OpenWork Conversations: Jim Ware

Jim Ware has spent his career guiding companies as they explore the changing nature of work. OpenWork caught up with Jim to discuss workplace flexibility and his latest book, “Making Meetings Matter.”


OpenWork: How did you become interested in the world of effective, engaging workplaces?

Jim Ware: In about 2000, I was focused on employee attraction and retention, and I became convinced that, in order to attract and retain quality staff, organizations would have to offer more workplace flexibility and more self-control to well-educated knowledge workers. Opportunities to work from home and to operate more autonomously were among the “last frontier” of possibilities.

jim-ware-2OW: In your book “Making Meetings Matter,” you write that the way we lead meetings is out of alignment with 21st century organizational reality. In what ways are meetings out of alignment?

JW: In the digital age everyone is able to connect and communicate with just about everyone else at virtually no incremental cost. That means meetings that simply inform people of something are really unnecessary. In the 21st century meetings must be about genuine collaboration — using the opportunity for a group of people to create new ideas or new plans that they couldn’t produce incrementally. We need to learn to view meetings as opportunities to leverage the wisdom of the crowd, not as a platform for a lecture or a one-way diatribe.

OW: What are the key components to effective meetings, remote or in-person?

JW: I focus on four components, what I’ve called the P4+ model: Purpose, Participants, Process and Place. Plus Preparation – planning out the meeting before it starts.

• Purpose – clarity about why the meeting is being called.
• Participants – who should be in the meeting, and who does not need to be there.
• Process – the agenda, the pathway you follow to get to the desired outcomes.
• Place – Physical spaces send all kinds of signals that affect the tone and feeling of the meeting. And, if it is a remote meeting, these four Ps – and especially Preparation – are even more important.

I’ll add one other component: the skills (and the mindset) of the meeting leader. All four Ps are critical, but unless the leader knows how to formulate questions and respond to participants’ comments, the meeting will probably fall flat.

OW: In a recent blog post, you wrote about the role that meeting participants play. Can you share some tips for how participants can create effective meetings?

JW: Every participant in a meeting plays a critical role in its quality and outcomes. First off, don’t just sit back and expect the leader to do all the work. Embrace the purpose of the meeting, and do what you can to help get the conversation moving in the right direction. Listen carefully, and respond constructively and respectfully. Don’t dominate, unless you feel a personal need to persuade the other participants to adopt your point of view. Look for ways to support the leader and help ensure the conversation is open, balanced and has a constructive tone.

OW: What effects can more effective meetings have on a workplace?

JW: I believe the most important impact of effective meetings is on employee engagement and working relationships. When meetings go well, participants feel good about themselves and their colleagues, and that can roll over into the overall culture and morale of the larger organization.

One example that comes to mind is of a software development team that took it upon itself improve their regular meetings. As a group they confronted their lack of engagement, they pro-actively redefined their weekly meeting agenda, and they decided to cut their meetings down from 60 minutes to 30 minutes. They still got everything done that needed doing, and they felt so good about the time they were saving and the improved results they were getting that they spread the word to other teams. In fairly short order, all the teams were taking responsibility for their meetings, and the total number of person-hours saved from shorter, more meaningful meetings was staggering.

OW: When working with companies to implement flexible arrangements, what are the first steps?

JW: I always begin with an assessment of current working patterns. It’s critical to know how people are currently working before you start designing a new set of working conditions and expectations. The second – and equally important – step is to prepare a business case for the change. I’ve developed a decision support tool that enables my clients to conduct a “what if?” analysis and to predict the economic and social impacts of a move to flexible work. No matter how compelling a vision of the future you create, if it’s not going to produce positive benefits for the organization, senior executives won’t support it.

The other important early step is to educate the senior executives about what kind of cultural changes the move to flexible work and telecommuting will introduce. That means evaluating staff based on the results they produce rather than where they work, how many hours it takes them, or other industrial-era metrics. And that requires wholesale shift in management mindset – away from command and control and towards trust, collaboration and accountability.

OW: How can transparency and trust be fostered in these scenarios?

JW: Fostering trust is easier to talk about than to achieve in practice. It basically requires managers to define and communicate the outcomes they need, and then to leave their staff alone to accomplish those outcomes in their own, individual ways. I like to tell a story about a former neighbor whose 5-year-old son was learning to ride a two-wheeled bike. My neighbor came home from work one afternoon to find his son sprawled on the ground with a bloody knee after falling off the bike. My neighbor immediately yelled at his son, “Put that bike in the garage and leave it there until you learn how to ride it!” Of course he realized right away what a silly idea that was. Growing people means taking risks – giving them room to succeed or to fail, on their own. Let them know what’s needed and then get out of their way. Offer guidance if and when they ask for it, and hold them accountable. But don’t control them so tightly that their success depends on you rather than them.

Jim Ware is “on a crusade to make every meeting – and every conversation – matter.” To learn more, visit his website, The Future of Work … Unlimited and follow him on Twitter.