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Patrick Lencioni, a consultant and author of a series of best-selling business books, including Death by Meeting, has always been leery of virtual meetings. And after having been involved in a virtual team for the past three years, he realized they are worse than he thought.

"When given a choice, avoid virtual teams," he writes on his blog. "If there is a reasonable way to organize your work to get team members in the same location, do it."

He helped to start a faith-based organization with some "beloved" colleagues outside of California, where he lives. He chose the term beloved to describe them as he feels they are among the most virtuous, kind and gracious human beings he has known.

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It was a small organization with just two locations and an idealistic mission. But in the midst of some pressure, small cracks in their unified effort emerged – misinterpretations and miscommunications.

"When we finally got together and put the issues on the table, we realized that everything was attributable to not having regular, daily, face-to-face interactions," he writes. "So we decided that we would work harder to use technology to stay in closer contact, and that we wouldn't jump to any conclusions about one another if we ever found ourselves at cross-purposes. And then it happened again.

"If we were experiencing that kind of pain in our relatively simple situation, what must it be like to work in a larger organization with multiple offices spread around the country or the world?"

That led to his suggestion to avoid getting into virtual teams in the first place. If you cannot avoid them, sit down as a group and acknowledge the inevitability of miscommunication, unintentional politics and painfully inaccurate behavioural attributions. Be a little paranoid about small misunderstandings that arise, not letting them get out of hand.

"Virtual teams need to commit to spending face-to-face time together, as much and as often as possible, and to using that time wisely. That means working hard to build vulnerability-based trust with one another, and learning how to engage in passionate conflict and debate around decision-making," Mr.Lencioni says. "Remember, it's hard enough for people who work in the same office every day and who look each other in the face during meetings to do this well. People who don't have that luxury are going to have to be much more intentional about getting to know one another and practicing healthy conflict."

As well, make sure your conference calls are disciplined. Promise one another that you will not check e-mail, play video games, mute the phone or have side conversations with co-workers during meetings. Be present and willing to engage in difficult discussions. If somebody seems to be falling short of these guidelines, the group must be willing to call that individual out.

"The truth is virtual teams can work. But they often don't. That's not because the people on the team have bad intentions or are taking advantage of fact that they aren't together. It's almost always because they underestimate and fail to take seriously the challenge they face," he says.

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Mr. Lencioni says if you're not on a virtual team, take full advantage of it. Being located in the same place as your colleagues is a big competitive advantage. But that doesn't mean your meetings won't have problems. To help build better meetings, consultant Art Petty suggests:

  • Respect Monday mornings: Set the right tone for the week by not meeting first thing, even if the tradition or instinct favours that. “No one knows what’s going on yet. Last week is far away in the rear-view mirror, and it takes time for everyone to find their bearings in the new week. If you must connect on Monday, place the session later in the afternoon,” he writes on his blog.
  • Don’t make the meeting about you: Yes, it’s handy to gather your staff to educate you on what’s going on. But it’s wasteful. Meet with them one-on-one.
  • Remember nobody cares what everyone else is doing: That’s an exaggeration, of course, but nobody enjoys the meeting format where the sole purpose is for everyone to share everything they have been doing. Mr. Petty labels those painful sessions “Round-the-Table Meeting Death March.”
  • Stand: If you need status updates from everyone, have a brief stand-up session in which everyone gets no more than two minutes to indicate their progress on key priorities as well as challenges and obstacles.
  • The “so-what” test: If you hold regular activity reviews, create a common template for team members to use when preparing their updates. Tell them everything on the agenda must pass the “so-what?” test.
  • Location, location, location: Change venues when you can. “Just a change of scenery can boost the energy of the team for a recurring meeting,” he says.

Innovation expert Greg Satell on his blog takes a more philosophical approach, building on the book One Mission by Chris Fussell, noting that we live in a far more complex environment than in the past that requires a high degree of collaboration. That means the role for meeting these days is to enable networks rather than serve as an extension of hierarchies.

Building a marketing plan, for example, used to be fairly straightforward, requiring contacting suppliers for rates, working out the most cost-effective options and ordering. The time was spent on making the calculations and negotiations, usually by phone. The work was more cognitive than social.

These days because there are a dizzying array of options, marketing plans are exponentially more complex. You need to collaborate. So the work has become more social than cognitive – and in all fields, not just marketing.

Another shift has been from hierarchies to networks. Sticking with marketing, in the past the plan would have been formulated at the vice-president level and everyone below would execute according to the dictates. A weekly update meeting would have sufficed for management to monitor progress.

"Today, however, there can be dozens of teams working on a single marketing plan and each one needs to co-ordinate not only with suppliers, but internal teams such as technology, strategy, sales and e-commerce. Clearly, a single meeting will no longer suffice because we need to be not only vertical aligned according to the hierarchy, but also horizontally aligned across the network," he observes.

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Mr. Satell points to the Operations and Intelligence forum (O&I) used by the U.S. military that Mr. Fussell described to combat terrorism in Iraq as an interesting model, since its purpose was to ensure maximum communication over a diverse set of people. The meeting is not run by the highest-ranking officer but by a meeting co-ordinator and has five-minute updates designed to inform, not impress. Thousands would tune into the daily meetings, including a wide array of partner agencies as well as military officers and front-line soldiers.

So stop complaining about meetings. These days they are essential. Make them a competitive advantage by building collaboration and doing them right.

Quick hits

  • Entrepreneur Krish Chopra recommends working Monday nights after dinner on report writing or individual project work, propelling your week with a significant win on Day 1.
  • Elite female tennis players are less likely to choke under pressure than elite male players, research on scores and players for over 1,000 matches played at the four Grand Slam events in 2010. Men were adversely effected by pressure twice as often as women. Applying this to the world of work, the researchers suggest it casts doubt on the argument that the gender pay gap is due to women’s inability to compete under pressure.
  • Develop a leadership pledge – a solid promise to yourself on how you want to work with others – and repeat it daily, as many American schoolchildren do with the Pledge of Allegiance, says consultant Kevin Eikenberry. Create it over time, answering questions such as: what do I believe about people, why do I want to lead, how do I want to contribute, what are my deepest-held values and how do I want others to describe me as a leader?
  • Speaking of pledges, U.S. President Donald Trump, in his rambling talk to Boy Scouts, praised their commitment to loyalty – “we could use some more loyalty, I will tell you that.” But former Scout and Cubmaster Scott Eblin, an executive consultant, says the President missed 10 other points of the Boy Scout Law, important values for leadership today: helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, reverent.
  • Websites need a direct, one-click link to the home page since most users arrive on an interior page, Hoa Loranger, of the Nielsen Norman consultancy, advises. Using the logo for this purpose is not sufficient; include actual links called “home.”
Video: Talking Management: The role of the board when developing corporate strategy (Special to Globe and Mail Update)
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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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