Getting All The Liars in One Room

When is it time to “Call the Meeting?”

TL;DR

If you have more than two people involved in making a decision, and it’s not happening on its own, don’t try to get it done by having a series of 1×1 conversations. Get everybody together in one place, looking at one common goal and one complete set of information, and leave with a written agreement of what you’re going to do.

The Why

Meetings for the sake of meetings, especially meetings without a strong Up-Front Contract , can be a demoralizing waste of time during the work day. Most of what needs to happen during the day can happen faster with short, one-on-one interactions that don’t last more than 10 minutes. A lot of meetings devolve into information sharing sessions, which can usually be handled better with strong written communication followed by a short decision making review. There’s a reason we build more async interaction into systems as they grow in scale and complexity, after all!

On the other hand, sometimes you have to get everyone together for a special kind of meeting, which I refer to as “Getting all the liars in one room”. Not that I think everybody’s actually a liar, but everybody does carry around in their head a slightly different version of “the truth.”

It’s time to get all the liars in one room when:

  1. You find yourself acting as a continued relayer of information on a specific topic between multiple parties
  2. You are consistently relying on second hand information from others, e.g. “I talked to Bob, and Bob said that he wants you to change the contract.”
  3. You’re trying to reach an outcome requiring the efforts of others, but follow through keeps not happening, e.g. “Susie says “I’m still waiting on Bob for that.” and then you say “ok I’ll go talk to Bob.”
  4. You have a decision, a lot of involved parties, and no consensus, e.g. “Thanks for the SOW. I need to run it by Bob in finance, and then I’ll share it with Susie in procurement, and then I’ll get back to you.”

In short, any time you’ve got multiple people who all need to be on the same page, and who aren’t trending towards commitment fast enough, you need to get all the liars in one room.

The What

If a communication sequence like any of those occurs more than twice, you need to break the pattern. What’s happening here is, relaying data and requests for decisions between all the involved parties is taking longer than actually acting on the data would. It’s also likely that they all have different sets of data available to them, so they’re all making decisions and prioritizing actions based on different criteria and priorities that don’t make sense to the other parties involved.

All you have to do is this – get everybody together at one time, where you can all talk together in real time, and set the goal for what you’re trying to get done. It’s a lot harder for people to all be on different pages when you tighten the communication time up by putting them all on a single call together, or better yet in the same room. It makes it nearly impossible in that situation for slightly different versions of the truth to hold up for very long when everybody involved is able to quickly see the variations and fill in the blanks for each other.

The When

Great times to do this:

  1. The Unreliable Proxy: You’re trying to close a new sale, and your main stakeholder keeps blaming delays on different people within his company, or coming back to you with requests to change terms based on what someone else in the organization is asking him.
  2. Blind Men Describing an Elephant: You’ve heard from three different people on a project in 1×1’s that all give you totally different lists of what features are going in the next sprint.
  3. XOXO, Gossip Girl: You’ve got a team that’s struggling to communicate effectively, and you’re having multiple 1×1’s with all parties involved trying to help resolve issues between them.

Some Prescriptive Guidance

For a “let’s all work this out” meeting to be productive, it needs the following:

  1. Short timeframe (no more than 30 minutes usually)
  2. Single point of control (One person has to steer the conversation and act as a moderator)
  3. Start with a VERY strong up-front contract (You’re here to do one thing, and one thing only.)
  4. Validate everyone’s positions (assume common cause, recognize that everybody wants the same thing)
  5. Decisive – you have to end with a decision

Without these in place, what you’ll end up with is a meeting that runs long, where people have a series of one-to-one conversations while the rest of the parties sit there bored, and then you’ll leave with a bunch of tasks assigned to “keep working on it” that everyone will then forget to do. That’s not what you want.

If miscommunication has been the name of the game up to this point, the other thing you need to do is this – put the decision in writing, and share it with everyone involved. It’s a lot harder for people to misunderstand things in written vs. spoken communication.

Picking the Right Format

This doesn’t always have to happen with a face to face meeting, though if the stakes are high enough (bad team dynamics, stalled out sale) then you absolutely want to do a face-to-face, or at a minimum a conference call. On the other hand, you can get consensus and clear up misperceptions within a group pretty quickly by replacing 1-to-1 spoken conversations with an instant message session with all parties, or even a shared document that everybody can collaborate on. Written decision registers can help a lot – but if you see comment logs on a decision running over-long, it’s probably time to get all the liars in a real room!