Key meetings and the power of “What’s up with that?”

One of the biggest privileges of leadership is building on the brilliance and creativity of others. What I can do on my own is small compared to what I can do as part of a team. And, hopefully, what I have learned over the years helps the ambitious, creative, brilliant people that work with me achieve meaningful goals. It is definitely a messy business because people are messy, precisely because of the unique talents and perspectives we all bring. The following are not exclusively my ideas, but I have tested and tested and tested them over again, and they have proven their value. Where possible, I will tell you what sources I based these strategies on.

  1. Some meetings are key. You have to meet with people one on one every week for at least 30 minutes. 
    1. Why one on one? Because when something is uncomfortable or going wrong it either won’t come out in a group meeting or will come out sideways and create the additional need for understanding and repair with a lot more people. 
    2. Why once a week? Because if the frequency is less than that, the vacations, travel, and illness that occasionally derail these meetings create breaks that can span three to four weeks and a month is definitely too long for a problem to fester. 
    3. Why 30 minutes? It takes 30 minutes to talk about a complicated subject. I actually have found that if I meet with someone about projects AND people (including themself), I schedule 45 minutes minimum because the complicated subject often comes up after some simpler things get discussed.

  2. The power of “What is up with that?” I learned this respectful strategy for recovering from failures from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey and the wonderful parenting book how-to-talk-so-kids-will-listen-and-listen-so-kids-will-talk by Adele Faber. The basic idea is that, when you think something has gone wrong, the most important factor in resolving the problem is understanding it.

    The first step is to describe the problem non-judgementally. So, for example, the non-judgemental description part might be I noticed that we aren’t going to deliver feature-x by time-y or “I noticed that we had an outage yesterday,” or “People looked tense in meeting z,” or “We collected this data, and I thought it was pointing us toward doing x, but then we did y.”

    Then you ask “What is up with that?” to the person most likely to be responsible and/or have critical information. (For non American English speakers, you can try “What happened with that”? Or “What is going on with that?”)

    As a leader or manager (or team mate) it is your responsibility to discuss any setbacks your team faces, but no one is perfect at handling these conversations. This technique works for anyone, but it is particularly useful for both under and over-reactors. For those of you who might prefer to avoid conflicts, it gives you a way to discuss something in a simple, factual, non-confrontational way. It also works for those who tend to jump to conclusions and overreact, which could intimidate the receiver of the message, by instead giving the receiver space and respect to respond.

    The key to this technique is not to overload either question with whatever stories you might be telling yourself about why or who is to blame. Leaving those stories out preserves trust, maintains a team atmosphere, and keeps the person you are asking on your side and un-defensive. The form of the question is important because it is neutral and open to the information the person you are asking has. You will be surprised what you learn. From a heart-felt “I screwed up and here is how I am fixing it” to “Oh, because we got an opportunity for even better feature la-di-da” to “We didn’t have this important thing we need. Can we work together to figure out how to get that?” It takes a ton of practice, but the good part of this is that the more you do it, the more you trust that you really do have colleagues working with you and not against you.