Eggnog + conference calls = success

Conference calls suck. Especially big ones with large groups of people. I have always been a fan of in-person or one on one calls, however from an efficiency standpoint, I can understand the necessity. It does not mean those big calls don’t sill suck though. I am reminded of a video that I am sure many of you have seen. It’s a brilliant description of how the typical conference call goes. If you have not seen it, I highly recommend it. If you have, I still recommend it as it’s hilariously accurate, and should give you a nostalgic grin.

Good times right? Remove the satire, and the difficulties described in that video are real. It does not have to be that way. I have found that treating the typical large group conference just like going home for the holidays when you were younger works extremely well.

We have all seen satirical movies about going home for the holidays and seeing family. Christmas Vacation with Chevy Chase has to be close to the top of the list for me. Then again, it’s not the holidays without seeing Hans Gruber fall off Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard either.

Family members often all have different goals, unspoken agendas and an overall different approach for how they want to spend the time together. Some want to just sit back, watch some football, eat great food and enjoy each others company. Others may want to get out of the house, go play in the snow, be outdoors, go snow-shoeing, cross country skiing or sledding. Some may want to go shopping and see a movie or two. These three activities can directly contradict each other. At the same time, all three groups are likely fully expecting those activities to happen. All three groups will likely be disappointed by the actual outcome. Why not just let some go do what they want to do, and some stay and do their own thing you ask? Let’s not forget about grandma, who just wants everyone to be happy, and stay together the whole time.

So what creates this situation? What important components are missing that could drastically change everyone’s frustration, confusion, and disappointment? This post is too short to answer the why, but I can answer how we could possibly change it. This is an oversimplification, but what is needed is a strong leader providing clear expectations, and accountability. While this may be close to impossible at a family function, it is very possible, even essential in a work environment.

Let’s layout the players here. Note, that I am going for dramatic effect here, so bare with me. You have The Grandma; who wants everyone to be happy, get along and all be together all the time. They keep the peace, embrace ambiguity and hate confrontation. Oh, and also wants you to eat all your food on your plate. Eat every bite or suffer her wrath.

You have The Parents; who immediately revert back to some odd childhood state. They fight with all your aunts and uncles in a mad scramble for power. Bicker at every little thing, argue for arguments sake, and never seam to come to any conclusion.

The Cousins. They just want to run around and play, crying, fighting, and laughing. Showing every emotion on their sleeve, and are much more worried about getting their fair share then working together as a team.

Lastly there is the cliché but often true, Crazy Uncle who drinks too much eggnog and passes out everyday on the sofa. They could care less about what everyone is doing as long as they get to do as little as possible.

Getting the picture here? Now add in everyone’s agenda and goals for their time together. Chaos, hurt feelings, confusion and disappointment.

Now that I have created our frightening list of characters for this little drama, I will explain how each of these players fit into the typical project status call.

To get the most of your status call you will need to cut through all that “family baggage” by setting crystal clear expectations. First, assign someone to keep detailed notes before the call. I recommend tagging the crazy uncle on this one. Start off each call clearly restating the objective of the call. Specify who can speak on the calls. Ideally as few people as possible are allowed to speak during the call to prevent overlap. This is especially important in large group conference calls. I like to assign one person from each team to have a prepared update on project initiatives. Either way, do your best to limit who is allowed to speak. If any of the teams have questions on what the initiatives are before or during the call, there is likely a lack of communication from the project lead. Get in front of that early. Speak to each team before and get them aligned on project goals. I can’t recommend confirming that enough before the call, as this is a hurdle that will be extremely hard to overcome. If any of the team members who are supposed to speak go off topic, or outside the guidelines you set for them, cut them off and let them know you will be available to speak to them directly after the call.

Go through your status updates from each team, keep them focused and on on track. Keep an eye on The Grandmas in the group who are not handling the direct communication very well. They may try and keep things soft, and create ambiguity to prevent hurt feelings and keep everyone happy. Ambiguity can destroy a project.

The Parents on the call will try to talk over other team members. They will be quick to provide alternative goals, and alternate routes for completion. This call is not the forum for that, so nip that quickly. Speak to them one on one at another time.

The Cousins will likely be quiet for the most part, but will hold on to perceived unfairness, hurt feelings or lack of attention that might spring up later. Just be aware, and prepared with a response if it comes up on or (likely) after the call. The project is not about being fair. It’s about getting the work done, and that is up to the project lead to determine which resources to utilize.

Watch out for the Crazy Uncle who is trying to do as little as possible. Having them keep the notes will help, but keep an eye on it. If you have one of these, you have a bigger problem. But giving them tasks that force involvement will help keep the project going.

Once the call is completed and everyone has provided their update, specify and reiterate accountability for the next set of tasks, including expected delivery of those tasks. Ensure the notes from the call go out quickly upon conclusion.

You may not have any of these players on your project team. And if that is the case, you will have a much easier time getting the project done. Just make sure you don’t leave any work behaviors unspecified. A great team on the outside can mask underlying dynamics that can eat at the core and obliterate a project very quickly.

It’s astounding how everyone will feel after this type of call. The structure creates so much transparency. All teams will have a clear idea on how the project is developing, as well as their expected role in the project. No dragging out the call with non relevant topics. No descent into someone else’s unstated goal or underlying question for the call. No dealing with another team’s disappointment after the call because it did not go the way they wanted.

Strong leadership, clear guidelines and defined accountability will get you much further than using the call to get the team “on the same page”, or as a forum for questions.

By following these simple steps, you will keep grandma from feeling the need to keep the peace. The parents will not spend the whole time squabbling. All the sensitivity of the cousins will be in check. And, lastly, be able to keep the egg nog saturated uncle engaged in the project.

Please note that I exaggerated these stereotypes for the function of this metaphor, as well as for dramatic effect. I intend no possible correlation to any known person or individual trait.