Organisational Change meetings – Part One: Forming the working group

In my last post I gave a quick overview of organisational change, and a significant component of the process is meetings.  I have found there are a number of types of meetings or phases that occur during this process.  In this post I will talk about getting the group to form so they can work together productively.  Often this takes place over a single meeting, but can take longer for larger groups or more complex or sensitive topics.

The first meeting is where you’re getting together this group of people for the first time.  It may be that many of the people already know each other, but unless all (or almost all) have worked together in harmony recently, the first step in the process is for the people to get comfortable with each other.  This fits well with the first 3 steps in Tuckman’s Group Development Model  which follows the steps: forming; storming; norming; and performing.  Tuckman suggests that groups form – where afterwards the people consider themselves part of a group, storm – where they test the other members to determine who holds the power in the group, and norm – where the group members define and conform to the accepted behaviours of the group.
In my experience the forming / storming / norming takes a certain amount of time and will continue to happen for some time after you get the group actually working on real material, but will mean that the first meeting will be very unproductive in terms of getting “real work” done, because people aren’t yet comfortable with each other and are reluctant to contribute openly.  They will, however, likely be open to listening and perhaps criticising things they dislike or disgree with.

A format I have had success with for the first meeting is:

  • Have everyone introduce themselves to the group, starting with yourself
  • As the chair of the meeting, provide an overview of what the meeting is about, how it will be run (ie, the agenda) and what you’re hoping to achieve by the end of the session
  • Give a high-level overview of the information you have gathered about the problem space
  • Get each person to comment on the information provided – saying what they agree with, what might be incorrect from their point of view, and to perhaps elaborate on how the issue looks from their perspective
  • To wrap up the session it is useful to thank everyone for their contributions, quickly sum up any progress, and give an overview of when the next meeting is and what you hope to cover in it

Depending on how large, complex, or sensitive the problem space is, this first phase of getting to know each other and the problem space could take more than one session.  This is a very important stage to get right, and although the temptation may be strong to skip ahead to the parts where “progress is being made”, time spent here is a very worthwhile investment.

The primary purpose of this phase is to create trust between the members of the group, and (as much as possible) a shared understanding of the problem from all the relevant perspectives.  The less time spent creating these the more the process is open to people back-tracking, closing up or becoming hostile later.

Danger signs during this phase:

1. Members of the group not participating, holding back information, or resisting being part of the group.

Some people will hold back because they want to hold onto information which they believe gives them power, want to saboutage the change process, are afraid of change, or a combination of these or other factors.

During these first meetings pay attention to how often each person speaks, the level of openness in what they say, and their body language.

Dealing with people who are behaving in this way depends on several factors.  If you haven’t already met 1:1 with all the group members beforehand then you should meet with each of these people individually as soon as possible.  Ask them about their views on the subject at hand, what concerns they may have with the approach you have taken and who you have included in the working group, and what they might be able to get out of the sessions if everyone works together openly for a mutually beneficial outcome.  The emphasis in these conversations is to only ask enough questions to get the person to start talking – normally once you get someone to open up they’ll share their concerns with you and you can address them.  Often simply by listening and being sympathetic to someone’s concerns they feel safer and will be open to the process.

2. Talking about the change process instead of the material.

Some people will want to talk about how the organisational change effort should be run instead of participating in it.  This isn’t inherantly bad as it is normal to expect that people will want to understand how they are going to be working together, but the risk is that the session will get sidelined and too much time in the session will be taken up discussing this and not the material.  I would suggest a short discussion on this is healthy, and if it does occur try to get everyone to agree to try your approach and then get back to addressing the material.  There are a number of potential motivations behind this but they boil down to three basic motivations, the person wants to help, the person is nervous and is deflecting away from the material, or the person wants to actively saboutage the effort. Regardless of the motivation, if the issue takes up too much time, speak to the person 1:1 and try to address their concerns (as described in the previous point).

3. The conversation taking place at varying levels of abstraction, often simultaneously, with no progress being made or the conversation going in circles.

As an example, the conversation may talk about principles, and then ramifications and then specific details, then back to principles again.  This is very common as most people find it hard to talk about undefined problem spaces without the level of detail already established.

The way to address this is to set a level for the group and then only waver from that level if the conversation demands it, and then make it clear to the group what level the current conversation is taking place at.  The written material you provide will often do this as people will normally discuss what materials are provided for the session.  You may find it useful to  discuss principles and then once they’re agreed then start talking about something at a lower level of detail (eg, operating models) and then go into the detail from there.  There is often a need to go from operating model level to real-world examples and back up again as this is a form of validating the model by applying it to reality and seeing if it makes sense, but if the conversation wanders too much or you see that people are becoming confused then you may want to intervene.  If you need to intervene one approach can be to ask the group how they think the conversation should be approached – this can often reveal peoples opinions on the topic or other hidden motivations, such as lessons from failed previous improvement attempts.

There are many other patterns that can occur, but I have found these to be the most common in my experience.

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