’re currently working on. I personally do find it quite useful because our day-to-day work isn’t directly connected and I am otherwise in the dark about what’s happening elsewhere in the org. But – critically – this is once a month, max, and it’s not a high-priority meeting. If you can’t make it or you find it a waste of your time and don’t want to attend, no one cares.

    2. not really a professor*

      This sounds like a much better meeting, but 20+ people still sounds like a lot for that level of planning/updates, unless the meeting is quarterly.

  12. Xavier Desmond*

    My thought is that meetings are too big for this sort of discussion. It would be better to have meetings with 2 or 3 teams at a time rather than all at once.

  13. Nesprin*

    The biggest thing I’d suggest is active moderation of less than 8 good faith contributors. You’ll never have a discussion in a room with more than 8 people, or 4-6 on zoom, just because there isn’t enough time for everyone to be heard and considered. Likewise, moderation is essential- rands in repose has a great post on “meeting creatures” for further details. Lastly, some people are not good discussion participants: they’re too busy and will waltz in 2/3 of they way thru, or not interested in the task at hand. I’m currently struggling with not wanting to discuss my work with a coworker who likes to take good ideas.

    1. Quinalla*

      Seconding this, discussions on zoom are really difficult without active moderation and yes even in person can be challenging when the group gets into 8-10 people.

  14. Coalea*

    It’s not exactly the same situation, but at my company different teams do the same kind of work but for different clients. When a team does a new project type for the first time, they will create a folder on our shared server that other teams can use if they are called upon to do the same type of project. The folder might include contact details for vendors, documentation that needs to be completed, PPT templates, example timelines, etc. Something like this might be a nice complement to Alison’s suggestion of meetings focused on specific challenges. For example, if one team is having trouble organizing a Llama Grooming Convention, another team that has held such a convention in a different geographic region could walk the entire group through the process and then provide everyone with a link to the helpful files.

  15. Jennifer Juniper*

    Maybe everyone just wants to get back to work and spend as little time as possible sitting around in meetings. A meeting where someone says their piece, everyone else listens quietly, and then the next person speaks, everyone listens quietly, etc. would be perfect to me. That way, things actually end on time and people aren’t stuck half the day listening to some windbag bloviate about nothing.

  16. Daffy Duck*

    If you want to foster communication between individuals in your department delivering reports are not the way to do it (Ugg! Feels like homework from middle school.). My boss has us do a weekly meeting – boss or manager runs down the status of the current/incomming projects (client X is slow so don’t have stuff for you yet – expect a rush when they finally get it together, Y is going smoothly, Z has been wrapped up). Quick rollcall on how things are going (e.g., project all fine and on schedule, I will be out Weds for a dental appt). Then the manager ask us “Is there anything I can do too support you?” Please note he is not asking if we have questions, but what he can do to help us get our jobs done more efficiently. Most of the time everything is good, but occasionally we have a question about task priority, or ask if anyone else had issues with X not coming thru, etc. These meeting are usually less than 15 minutes, no stress, and when we are done it is over. I think 7 minutes was our fastest.
    If you want your team to socialize/be friendly set up some Slack channels for the business. The department can have one for just for their work issues/announcements, but have a social one also for folks to post their cat pics, brag on kids graduating, etc.

  17. SheLooksFamiliar*

    OP, it is rare for people to really get into meetings, no matter how many team players you have: participation in them requires prep time many folks do not have, and even meetings that aren’t round-robins can be viewed as a time suck.

    I’m glad you want your team to find value in your meetings, and to be an active part of resolution, etc. – but I think you’re expecting too much from your meetings. Problem resolution is best kept to small groups of true SMEs or people directly involved in delivering results, etc. Larger, departmental meetings like you describe are best for announcing and explaining the outcome of those smaller sessions. You can still take questions and suggestions from the group, but it’s more manageable.

  18. TootsNYC*

    I wanted to do this so badly at a publishing house I once worked at.
    There were copyediting teams in several different publications, and I wanted to start an exchange program, where someone from each team rotated from publication to publication.

    My idea was that we’d have a chance to cross-pollinate things like knowledge of computer shortcuts, different procedures, new terminology, etc. Sort of a self-training exercise. We never really got to do it.

    1. Quinalla*

      We’ve starting a rotation program at my engineering firm that sounds similar. People used to doing a lot of design in X, can try Y for awhile with a different team of people. Was really great for surfacing old problems that everyone on the team was stepping around or for new ideas and also building connections between teams.

  19. MuiryFromCoderville*

    Echoing many others, I think you’re having too many meetings about it. I would suggest that you designate a person on each team to track the issues you say you’re hearing about, and save and report them to you in a standard way. Then, when you have identified an issue several teams are having, have a specific, short meeting to go over the specifics – what it looks like, why it’s a problem, how it’s been solved in the past, how to share info about it, etc.

    Asking everyone to talk about such a generic topic will result in no one talking. Target your meetings more thoughtfully and be very clear and explicit in your mind and with staff about how you expect people to contribute.

  20. Random Commenter*

    What are you hoping to achieve with these meetings?

    Are multiple teams having similar problems, but they aren’t aware of it so they spend time looking for solutions that already exist?
    It doesn’t sound like this group is going to start discussions organically, so perhaps should you be more direct. You can bring up challenges or solutions that individual teams have encountered instead of waiting for them to do it.

    That being said, if the teams are running smoothly, is this forum for communication actually needed?

  21. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

    You need to make this type of communication something that happens as part of the normal way of working and not a monthly thing that may not sync with their workflow or delivery cycle.

    As the manager, how often are you meeting with these teams? If you saw them weekly, you’d be able pick up on common issues and direct Bob from City A to speak to Ronel from City B because she’s also having problems with the Llama Grooming marketing pack. When a 3rd team shows up with the same problem, you tell them to set up a meeting specifically for that issue. You may need to be a bit more hands on until the culture of collaboration develops.

    You could also try something like Slack where you can set up specific channels for common types of issues. So you might have a channel for training, a channel for documentation, etc. And make it clear that you expect people to use those channels. When someone brings up a problem with the Llama Dancing training course, tell them to put it on Slack.

    I would also think about the impact of productivity that you’re seeing as a result of people not collaborating. Firstly, if there’s no impact, maybe you’re trying to solve problem that doesn’t exist. But I’m guessing that having 4 or 5 teams all solving the same problem in their own way is going to create issues. How are you measuring productivity? Do your staff KPIs incentivise them to collaborate? Are you making it clear that collaborative problem solving is a requirement?

  22. anone*

    These aren’t a panacea and can absolutely be implemented in short-sighted/flawed ways (if you treat them like a one-size-fits-all tool and aren’t thoughtful about some of the things that other folks are raising), but they are a useful source of inspiration on how to gather and discuss differently than the traditional meeting formats we’re all habituated to: If you’re committed to cultivating and supporting a different work culture with more collaboration, these can be really helpful structured ways to introduce that.

    1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      +1. If not Liberating Structures, then some of the tools from Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making or bits and pieces of design thinking-influenced facilitation strategies can be so, so helpful. We used some of these strategies in a team where we had some long-standing problems with someone who would either dominate meetings or become extremely disengaged when other people were contributing. Structured collaboration tools were helpful because they provided a model for that person to contribute without taking up more than their fair share of space, which probably wouldn’t have come naturally to them.

  23. hbc*

    I see two major changes you could make, which could help independently but would probably be better together:

    1) Share what you’re hoping to achieve. Not just “better communication” because that’s not really a goal unto itself, but “I once spent hours coming up with a new process X only to find out that another group had done better option Y.
    I’d like to catch those things before we spend hours reinventing the wheel.” Or tell them that you want everyone to get a chance to hear and comment about new ideas as if they’d become stuck with them tomorrow, because you want more consistency across groups. Or whatever is supposed to come out of all that communication and discussion. They might not even get that they’re supposed to chime in, even if “Any questions?” is explicitly included.

    2) Put it out to the team to figure out how best to achieve it. Ask them what would get more ideas flowing–shorter meetings more often, smaller groups for discussion, anonymous surveys on the topics, narrower focus, more advanced notice on what the discussion is about, virtual whiteboards/channels, etc.. You can tell them that something *will* change unless the whole group falls down on its knees and praises this as the Best Meeting Ever Created, so they might as well come up with something they think could make things better and not worse.

  24. Brett*

    We have exactly this same problem. 6+ teams of 2-6 people each, who are not sharing practices and solutions well enough.
    We have experimented with many practices over years to try to get that type of meeting, and have found four that work, which are all very similar to AAM’s advice:
    1) Cancel the meeting when you are busy. When you are too busy, people cannot focus on a meeting like this and end up doing other work, or just don’t show up. If that it the case, cancel or move the meeting to later.
    2) Let the the teams drive the meeting. We rotate between the teams on who sets the agenda and run the meeting. This vested interest helps get people engaged, but having the teams write the agendas made a clearer focus on what concerned them.
    3) Use representatives, not whole teams. Have 1-2 people to represent the team (with teams this small, I would say 1 person), not entire teams. The exception _might_ be when the team is running the meeting.
    4) If the meeting is not working, get rid of it. You can replace it later (ideally when work is slower).

  25. The Original Stellaaaaa*

    So the people are in teams, and they’re also expected to also substantially work with the people in other teams? IMO that’s counterproductive to the ways most people are conditioned to operate within a team. Of course you raise bigger issues in collective meetings, but it sounds like OP wants the team members to proactively provide the type of information that really should be collected by a supervisor. You can’t silo people into distinct teams while also expecting collective interaction – you do generally have to pick one or the other, unless you want to find room in your budget for a supervisor or manager who can do the work that these team members aren’t able to zero in on. Like…the work of managing and coordinating the teams is being pushed onto the teams and OP is wondering why it’s not working. There’s a whole level of management that’s missing.

  26. Jennifer*

    People are busy and don’t want to be the one that asks the question that makes the meeting go another 30 minutes. People are also nervous to speak up sometimes in a huge meeting. Alison’s suggestion of giving people a few days to prepare is a good one. Let go of the huge department-wide meetings meet with the smaller teams, when needed. Don’t just meet because “this is the day we meet” but because you actually have something to discuss.

  27. Darcy*

    20 people in a meeting is WAY TOO MANY people. People are not going to be collaborative in that size of a group. No one wants to be the person whose idea gets shot down by 19 people.

    I love Jeff Bezos’ rule on meeting size: no meeting should be so large that two pizzas can’t feed the whole group. In my group of primarily men, that means 8 people in the room maximum, perhaps even six.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      I was thinking this about the request to have them challenge each other – who wants to be the challenger or challengee in a meeting that big? Of people that it sounds like they may know well only from these meetings and perhaps not broader team projects? You have to have trust and confidence to challenge someone point/idea/method (as well as be able to do it tactfully).

  28. not really a professor*

    So I think there are a couple of things that could help here. One is defining a sharper business objective beyond “collaboration” — ideally, what do you want to happen as a result of this meeting? And is a meeting the best way to achieve that?

    The other is stronger prep. You really have to approach an interactive meeting like a class discussion. Say you decide to keep the general idea, break the team up into smaller groups, and have one group present a challenge they’re facing for discussion every week. You need to make sure you’ve talked with the presenting group about their issue to make sure it’s going to lead to a productive conversation (rather than something you want to coach them through 1:1) and you need to think about follow-up questions, etc.

    This is kind of a lot of work — which goes back to my first point: make sure that a productive discussion/collaboration really is the best way to achieve this kind of business objective.

  29. Not Bob*

    In my experience, meetings that are larger than 8 at the absolute most (but usually 5 at most) rarely result in discussion. Maybe you get a few of the louder and/or more senior folks to talk a bit, but most people aren’t likely to add or receive value from larger meetings.

    Personally I like the idea of directing team leads to talk with each other when they might have useful advice, but a meeting between just team leads could potentially be useful? I’d be careful with this though. Talk with the team and the various leads and ask what they think might be useful, and be ready to hear that they’re totally not sure, but that this large meeting is not useful.

  30. B*

    If your meeting is not productive then it shouldn’t be happening. People are spending ALL DAY ON ZOOMS. Give them a break.

    I just got off of five hours of zooms. I don’t know when I’m supposed to do the work that I’m supposed to discuss on all my zooms. This has to be a pretty common feeling these days.

  31. Formerly Ella Vader*

    I wonder if there are any disincentives to collaborating that the bosses aren’t noticing.

  32. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

    Here’s my hot take: the way we get to better collaboration is to be a bit less polite.

    What I mean is that we allow meetings to become inefficient because we don’t encourage or enforce efficient communication with some team members, so they just blather on and dominate the conversation. Of course we want everyone to feel comfortable contributing, but in my experience, having the same people crowd out collaboration and dominate meetings shuts things down for everyone else over time.

    Let’s start coaching people to avoid brain dumping and prioritize considering what their audience needs to know. Encourage a back-and-forth flow, rather than having people talk at each other (which, unfortunately, is the opposite of how update meetings tend to work). And really, we need managers to grow a pair and actively moderate meetings, even if it feels rude.

  33. Overeducated*

    We had to just cut all the status updates. Every time I’ve been in a group where every team gave status updates, even if they were supposed to be short, the meetings wound up being devoted to management updates, staff updates, and management feedback. There just wasn’t enough time for discussion and collaboration in 1-1.5 hours when you get beyond the 2-3 person teams.

    Our current model is that staff meeting is for issues that impact all teams, not just one. So we start with management updates (e.g. HR and policy stuff that impacts everyone), and then have an agenda of issues and questions that may have come up for one team but require a broader solution for the sake of efficiency, consistency, etc. – the “big picture” thinking OP is talking about. We only have real discussion when we make time for it. This requires the boss and staff stopping in small team discussions and saying “hey, this is a staff meeting question, put it on the agenda” at other times of the week, and it requires active facilitation during the meeting to use time well.

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