Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Team Meeting Series: Prewire Important Topics

Actions to take: "Prewire" important topics by running them by each of your employees in one-on-ones before you present it in the team meeting. Focus on information gathering during the one-on-ones, not persuading. Use what you learned during the team meeting to have an effective conversation by asking those who are in favor to share their thoughts.

Has this ever happened to you? You are all set to have a big topic discussion. Perhaps a major change is on the way, and you've got 20 minutes set aside in your team meeting to run through a dozen or so aspects of the change. You are two or three minutes into your explanation, and someone derails the conversation by focusing on a detail that you did not account for and is not particularly important. The employee spends several minutes on their detail and manages to get two or three other people asking questions about similarly minor details. Before you know it, the twenty minutes you planned for this agenda item is gone, and you have barely touched the content you planned to cover. 

Some agenda items are so important that you don't want any surprises during the delivery. You have limited time and a lot of important, impactful details to explain. Frequently, these topics come in the form of a major announcement from higher up in the organization. With these topics, have everything planned out, including staff reactions, by using a communication technique called the prewire.

A prewire is a simple concept: you run an idea by someone before the main event so that you know how they will react. Prewiring is typically discussed in the context of trying to get approval in a meeting with your superiors. However, the technique applies equally well to winning your own team over on a major issue. 

In one-on-ones with your team prior to the team meeting, you will bring up the topic with each person. You do not need to give a full and complete presentation of the topic. Just start a conversation and see where it leads. Your goal is merely to get a sense for how each employee is feeling about the topic: who is against it, who is neutral about it, and who is in favor of it.

It is tempting to try and persuade those who are against the topic or neutral about it. I won't advise completely against that tactic, but it is dangerous. You run the risk of employees being less candid with their opinions in the future. Consciously or subconsciously, they'll think, "Last time I told Ben how I really felt, he immediately tried to change my mind. Obviously I should just tell him what he wants to hear." If you don't feel confident in your ability to navigate these complex social road cones, just stick to information gathering and leave persuading for a separate conversation. 

How you bring up the topic depends on the topic itself and the personality of each employee. 

For your open, direct employees and for topics that are already big news to everyone, just be straight forward. Ask their opinion outright: "As you know, there is a plan to revamp office space usage now that we are all working from home at least part time, and I'll be talking through the details at our next staff meeting. How are you feeling about it?" 

For employees who are reticent about their opinions, or for topics that are brand new, it pays to be a bit more circumspect. The first time you broach a topic, present it as an idea rather than a done deal. If the decision is already final, reticent employees will see any amount of disagreement with that decision as backtalk or poor teamwork. They are team players, so the moment they perceive a decision as final, they will say they support it 100%. That is not what we want to hear in these information gathering meetings. We want to know how people truly feel. So, frame the question neutrally: "A couple folks have brought up the idea of rearranging our office space to use it more effectively now that there is so much telework. What are your thoughts on that?"

That is really all there is to this version of a prewire. After these one-on-ones, we know how each employee feels about the topic we are coving. Now, let's apply what we learned from the prewire to the team meeting. 

We have described the method for communicating big topics in past posts. Briefly, the general strategy is a quick headline, time spent on why it matters, nuts-and-bolts details, and time for questions. With prewired topics, you are going to tuck in an extra step. You will lead into the question portion by first calling on people whom you know are in favor of the issue. It might look like this, "...So that about covers the broad strokes of how this change will impact us. Calvin, you and I chatted a bit about how this will affect [some process related to Calvin's work]. Would you be willing to recap a bit of our discussion?" Calvin then explains how the change will, in fact, have some beneficial elements for [process]. (Bonus tip: at the end of your one-on-one with Calvin, you might give the heads up, "Hey, would it be alright if I asked you to review what we just talked about during the team meeting next week?")

Do this with two or three employees before you open the floor for questions. Here's why. When you open the floor straight away, you let the nay-sayers set the narrative. All future comments are, in some way, a reaction to the first comment. When the first comment is a positive, the nay-sayers have the uphill battle, not you. If you have multiple people make positive comments, it drives home the fact that most people are in favor of or at least neutral about the issue. This stops the nay-sayers from believing or pretending that most people are against the issue. These two factors have a huge impact on the direction of the conversation.

The time spent calling on folks who are in favor is perhaps three minutes of a twenty or thirty minute agenda item, and it is most of the reason we do a prewire. That sounds like a lot of work for a little bit of a meeting. But those three minutes have the potential to save us hours and hours of future work. They have the potential to determine whether your important topic is successfully implemented with your team or whether it is derailed by detractors. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." We are cutting off the problems before they have a chance to grow. 

The prewire is not an everyday strategy. Use it sparingly. Most of the time, our job is to discuss issues together, explore solutions as a team, and pick the one best suited to us. Occasionally, however, the solution is handed to us without our input, or the solution we picked has significant downsides that some employees won't like. In those times, our job is still to implement the solution as effectively as possible. That means using our meeting time to discuss what will happen and how it will happen, not on nay-sayer frustrations. The prewire is your main tool for getting work done in those situations. 

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