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The purpose of this series of blog posts is to provide a framework and tools that you can use to dramatically improve your performance as a leader. No matter where you are, from construction crew or design/engineering team member, foreman or project manager to corporate executive, the project management and operations changes happening through lean, and design-build best practices require us to rethink leadership.


Welcome to this third post presenting what you need to know to become a High-Performance Leader! In this post we discover the missing piece of the puzzle in most leader’s skillsets; the piece that, when mastered, will change you from an average leader or colleague to someone who can supercharge the effectiveness of any group, regardless of your position.

High Performance Leadership: The Missing Puzzle Piece

In Post #1, I shared my professional and personal journey into the world of collaborative efforts and the importance of leadership in the performance of both organizations and projects. In Post #2, I identified the characteristics of high-performance teams, such as racing pit crews, and compared those characteristics to our current project teams. I identified how leadership needs to shift into “high gear” if we are going to have world-class projects. A new leadership paradigm was presented and we discussed how we need to change our underlying mental model of leadership to create teams where everyone wins. And I promised that from this post to the end of this "High-Performance Leadership” series, we would get into the nuts and bolts, the tools (conceptual, formats/templates and behavioral/linguistic) for collaborative leadership.

When I first joined the NorCal LCI Community of Practice (COP) leadership group, we used to put on short “Introduction to Lean” presentations for newcomers before each monthly meeting. I called my version of the workshop, “Seeing Through Lean Lenses”. As soon as I started to learn about lean, the more I saw “normal work conditions” as indicators of bottlenecks to work flow, indicators of waste, signs of failed communication, and missed opportunities. A pile of materials in a laydown area began to look like a pile of cash being thrown away. I was making distinctions about project production that I could now see with my new “lean lenses.”

High Performance Leadership looks at the various systems of human interaction in our projects and our companies through a different, and equally eye-opening set of lenses. To uncover the missing piece that will open our eyes to new possibilities for our project teams, let’s start with a look at the subject of meetings and meeting leadership. “Oh no! Why??”, you ask! Because leadership shows up in our interactions with others. We don’t lead in a vacuum; we lead when we are engaged with others. Every interaction that is not a simple social chat (“How’s the family?”) but is in any way about business – planning, coordinating, directing, problem solving, etc., must be thought about as a meeting. It doesn’t matter if it is one-on-one, a small group, a team, or a “Big Room” confab. They are all just different ways to meet. And in every situation, your ability to lead is on display – even if you are just sitting back and observing.

So, please, don’t stop reading! You may be thinking, “But I hate meetings! I don’t even want to think about them! They are largely a waste of time.” And you likely have a very good reason for this reaction. Why would you want to spend time mastering the design and leadership of great meetings? Sadly, our “lenses” are so clouded by bad experiences that we cannot see the missing piece of the puzzle right in front of us – the piece that unlocks high-performance, even in meetings.

Let’s turn that unpleasant experience into something positive and powerful. Imagine that you had been observing the last 10 meetings in which you participated from a mirrored observation room window. Take a few minutes to write down what worked about the meetings and what did not. What goes wrong in these meetings? Are people clear why they, personally, are there? Will their time and effort be highly valuable to themselves and others? Are people fully engaged, fully participating, feeling energized? If not, why not?

I bet you can come up with at least 10 problems with meetings in just a couple of minutes. Things that could and should be improved. Please do that now. Jot them down.

Did you quickly come up with 5 to 10 problems or weaknesses? If you found that difficult, chances are your lenses are very, very cloudy. I have asked thousands of people, “What goes wrong in meetings you attend?”, and even small groups come up with several flipchart pages of responses in almost no time. Here is a list of some of the most common:

  • We get off track, start late, run overtime
  • Someone dominates (usually the leader)
  • We left without a clear decision or agreement
  • There was no agenda or clear desired outcomes
  • No agenda sent out before the meeting – I didn’t know how to prepare
  • No action assignments for follow up and accountability
  • Unresolved issues were not captured (got lost)
  • We spent time on things we didn’t need to
  • We didn’t get to talk about or finish topics we needed to
  • People talked over each other - interruptions
  • We changed topics before we came to a conclusion
  • Differing points of view are not appreciated or considered
  • Disagreements or challenging issues were avoided
  • I didn’t feel heard
  • We went down rabbit holes
  • People got shamed or blamed
  • In our meetings, participants are to be seen and not heard
  • Key people (e.g., decision makers, or key inputs) missing

See anything familiar? How many of those have you experienced? Have you ever wanted to do something about it, but did not feel it was your role? I came up with these 18 meeting problems in the time it took me to type them, and some of the lines combine several problems.

The missing puzzle piece is the root cause of all these problems, and many more. And no, it’s not just “leadership”. It’s a root cause of bad leadership too! Let’s look at these problems with new lenses. Below, I have selected a diverse range of eight of the bullets above and put them in a table. Let’s take a look and see if you can find the common root cause.

Meeting Problem P or C?
We get off track, start late, run over time
No agenda sent out before the meeting – I didn’t know how to prepare
Someone dominates (usually the leader)
No action assignments for follow up and accountability
People talked over each other - interruptions
People got shamed or blamed
Key people (e.g., decision makers, or key inputs) missing
We changed topics before we came to a conclusion

Now, Column Two is headed “P or C”. “P” is for Process, i.e., how the meeting is run, how people act before or during the meeting. “C” is for meeting Content, i.e., what the meeting is about, the topics and subject matter of the meeting. Take a moment to assess and complete the table. Is each item driven more by what the topic was or how the meeting was run? Put a “P” or a “C” in Column 2. What is the root cause of every one of the problems?

Did you have trouble finding any examples of meeting misery driven by Content? It’s almost impossible to find “Content”-related causes. Even something like “we didn’t talk about something we should have”, or “key people and information were missing”, which have a “content” aspect, are driven by some root process problem – bad planning, bad (no) facilitation, inadequate communication, etc. Everything that people complain about is a process problem!! And pretty much everything that diminishes project performance is also a process problem!

Now consider the typical meeting agenda (if you are lucky enough to have one). Most likely, it’s a list of the topics (content) to be discussed. How much time is spent at the start of your meetings getting clarity and agreement on meeting process issues – how the meeting will be run, how people should expect to participate, what is each person’s role, how will decisions be made, how will we self-correct if we get off track? In almost all cases the answer is none! Just as we fail to see the production process problems with our projects if we lack lean lenses, we fail to see the process problems (and opportunities) with our interactions (meetings, communications, engagement with stakeholders, etc.) because we are Process-Blind! We have very foggy process lenses, if any.

Process blindness, the missing puzzle piece! And this root cause is a coin with two sides. Process blindness is on one side, and the absence of process tools and strategies is on the other. If our perceptual lenses don’t allow us to see process problems, we are very unlikely to learn or practice process solutions. Lean Construction has developed a list of over 40 best practice tools and strategies. High-Performance Leadership has a list of more than 60 collaboration process leadership tools you can master, some as easy as asking the right question at the right time.

My old mentors, Michael Doyle and David Strauss, of Interaction Associates (“IA”), used to say, “If at the start of any meeting, you cannot propose and agree on the purpose, desired outcomes, agenda (including topics and processes), roles, and how we are going to participate together, then you are not ready to have a meeting. So, here is your first “master tool” to help you master your meeting planning and leadership.

Below is a template to help you think through each of the pieces of the agenda planning puzzle. I have been using this template successfully for decades – even when I don’t present the agenda in this exact format, though I often do, it helps me think through everything I need to lead a high-performance meeting.

To fill in this template, you must think through not only what you need to talk about, but what you want to accomplish by talking about each topic. What is the purpose and product of the discussion? Are we defining a problem or solving a problem? The process for defining is not the same as for solving. Are you giving information, or gathering/seeking information? Again, we have different processes with very different types of participation. Are you making final decisions? Interim decisions? Creating and agreeing on a plan? Again, different processes produce different outcomes.

Note that the first and last rows of the agenda template have some boilerplate built in. Start every meeting agreeing on purpose, desired outcomes, and agenda. End every meeting checking if you accomplished what you agreed to do, confirming agreements and follow up assignments. Get feedback to see how we did at achieving desired outcomes and being engaged.

You may be thinking that coming up with topics is easy, but process steps? Not so much. If so, good! Awareness of your process blindness and skill deficit is starting to surface! In Post #4, we will begin to provide you with a whole toolbox of process options to address that mysterious “Process” column, starting with tools to make the Purpose and Desired Outcomes of any meeting/discussion perfectly clear. See you there!

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Victor R. Ortiz is an organization development professional with over 35 years of professional consulting experience. Vic has worked with LCI co-founders Ballard and Howell since 1985 and he co-facilitated many of the early development meetings of LCI. Vic currently works as an independent Lean/IPD Coach.