Driving Impactful Workplace Strategy Conversations
A chat with Jim Ware, author of ‘Making Meetings Matter’

by Diane Coles Levine — July 2016 — When managing a workplace transformation, FMs are placed in an awkward role.  They are not part of the C-Suite, yet, at the same time, they manage the second largest budget in the company next to Human Resources.  To effectively lead workplace change, FMs must work regularly with the C-Suite, HR, IT, Finance, Marketing, etc. and hold strategic and tactical conversations with these groups along with outside vendors (e.g., architects, brokers, contractors, furniture suppliers).   Changing workspace is not easy.  It requires engaging and aligning all these stakeholders, facilitating impactful conversations to determine the future state, and executing on that vision.  But how can FMs lead and/or support these conversations and help senior executives make sound workplace decisions when they are not an integral part of the executive team?   I asked James Ware, PhD, workplace futurist and author of Making Meetings Matter for his opinions.  This article is the outcome of our interview.

Q: How can FMs design impactful workplace strategy conversations with the C-Suite?

Jim Ware: The first basic principle is to be very intentional about the conversation.  Be clear about your purpose and understand what kind of outcome you are looking for from the conversation.  Are you seeking a decision? Are you looking for a commitment of funds? Or, are you asking for people to be assigned to a project?

Second, be clear about who you want to participate in the meeting.  In other words, who needs to be there?  This is usually pretty obvious but not always.  There may be people affected by the decisions who are not part of the decision-making process. But you’ll have a much better chance of getting your objectives met if the people who are going to be affected can be included in the conversation and have a chance to be heard.

Third, think through the process.  Be sure that you send out an agenda with a statement of the purpose of the meeting.  And don’t try to get to the end point too quickly.  We tend to want to avoid conflict and close down on a solution or decision before anyone is ready for it.

Most people have a low tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity; it can be highly stressful to experience a gap between where the group is and where someone wants or needs it to be.   However, the more widely you search for an answer, the more likely you are to discover (or invent) an effective solution.

It is useful to think of problem solving in two phases: first a wide, divergent search for ideas that might be useful, without any attempt to solve the problem; and then a second, convergent phase that focuses on selecting the best solution from among all the ideas that were discovered early on.  When you think about the agenda, think about the two major parts of the flow from beginning to the end from a wide search for ideas for solutions and then a selection.

Search and selection are two different ways of operating and most people try to converge on a solution too quickly.   The more diverse the contributors are, the more likely you’re going to come up with something truly new and innovative.  (Author note: See chapter 4, p.95, of Making Meetings Matter for more information on divergence and convergence)

Q: How can FMs engage HR and IT leaders in their workplace strategy project meetings?

Jim Ware: It is really important to recognize that different people filter information differently.  They have their own goals, objectives and functional responsibilities that they are trying to meet.  It’s also important to acknowledge that people have different points of view and to be respectful of that.

This is the basic part of the mindset you need to have for a good meeting.  The first thing to do is to find the largest common denominator, not the lowest.  What are the goals that will get people on the same page?  What are we all trying to accomplish?  Look for mutually beneficial solutions and then recognize those differing points of view as variations on a theme.  Find a way of stating a goal that everybody wants to achieve.  When we think of HR, IT and Facilities, it’s clear that it’s the end-user experience that matters.  It’s the productivity, employee satisfaction, engagement and morale of the people using the facilities and the technology that makes a difference.  That is your largest common denominator that can bring everyone to a common solution.

Q: Where would you see the ideal place for a workplace strategic meeting? 

Jim Ware: A strategy meeting works best when not taking place in a formal executive conference room setting, but rather in what I describe in the book as a project war room or a neutral site.  An executive conference room tends to create a hierarchical mindset, and there’s a sense of executive pressure and expectations.  You want a strategy meeting to be more interactive and innovative.  In general, strategy meetings are more effective when they take place offsite.  A big, open informal space where there is an expectation of neutrality, equality, and collaboration is ideal.  People are more apt to feel like equals, be creative and think outside the box.

Q: In your book, you mention six different meeting design methodologies.  Which do you think is the best for strategic workplace conversations?

Jim Ware: I think some combination of “Scenario Planning” and “Future Search” are the best methodologies for developing a workplace strategy.  If the company is in the beginning stages of planning a move in the context of the larger business strategy, a “Future Search” is particularly effective.  Future search is a structured way of embracing the future vision and then figuring out what it takes to get there.  To me strategy without thinking about what it takes to get there isn’t particularly meaningful.

Q: Can you explain the four principles of “Future Search”?

Jim Ware:  Future Search is a comprehensive approach to developing a strategic vision and building both consensus and commitment to make the vision a reality.  The four principles are:

  1. Get all stakeholders in the same room (engage the whole system)
    • Get all the facts and opinions out in the open so everyone can see the “whole elephant.”
  2. Explore the whole “elephant” before trying to fix any part
    • Reach a common or shared understanding of the whole elephant-the broad issue or challenge the group is facing. This includes both a history of “how we got here” and “why things are the way they are.”
  3. Focus on the future and on common ground, not on problems or conflicts
    • Focus on the big picture and the views that everyone can agree with. Broadly stated, the visions of where the group can go, or wants to go, can unite the participants and build emotional energy for moving forward and taking action.
  4. Encourage self-management and personal responsibility
    • Empower small groups and then the group as a whole to share leadership, develop and enforce norms for acceptable behaviors, document and report on their own ideas and decisions, and ensure that everyone has been heard and is valued for their contribution.

Q: What are the skills needed to facilitate a strategic “future search” workplace conversation?

Jim Ware: I would advise FMs to hire a professional facilitator to help them do this.  When it’s done well, there’s a lot of thought and preparation completed before the actual meeting because the issues are going to be different from one situation to another.  The skills you need are classic facilitation skills like:

  • Being more concerned about the process rather than about the outcome. A facilitator shouldn’t go into a meeting with an expectation that a specific outcome is going to happen.  Rather, they should be guiding people toward consensus.
  • Listening and being able to respond in the moment particularly to emotional and cognitive content is really critical. If people are positive and excited that’s great.  But, if you start getting some intense conflict, the facilitator has to know how to step in and sort that out.
  • Being able to bring the conversation to some kind of closure
  • Orchestrating the process, not the specific content
  • Paying attention and watching non-verbal behaviors to sense when people are pulling back and bringing out quiet people
  • Knowing how to ask open-ended questions that encourage further exploration rather than shutting down the conversation
  • Being able to repeat and summarize what you hear from people as a way of confirming they’ve been heard and that you are hearing their ideas correctly.
  • Sensing where the group is and where it’s going and trying to make the emerging consensus explicit. Stating the consensus that’s implicit in the room and making it explicit so people can agree or disagree with it.

Q: What is an “Organizational Jam?”

Jim WareOrganizations have experimented with various kinds of “jam sessions” – intense, open meetings or workshops where large groups of employees (and sometimes non-employees as well) come together for a day or more to tackle a “wicked problem.” The goal is not just to brainstorm ideas but to actually produce solutions.  A “jam” is an organization-wide conversation that draws on the talents and experiences of literally thousands of people through the use of online networks and special-purpose software.  It is essentially a very large-scale online collaborative conversation-a conversation in the same sense that Facebook posts and Twitter exchanges and email threads are conversations.  It’s essentially the digital equivalent of a public forum, a Facebook stream of comments, or a LinkedIn threaded discussion-but on a much larger scale.

Q: Do you see “Organizational Jams” as helpful in workplace planning and managing the employee experience?

Jim Ware: I think they can be, although I’m not aware of any instance where a jam has been used for workplace strategy.  My sense is that making an organizational jam work well takes a lot more planning and behind the scenes effort than most people understand.  It’s not just throw a question out to the world and see what you get.  It’s got to be a structured process with sequences of questions that you throw out, collect the responses, boil them down and pass tentative conclusions back to people for their response.  It’s an iterative process.

I think it would be a fascinating way to poll the employees at large.  It’s almost like starting with a workplace satisfaction survey but then iterating toward what really matters to employees.  You’ve got to be careful that you’re not implying commitment to change just because employees want something changed.  It’s not that simple.

Q: What words of wisdom do you have for FMs in driving workplace conversations with senior executives?

Jim Ware: Be very clear anytime you are talking to a senior business leader that what you are concerned about or responsible for supports their needs.  Ask yourself how you can make them look good?  It’s always coming back to linking what you are proposing or responsible for to the self-interest of the executive.

Summary

Meetings are more complex than we think they are, and they are key to success in a workplace transformation.   Professional meeting facilitator skills are critical in engaging and aligning the C-Suite and all stakeholders in creating and implementing a workplace strategy.   While there are many different facilitation methodologies like “Scenario Planning” and “Future Search”, whichever is chosen, the important point that Jim Ware makes is to include both the strategy and the tactics for execution during your meetings.   In our busy work day, we often take meeting planning for granted.  But well-crafted meetings can make a huge difference when driving workplace change.  Having a shared perspective among all stakeholders ensures everyone is on the same page in the beginning of your move project and ultimately saves costs, increases engagement and employee retention.  That’s why Jim Ware’s new book “Making Meetings Matter” is a valuable and comprehensive resource for FMs to understand how to drive better workplace conversations.  The book can be purchased on amazon.com at http://amzn.to/1QVsVMM.

WORKPLACE MANAGEMENT SOLUTIONS (WMS) is a global strategic management consulting firm that leverages a company’s move or redesign to transform the workplace into an environment that is engaging, productive, sustainable and economical.  WMS helps companies think in new and creative ways by eliciting the best from all players involved in a move or redesign (e.g., HR, IT, Real Estate, Facilities. Sustainability, Architects, Real Estate Brokers, Furniture Suppliers).  WMS uses analytics to drive decision-making at all phases of the move and also helps employees rally behind change.