This blog has been co-authored with Saskie Dorman and Adrienne Rodgers, who both work for the NHS in Dorset. You can find out more about them, their interests and their work via their Twitter handles @saskie_dorman and @Systemsfangirl. Look out too for Saskie's award winning children's book, which she won't boast about so I'm going to. It's awesome and a really novel way to provide patient information.
Organisations are increasingly alive to the importance of trust, respect and mutuality in the workplace. Doing great work relies on people being able to work well together and for that to happen, strong foundations of treating each other right have to be established.
Under the constant barrage of pressure to do stuff and deliver results though, it can be hard to remember this. When our days are characterised by back-to-back meetings, hurried appointments and must-hit targets, there can be little time left for caring and connecting.
The upshot is not just less humane ways of working but less effective ones too. Swept along on a tidal wave of deliverology, we can find ourselves doing things because they are expected to be done, not because they are the right or best things to do.
Failing to take the time to really connect with each other’s needs therefore increases the likelihood that important issues will become undiscussable, making that fact undiscussable too. Meetings press ahead in discussing and delivering ‘the plan’ while no-one feels able to stop the process; and by the time we reach A.O.B. on our agendas our focus has become ‘getting to the next meeting’, not ‘ensuring this one has met its purpose’. Sometimes, it’s only when we go for a drink after work, that our real feelings and perspectives surface.
So for the past couple of years I’ve been experimenting with a simple structure that attempts to put some humanity back into everyday work and, in the process, makes meetings more purposeful and effective.
The approach involves introducing a simple but structured check-out process for meetings, which encourages people to discuss the most common undiscussables at work.
Here’s how it operates…
A CASE STUDY
Translating this approach into practice has proved to be really intuitive and those I’ve supported to use it seem to love the process. In fact, Saskie liked it enough to produce this fantastic sketch-note…
I asked Saskie and Adrienne if they would mind sharing their stories of using the check-out approach in their work…
“Just about any meeting I’ve ever attended has included AOB. Everyone hopes there won’t be any other business: we’ve all got plenty to be getting on with already. Traditional advice suggests that there shouldn’t be any surprises: a good chair will have done their homework and already know what needs to be discussed, and a good participant will have notified the chair well in advance of anything which merits discussion.
And yet... a nagging sense of things left unsaid, unspoken concerns, of unfulfilled potential.
I’d heard Andy talk about check out practices several months ago. It sounded interesting - a different approach. A good idea. We were working on a whole bunch of stuff already, and I moved onto the next good idea.
Fast forward a few months. With a bit of encouragement from Andy we gave check out practices a try. It was so useful even at the first attempt, I’ve started using it in other settings, with different teams. Each time it has brought to the surface things which would never have been expressed in AOB.
- “This work means so much to me, and I really hope we can make a difference.”
- “This is amazing - I can’t believe how much progress we’re making. It feels like we’ve achieved more in a few weeks than we would normally in months and months!” (largely, it has to be said, thanks to Andy’s other suggestions for effective working patterns).
Things which would otherwise feel undiscussable:
- Whether people feel that their voice is heard and respected.
- Concern about how a collective decision had been made.
Sometimes uncomfortable to hear, and difficult to say in normal circumstances. But much better to air and address, rather than leave to fester unspoken.
Some benefits have only become apparent hours or days after the meeting. I had been finding one of the statements we use difficult to answer: “This work makes the most of my strengths”.
Why should that be difficult? Thinking about this prompted a good conversation with a colleague about how and whether we recognise strengths in ourselves and in others. If we don’t even know what our strengths are, how can we possibly expect to make the most of them? Why is it so normal not to discuss this?
Over the years, I’ve attended hundreds, thousands of meetings. Worldwide, there are millions upon millions of meetings. How much more effective could we be if we used some simple ways to voice what needs to be said?
This isn’t just a good idea. It’s only really useful if you actually give it a try. It doesn’t need to take long."
“I was used to meetings rushing ahead, often running over. My first instinct about the ‘check-out’ practice was that it was a bit fluffy and touchy-feely, and might be a bit of a waste of time, but I was willing to give it a go (even if only to prove to myself that we didn’t need to do it in future)!
The first time I tried it was at the end of a very long day. We’d spent the whole day trying to redesign elements of the service. At times the discussion had been tortuous, particularly on one point, but it suddenly seemed to change and we reached agreement on an exciting new approach. We were tired, and I was tempted to skip the Check Out, but we did it.
To my shock, several of the team marked a couple of the sections 2s and 3s. I was gobsmacked – they’d never hinted at dissatisfaction during the discussion.
Well, it turned out that although agreement about that tortuous process had been reached, they had felt railroaded and had just ‘given in’, and were not at all confident to go ahead with it.
Thank goodness we did check-out. Without it we would have ploughed on regardless, with a high likelihood that this tricky bit would have failed, the ‘railroaded’ people would have felt vindicated – they knew it would never work – and the change we wanted to make would have flopped, with the benefits lost.
In the event, we were able to stop, go back and insert an interim step which allowed those involved to be up-skilled and for everyone to reassure themselves that the new process was workable, before we drop the interim step and go full-on into the new process.
I’m sold on check-out. A quick 5 minutes that could avert disaster!”
The idea of check-out practices is rooted in a heavy dose of common sense. Often when I’ve proposed it, as with Adrienne, people have been a bit sceptical about whether it will work - perhaps concerned that the conventions around things being undiscussable are too strong for a simple tool like this to break them. While that’s understandable, it hasn’t been my experience.
In part, I think this is down to framing the check-out statements in ways that make it easy for people to explore the previously undiscussable.
Here are a couple of my favourites ways to do that, for you to use if you wish to:
OVER TO YOU
If you decide to use the check-out approach in your work then let me know:
- What statements do you find work best?
- Have you come up with some of your own?
- Have you found other ways to run check-outs or to make the undiscussable discussable?
- What else are you doing to help people pay attention to each other’s needs, strengths and perspectives?
Thanks for reading!