The COVID crisis has shattered many assumptions about how we can work and be productive. Leaders’ fears about the effectiveness of working from home have, in most cases, been proven unfounded. Many are finding themselves far more productive than ever, rattling through tasks and attending short, sharp, focused video and telephone conference calls.
But leaders and individuals should be aware of the lustre of productivity hiding what is being lost. Rather than uniformly celebrating the minutes and hours saved by not commuting, chatting in the corridor or around the fringes of meetings, we need to be aware of the value of that ‘wasted’ time.
Too much conversation for action, tightly focused on agenda points or action lists, squeezes out critical conversations for possibility. If time and latitude are not given to freeform exploratory conversations, then we could well be creating a curiosity deficit that will harm growth and innovation down the line.
We can all think of instances when a brief conversation, grabbed in a lobby or as meeting guests assemble, has sparked and idea, kindled curiosity and led to an entirely new direction. It takes many sparks to light the fires of innovation that drive transformation. Smooth, productive, online meetings lack the rough edges where enough of those sparks can be struck. As participants log seamlessly in and out, they miss the casual banter and off-topic chat that nurtures curiosity. Dead space between remote meetings is now more often than not only snippets of time, enough time to clear a few emails, which is wonderfully productive, but we’ve lost transition time. Commutes, international travel, popping out to buy lunch, moving between meeting rooms on office campuses were all opportunities to think, randomly chat or reach out to people.
Leaders need to act to model and encourage these conversations for possibility in the current online environment. It’s hard, and their natural inclination may be to forge on, instil action-orientated cultures and deliver results – all of which is important. But they must also recognise that new ideas, possibilities and breakthroughs all start in conversations that need time and space to grow. Now more than ever, it is important that they are proactive in creating not only the time to think, but the spaces in which conversations for possibility can spark.
It is almost impossible to schedule time to be creative, or to arrange meetings to be innovative, the human brain just does not work like that. But leaders need to dial into the needs of teams and understand where individuals derive their energy and inspiration. For some, it could be as simple as allowing ‘off-agenda’ chat to develop at times during meetings, or deliberately adding some extra time at the start of end of a meeting. ‘Pointless’ meetings with no agenda can serve to create platforms for teams to share thoughts or ideas naturally. Others may welcome permission to spend time ‘off-task’ simply thinking and tapping into inner sources of energy and creativity.
At a minimum leaders should consider three approaches to cultivating conversations for possibility in online meetings.
Most importantly, leaders need to be conscious of the ideas they build and reinforce in people’s heads. If teams perceive that meetings are only for agenda and action-orientated conversation, they will close down their own curiosity and interest in thinking beyond the business as usual. This will lead not only to innovation deficits but to erosion of morale and commitment to wider visions.
Finally, a sensitivity to the limitations of technology is also required. Today’s video call and meeting technologies have made remote working a far more effective proposition. But many find it harder to interject than they would in real-life engagements, and meetings can easily become broadcasts or bilateral conversations. It can be harder for ideas to bounce between people as they do in vibrant real-world meetings. Leaders need to take more care than ever to fully include and encourage participation from everyone.
As and when the current pandemic fades and people have the opportunity to return to the office and more ‘normal’ meetings, leaders will face new choices. The lure of productivity gains may encourage them to over emphasise the value of remote and online working.
But either way, leaders should not underestimate the value of the pointless meeting, whether virtual or in-person, in fostering conversations for possibility that may drive the next wave of innovation and growth in your organisation.
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