What Autonomous Teams Can Teach Us About Effective Meetings

by Irene Sinteur and Marcel van de Hoef

Do you want more or less meetings? Put this question to a random sample of 100 people in any organization and you will probably get the same answer over and over again. According to a recent survey, enterprise workers in the U.S. consider pointless meetings the biggest challenge to getting their work done. Other studies suggest that the proliferation of meetings is an important reason why an increasing number of employees feel overwhelmed or disengaged in their work.

There are, however, businesses that flourish because they meet more. How? They have embraced the concept of autonomous teams.  

Hierarchy vs. autonomy

The underlying assumption of autonomy is that the power structure in a traditional top-down organization is unproductive because it breeds a culture of pleasers and followers. Instead of asking ‘what’s good for the client’, employees ask themselves ‘what would the boss want me to do’. They feel dependent on their manager and are less likely to take the initiative.

To the contrary, autonomous teams provide people with the freedom to use their knowledge and experience to do their job to the best of their ability. The authority to take decisions lies with the people on the ground, those who do the work and are closest to the relevant information. Organizations that have embraced autonomy report many benefits including increased productivity, more agility in responding to market needs and a significant improvement in employee satisfaction. 

Meetings are an integral part of autonomy

One of the biggest differences that people experience when joining an autonomous team is that they meet more – not less. In fact, frequent meetings with colleagues are an integral part of autonomy. Instead of blindly following safety protocols, members of autonomous teams collectively decide upon the risks they are willing to accept. And when market circumstances change, they get together to discuss their proposition, marketing and the types of clients they want to serve. In other words, decision-making is shared amongst team members rather than dominated by a few, which inevitably leads to more meetings.

 
Meeting more is an integral part of autonomy. Considering the fact that most of us are fed up with the abundance of meetings in our lives, it’s hard to imagine that autonomy can be a viable option for any company. The big difference is that members of successful autonomous teams – often supported by a facilitator – have collectively mastered the art of effective meetings.

Meeting more is an integral part of autonomy. Considering the fact that most of us are fed up with the abundance of meetings in our lives, it’s hard to imagine that autonomy can be a viable option for any company. The big difference is that members of successful autonomous teams – often supported by a facilitator – have collectively mastered the art of effective meetings.

 

The secret of effective meetings

How can you have so many meetings without hurting your organization’s effectiveness? And what can leaders and employees in hierarchical organizations learn from autonomous teams to create meetings that are more inclusive and effective? Based on our work with autonomous teams and our expertise in the field of effective human interaction, we distilled eight best practices that successful teams use to keep their meetings healthy and productive.

1. Don’t meet for the sake of meeting
Autonomous teams meet with more intent. It’s no longer: ‘the boss wants us to meet, so let’s show up to make him happy’. The team only gets together when there’s a clear purpose. When defining a purpose, be as specific as possible so you can use it as a metric to determine if the meeting was successful or not. Instead of ‘we are going to talk about sales’, define your purpose as a desired outcome: “At the end of this meeting, we want to have an agreement on how…” If there’s no clear purpose or if the topics on the agenda are not important or urgent, cancel the meeting.

2. Check in, check out
Emotions are often ignored in meetings, but they can play a decisive role. That’s why it’s crucial to have a check-in, which can be as simple as having each team member briefly share how they feel at the start of the meeting. This creates a climate of openness, and it also helps prevent miscommunication as attendants better understand what’s going on with their colleagues and why they might react in a certain way. 

Similarly, at the end all team members share their reflections on the meeting’s effectiveness, for example by answering the question what was most valuable or useful to them. The check-out provides feedback and points out areas of improvement, which helps maintain a productive meeting culture.

3. Pursue consent, not consensus
Effective decision-making is crucial to making autonomous teams work. When everyone has a vote, you run the risk of having endless meetings to build consensus between all members. A more practical approach is to follow the Sociocratic example of pursuing consent. A team member presents a proposal and everyone in the room has to answer the question whether there are any reasons to believe that the proposal could harm the team or the company. In other words, is it safe enough to try? This approach makes use of the collective knowledge of the team without slowing down the decision-making process.

Tip for individual members: disagree and commit
If in doubt, ask yourself whether you can disagree and commit. As management thinker Justin Bariso writes: “When you disagree and commit, you communicate trust. The effect is the same whether it's your team taking a risk on a new product, or your partner making a decision on where to go for dinner. But the key is once you commit to the decision, there's no going back.” If you are not ready to disagree and commit, ask yourself what’s holding you back and share your findings with the team. 

4. Embrace conflict
Even in autonomous teams, people will be people and conflicts may arise. For successful teams, the question is not how to avoid conflict but how to use it in order to grow as a team. A professional facilitator can play a role by modeling productive meeting behavior such as active listening, letting people finish and asking open-ended questions. This encourages both parties to share their experiences with each other in a constructive way, which generally leads to mutual understanding and increased confidence in the team’s ability to solve issues together.

Follow a simple behavioral norm to take up the issue: ask first, judge later.

Tip for individual members: speak out and hold each other accountable
In conflict, it’s crucial to assume that the other person has the best intentions and to remind yourself of the fact that you are all on the same team. If you are baffled by another team member’s behavior, assume that there is a reasonable explanation. Follow a simple behavioral norm to take up the issue: ask first, judge later. Instead of being judgmental go to the person(s) involved and ask a clarifying question. Also, it’s important that team members hold each other accountable. If a team member shares amazement with you about someone else’s behavior, don’t get involved but simply ask ‘did you start a conversation?’

5. Don’t ignore power
Ideally, decision-making should be based on the quality of the arguments rather than the power of the individual participants. Even without managers, power will still be present and large power differences might erode trust or lead to conflict. Consider a senior team member who uses his knowledge (expert power) to impose his will upon others, even up to the point of becoming verbally aggressive and walking out of meetings. His colleagues might feel reluctant to address the issue because they are dependent on his expertise. Using the methods described earlier, a facilitator can help the team bring this brewing conflict to the surface in a non-judgmental way. This might inspire the team members to agree on norms against the use of unproductive power, which will eventually help them come out stronger - individually and as a team.

6. Make sure every voice is heard 
Often meetings are dominated by a few who speak out while others remain silent. However, the strength of autonomous teams is that every voice is heard. By involving all available knowledge in a meeting, the team reaches better decisions and the commitment to implement these decisions is much bigger. A facilitator can model behavior to help dominant and non-dominant team members listen to each other and reach an agreement on behavioral norms, so everyone gets to share their ideas in meetings.

7. Rotate chairs
Many successful autonomous teams have a rotating chair. Every meeting is chaired by a different team member, which reflects the shared responsibility and increases the joint commitment to addressing the behavioral norms that are chosen by the group. This also provides opportunities for every team member to learn from the experience, discover new talents and build confidence.

The success of autonomous teams is largely dependent on the ability of individual members to communicate and reach decisions together.

8. Get coaching
While hierarchical organizations are managed by procedures and bureaucratic controls, the success of autonomous teams is largely dependent on the ability of individual members to communicate and reach decisions together. They need to build the confidence to speak out and learn how to listen to each other without bias. The support of a professional coach can help them smoothly transition into their new role. The same goes for (former) leaders. It’s not easy to share your authority with others. It goes against how humans are wired, so don’t be too hard on yourself and consider a coach to help you make the shift.

 
Irene Sinteur, the co-author of this article, is a consultant who helps companies create high-performing autonomous teams. In 2018, she completed her PhD research    ‘Autonomous groups between power and empowerment   ’. You can reach her via    LinkedIn    or check out    her website   .

Irene Sinteur, the co-author of this article, is a consultant who helps companies create high-performing autonomous teams. In 2018, she completed her PhD research ‘Autonomous groups between power and empowerment’. You can reach her via LinkedIn or check out her website.

 

Acknowledging our human tendencies

Most of us are fed up with the many meetings in our lives but meeting more could actually be a good thing. Autonomous teams gather more frequently in order to include everyone’s opinion and find the best possible solutions on important issues. When implemented correctly, autonomy will result in more engaged employees, happier customers and groundbreaking innovation. And that’s something worth meeting for.

To set the record straight, autonomous teams don’t suddenly enter a perfect world. Team members will still rush to conclusions, not listen to each other or play the power card. Creating a more productive meeting culture starts with acknowledging these human tendencies and establishing behavioral norms to address them. This applies to any team, autonomous or not.