Category Archives: Updates

Meetings – Chair / Group Dynamics

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

In my last blog, I discussed some of the practical considerations facing the Chair. However, even if the meeting goes like clock work on the surface operationally, it is important for the Chair to pay attention to the group dynamics that are just as important and that underpin every discussion, every meeting.

Again, it is once again the responsibility of the Chair to set the tone and take the lead with the group. If, for instance, the Chair behaves in a way that is open, honest, enthusiastic, and committed to positive outcomes, meeting participants are more likely to respond in kind.

The  Chair should be open about what kinds of dissent are acceptable. Let people know that it is okay to disagree (recall the old adage “if two people agree all the time on everything, one of them is unnecessary”) but that respectful and professional behaviour is expected.

Disagreement should focus on topics and should not be personal attacks against people. While people need to be able to express themselves openly, unhealthy aggression should not be tolerated.

It is important for the Chair to try to not take sides when disagreement occurs, but rather, remain impartial, stick to the facts and ask open questions for clarification. The Chair should work to keep their temper even when provoked. It may be necessary and useful to agree to meet with the dissenter(s) at another time outside the meeting. If a decision cannot be made within the meeting due to disagreement, the Chair should advise next steps and move on.

The Chair should also watch participation levels during the meeting and work to draw out comments from those who are less vocal; those who are quiet will often have a great deal to contribute but may not be as quick to speak, allowing others who speak freely to dominate the discussion.

The Chair should manage the tendency for discussion to go off course inadvertently and should work to steer the group back to the agenda if the discussion begins to wander. Asking questions and paraphrasing conclusions to seek common understanding and bringing participants back to the topic at hand can be helpful.

Wide ranging discussion (eg for gathering information or problem solving) can be helpful and genuine consultation is critical in these types of sessions but this should be an explicit part of the meeting (back to purpose and objectives again) rather than something that happens by accident as a meeting with a different purpose goes off track.

In a consultative discussion, it is important not to jump to instant solutions, but rather to consider the pros and cons of alternatives. It can be helpful to record suggestions as they are stated and to build upon these ideas as a group.It may be that this type of discussion will not end in a decision and this is fine. Time may be needed to reflect on the discussion. The Chair should, however, indicate what will be done with the information from the session and what the plans will be to either make a decision in the future and the timeframe for doing so.

Finally, Chairs (or those who hope to be Chairs) can learn much by watching for and emulating good examples. Good Chairs will have done their homework before the meeting, solicited input in advance where appropriate, gained the confidence of others outside the meeting, work to have a variety of participants lead on topics, strike a balance between direction and consultation, involve everyone, maintain a good pace, order, and humour even in difficult circumstances, and will get the job at hand done by moving beyond differences of opinion to agreed action plans.

This blog, along with the previous one on the Challenge of the Chair and the blog on Team Briefings have primarily focused on the Chair’s responsibilities. However, meeting success is not down to only one individual. What if you are not in the Chair? What are your responsibilities as a participant?

More on this next time.

The Challenge of the Chair

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

The challenge of establishing the conditions for a productive meeting falls to the CHAIR and much of the success of a meeting comes down to ADVANCE PREPARATION.

While the hints and ideas that follow should not be seen as prescriptive rules, they can provide ways to think through each meeting element.

As mentioned previously, once again, it comes back to first considering the explicit PURPOSE and precise OBJECTIVES of the meeting, or each part of the meeting.

Once the purpose and objectives are set, it is then useful to consider the meeting SIZE. Seven to ten is generally ideal for discussion. A meeting with over fifteen in attendance starts to become unwieldy and it will become increasingly difficult to ensure everyone’s voice is heard. In these cases, if discussion is desired, it can be helpful to first provide the context, then break into smaller groups for discussion and save time for a report back from each group at the end so thoughts can be collected and summarised.

Estimate the LENGTH of the meeting; two hours is generally a good maximum but many meetings can be effectively conducted within an hour.

The LOCATION of the meeting is also important. Ideally, everyone should have a clear view of everyone else; a round or oval table can be beneficial if the Chair does not wish to convey a hierarchical structure.

Do people need to ATTEND all or only part of the meeting? While having people come and go can be disruptive, it is worth considering on a case by case basis.

The Chair should draw up the AGENDA and circulate with applicable papers a minimum of two days in advance of the meeting (or longer depending how large that pack of pre-reading is, of course). Agenda items should be allocated in priority order so that the most important items are scheduled while people are fresh. Do students attend the meeting? Is their section always last? Why not try reversing the order? It is helpful to save a positive item for the end (see the point about praise in my last blog). However, if the meeting is a difficult one, it is important not to include something positive for its own sake. Simply thank participants for their honesty and engagement within the meeting.

It can be useful to request a brief SUMMARY DOCUMENT in advance from people who want to add agenda items to the meeting. This provides them with the opportunity to outline the purpose and objectives of their item(s), so the same rigour begins to be practiced by everyone.

DURING THE MEETING itself it is the responsibility of the Chair to maintain control by guiding the participants in a clear, transparent and respectful way through the agenda. It can be helpful to think of the Chair role as a facilitator who remains objective and impartial within the meeting even while having a direct and personal stake in the matters at hand. Getting engrossed deeply in the subject matter while simultaneously getting others involved are not activities that easily mix.

Once AT THE MEETING, the Chair should

Start the meeting on time

Clarify the objectives of the meeting so everyone has a shared understanding

Introduce each topic by putting it into context and explaining the purpose and objective of the item

Control the pace and time of the meeting

Keep discussions to the point by asking clarifying questions

Conclude each item by summarising what has been agreed or decided

Finish off by recapping all actions and time scales by individuals and confirm shared understanding

And what about AFTERWARDS? The Chair should:

Reflect on whether the meeting was successful in meeting its objectives by considering: what went well; what could have gone better? It can be helpful for the Chair to test their own perceptions with a few others who attended and who will be honest with us since we can either be our own worst critic or we can let ourselves get off too lightly

Confirm the minutes or action log and circulate to participants as soon as possible (ideally within a few days following the meeting)

Check that those responsible for actions have received the notes and taken action according to agreed timescales

Does all this feel just slightly overwhelming? Even as I write, I am cringing as I think how often I don’t manage to get all this right. However, since we spend so much time in meetings, isn’t it worth our concentrated and conscious efforts to make the best use possible of this ‘supertax‘ of work?

This blog has discussed the ‘what’ of meetings; my next blog will discuss some principles to keep in mind in relation to the ‘how’ of working with groups.

Meetings Meetings Meetings – An Overview

By Cindy Vallance


Why do we have meetings? Often our reasons are noble. We want to share information and plans, encourage collegiality, and provide opportunities for consultation, decision making and mutual learning.

Sadly, however, some meetings can seem to make decision making more difficult and feel like a substitute for getting things done. People leave these meetings frustrated or puzzled and wonder why they bothered to attend.

How can we ensure that meetings we are responsible for are organised and conducted in such a way that demonstrates respect for everyone who is giving their time to attend? In turn, if we are asked to participate in a meeting, how can we show respect to the person who has called it?

If I am responsible for the meeting, firstly I need to decide the PURPOSE of the full meeting or each portion of the meeting.

Is it to pass on information? I have news to share with you about …

Is it to gather information? What do you think of …?

Is it for decision-making? What are we going to do about…?

Is it for problem solving? How should we resolve…?

In preparing the meeting agenda, we must be clear about its purpose and make this purpose known to meeting participants.

There are also a range of OBJECTIVES to consider when conducting meetings:

For instance, we may want to:

  • test the reactions of colleagues to our ideas
  • pool ideas and experiences on a subject in order to learn from each other
  • identify when further information is needed prior to decision making
  • build group morale

This might all seem like common sense.

However, meetings provide us with an opportunity to reflect on the old adage “easier said than done.” I know that I certainly have not always given due thought to purpose and objectives with every meeting I have been responsible for. However, that is why reminders  exist…to bring us back to principles that we may know but have sometimes become too busy or too lax to practice with the appropriate rigour. Meetings, like any other professional practice, require thoughtful consideration and intentionality.

Wouldn’t it be great if more meetings were clear on their purpose and objectives before we showed up, poured a coffee, and settled ourselves around the table?

Next time, hints on regular team meetings.

Meetings – How can we reduce the “supertax” of work?

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

I closely follow the writing of Nilofer Merchant who is a thinker, independent author, and regular contributor to Harvard Business Review (HBR) on the topics of culture, innovation, and strategy and who was also recognised as one of the “Most Influential Voice on Twitter” last year by The Independent (UK).  One of her recent posts has stayed with me. In it,  she states:

“Inside our organisations, we ought to re-imagine meetings, because they truly are the supertax of work. If our goal is to create shifts, the role of meetings then should be about the dialogue around an idea so we can understand and learn together. Meetings should not be about regurgitating information that people could read at their own pace. They should allow space for us to hear one another and then to hear the distinctions of the ideas so we can discuss and ultimately learn what criteria matters to everyone — so a clarity of direction can become clear.”

My calendar, like many others across the University, is chock full of meetings. When I experienced a Blackberry synching problem recently, I somehow managed to lose the records of nearly all of my upcoming meetings. While I was momentarily tempted to use this as an opportunity to simply restart my work life with an empty diary, I knew the solution wasn’t that simple. I painstakingly (and with some help) manually recreated all of my calendar entries. So far, I have only missed one meeting and I just have to hope that I have caught the rest.

Last year, shortly after returning from the Change Academy residential programme, I wrote a blog series about the key principles that support a productive thinking environment and which form the basis for productive engagement in the work place including effective practices in meetings. The reality is that re-imagining meetings takes a commitment to positive values and behaviours as well as adherence to rigour in practice. However, while my previous blog series was about creating the right cultural climate for meetings, I didn’t focus in detail on meeting practicalities. Given how important meetings tend to be in our working life, sharing practical meeting considerations will be my goal for my next few posts.

What kinds of meetings work best for you? What tips do you have to share? Feel free to add your ideas and comments.


Conversations, Not Just Words

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

One of my favourite thinkers in the areas of  innovation, strategy and change leadership  is Harvard business professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter .

A blog she wrote has relevance to the Social Sciences Change Academy and to the University more widely. It’s entitled Ten Essentials for Getting Value from Values  and in it she first confirms what we all know – that the ‘values’ words contained in vision and mission statements and in strategic planning documents across many organisations are eerily similar and are usually somewhat generic (eg. respect,  trust, equality, etc. – in fact, some of the same words we have used in describing what we say we care about within the Social Sciences Change Academy).

What can we possibly take from sets of words that could be used to describe any organisation? I agree with the view of Rosabeth Moss Kanter; the value comes not from the words themselves but from the conversations and dialogue that they have the power to initiate.

I was in a meeting very recently where we discussed ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ as two words that underline what we want to achieve at U of Kent in supporting the student experience. To me, these words describe the values of what the group is working to achieve. As Professor Moss Kantor states “Values are aspirational, signaling long-term intentions that guide thinking about the future.” But how do we make time for these conversations that make values real over time? Aren’t we all just too busy getting the work done? Here are just a couple of options:

One way is to intentionally combine different sets of individuals across a range of roles and functions in project work so that a larger group can contribute to work to be done – individuals who are perhaps beyond the range of what sometimes may seem to be ‘the usual suspects.’ Be sure to include discussion on the values underpinning the work from the outset.

Another way is to find out what others are up to. This then can help us make values connections across seemingly disparate areas. An easy way to do this is through social media. One of the biggest benefits I find from twitter, for instance, is that it gives me quick access to a range of what is going on within and outside U of Kent.

In 10-15 minutes, I can read the latest newsletter from the School of Anthropology and Conservation (@SACA_Kent), catch up on Kent Union Sabbatical Officer Kenny Budd’s most recent blog (@kbuddinyourface) and see at a glance what the THE (@timeshighered) has to say about the latest HE league tables. I can often then have more productive conversations because I know a little to start with about a wider range of activities than I would otherwise have time to explore; how else would I know that a big long term priority for @KentUnion is an improved facility – for, you guessed it, conversation, meetings, and network development.

What can we all do? Get a conversation going about values. Having coffee or lunch with someone we don’t normally interact with is a simple way to start. What are they working on? What is important to them? How might this intersect with the work we are doing? Values then start to become both real and shared.

Change Academy meeting – bad news and good news…

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

Here we are, two days from week zero and everyone is frantically busy so I thought I would share just a few thoughts.

We had our first Change Academy meeting of 2012/13 yesterday. It certainly had the great effect of reinvigorating me and the rest of the group for the year ahead as we reflected on the purpose of Social Sciences Change Academy – to encourage a stronger community of learning through collaboration between students, academic staff and professional services staff.  A few highlights include:


BAD news – since everyone is so busy, we only had six of our twelve group members who were able to attend the meeting.

GOOD news – we managed to still have representation from our full complement of academic and professional services staff and students.

SOLUTION to BAD news – we will have two meetings a term since we know that given the group’s diverse composition, it is nearly impossible to get everyone together at the same time. We will also continue to have sub-group meetings and informal caffeine breakout sessions.


BAD news – my Blackberry blasted the song “She Wants to Go to the Seaside” by the  Kooks in the middle of our meeting.

GOOD news – the disruption did not affect the positive and productive discussion, plans began to be formulated and we all worked very hard not to interrupt each other and to ensure every voice was heard.

SOLUTION to BAD news – remember to set Blackberry ‘silent’ feature in future.


BAD news – we ran out of time to work through our SharePoint demo.

GOOD news – we will take forward a number of specific ways to support Social Sciences and to work to continue to build momentum around our ethos over the coming year.

SOLUTION to BAD news – two of our members will arrange dates for the SharePoint demo and another member is on hand to provide further practical support.

We will continue to write more about Change Academy and change in general in our blogs. In the meantime, best wishes to all for Welcome Week and keep up by following some of the new University of Kent twitter feeds mentioned here. You might also want to consider how you’re working with social media regardless of your role at the University by having a look at the materials on Moodle from the Unit for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching’s (UELT) first E-Learning Summer School held last week at Kent.


Aspirations are not enough…

By Cindy Vallance @cdvallance

In my most recent blog I discussed the ambitious vision, purpose and values that those in the Social Sciences Change Academy are working to exemplify, individually and collectively.

But are aspirations sufficient? Of course not. Ideas make us feel good only for the amount of time we are in a room talking about them or only for the amount of time it takes to share an email with yet another good idea.

We could…we should…why don’t we?…

That is not to say we shouldn’t share good ideas. The last thing we should do is stop the flow of creativity that can lead to positive changes. But whose responsibility is it to implement these good ideas? Who are the “we” that we so often reference?

I have written quite a lot about self awareness and personal responsibility in these blogs. I firmly believe that what each of us does is key to our collective success. There is a common expression that there is no “I” in team (in English at least), but every action within every team’s plan needs an “I” to make it happen.

If I have an idea for something that should happen or change it is my responsibility to take the next step to try and make it so.

If it is in an area within my range of responsibility to make happen then ‘the buck stops with me.’ If it is a simple thing I can do on my own then I should just get on with it. If it is more than a one person job and I have people within my immediate frame of reference that I can galvanise, then I need to determine how to get these people on board to agree and to support putting the idea into action.

If my idea is one that is beyond the scope of what I can personally do anything about to make happen but I truly believe in it, I still need to find a way to influence people who can then decide to make it happen.

If it is an idea I really care about, I must not give up.

But successful implementation is one of the most difficult parts of change and a significant reason why change efforts so often fail. So what do we need to do? Here are some simple questions to ask ourselves

What is the outcome I/we want to achieve? (vision)

Why should I/we do it? (purpose and values)

How should I/we go about achieving it?  (implementation plan)

And on the implementation plan…for the team this must include: what will happen, when it will happen, and who will take responsibility to make it happen. The implementation process for each person within the team is the same:  what I will do, when I will do it, and my commitment made real by reliably delivering on what I have promised.

How should I/we track progress? (project management)

How will I/we know if we have succeeded? (evaluation/reflection/adjustment)

So how do we turn aspiration to implementation? It is up to me… It is up to us.



Why the long wait? A ‘tour’ of competence

Winning ‘le Tour’ starts with the first wobble

It has been encouraging to see some positive action coming through this summer with new people being engaged in change activities. In our experience this year the Change Academy team has noticed that, on occasion, things have moved more slowly than expected in our first year. Is this normal?

We should be encouraged to hear that experienced practitioners often see that change efforts go through a ‘lull’. This appears to be caused by a typical learning curve experienced by people going through organisational transformation (Scholtes 1998). This can be attributed to the steps made by people experiencing the change.

If we challenge ourselves with new concepts, we are faced with the question – how do we do this? We move from a state of ‘unconscious incompetence’ (we didn’t know that we didn’t know) into ‘conscious incompetence’ (now we KNOW that we don’t know). It’s like learning to ride a bike; until we sit on it and make our first push forwards (and start wobbling, panicking and falling) we don’t really understand that we don’t know how to do it. With new experience and insight, now we truly KNOW that we don’t know how to ride! That experience leads us to consciously learn more: to balance and shift our weight, to steer (but not over-steer!), to pedal left and right.

Steps to competence – (Adapted from Drejer, 2000)


At that point it appears that people can sit in a lull, where we mull over how to put the new concepts, ideas and learning  into action. Scholtes suggests this lull can take a year.


Deming is more frank:

 “It does not happen
all at once.
There is no instant pudding.”

However, once people have got their heads in gear (I know, another cycling analogy) thereafter they are able, with conscious effort, to apply the new thinking in their work. Over time, with continued effort, this new level of competence becomes unconscious – a habit. As long as we keep our eyes open and purposeful in our efforts, we will not slip into complacency. Instead our proficiency will progress into expertise and we can look for other challenges.

More reading:

Drejer, A. (2000),”Organisational learning and competence development”, The Learning Organization, Vol. 7 Iss: 4 pp. 206 – 220

Scholtes, P. (1998), The Leader’s Handbook: A guide to inspiring your people and managing the daily workflow, New Yok: McGraw-Hill.

Keep managing change – but deal with the issues

It is important to focus on relevant priorities when navigating through change. Few things are more irritating to people than being forced to implement changes which don’t deal with the issues. Consider the things that might really occupy people’s minds;

* what does it mean for me?

*are my ideas being heard?

* will things be better?

*will work be more effective?

*do we agree that these are priorities?

* will new costs replace the old ‘bad’ ones?

*will users’ complaints be addressed?

*will changes add any real value?

*will this just create more layers of ‘work’?

If we ignore obvious issues we risk establishing a norm where honesty is avoided in conversations. This leads to people wrongly assuming that honesty should be traded-off against ‘support for change’ such that people fall into ‘towing the party line’.  Unfortunately, over time, a lack of openness undermines trust. More fundamentally, there are more immediate operational effects, since filtered discussions block learning and improvement. Previously we have pointed out that (quoting Basil Fawlty) the ‘bleedin’ obvious’ can be unhelpful. This is true if noticing the obvious is not followed by thinking about the issues- seeking symptoms not causes.

It would be more helpful to stop ignoring the ‘elephant in the room’; we should stop pressing on regardless or merely  ‘just doing our best’ in the face of genuine difficulties. Nevertheless, it does take effort to change; we need new types of knowledge and skills. People need to establish new ways of thinking and working, to share ideas, to identify and test recommendations, to communicate those ideas and implement relevant action. The good news is that all of these things can be learned.

There are also some useful ways to analyse problems which help to identify priorities, such as 80/20 thinking (see Barratt and Coppin 2002), which Joe Juran was the first to identify as a “universal principle” applicable to many fields; focus on the ‘vital few’ rather than the ‘trivial many’. It is helpful to be ready to seek knowledge (and get some hard data) before plunging headlong into well-intentioned but mis-directed effort.

Read more:

Coppin, A. and Barratt, J. (2002) Timeless Management, Palgrave MacMillan, NY

Juran J. (1989) Juran on Leadership For Quality,The Free Press, NY




One small group, one set of values, one ambitious purpose and vision…

By Cindy Vallance (@cdvallance)

Last week’s blog focused on the importance of values. But some wonder, wouldn’t they be pretty much the same for any organisation? The reality is that the subtleties count.

For instance, compare these: The UK army’s values are: courage, discipline, respect for others, integrity, loyalty and selfless commitment whereas the 2012 Olympic/Paralympic values are respect, excellence, friendship, courage, determination, inspiration, and equality. Yes there are some similarities (courage, respect), but some real differences too in the words as well as the intent behind the words. For instance, courage in the sports arena undoubtedly looks quite different from courage on the battlefield. However, both of these organisations have determined that choosing these values to inform their actions is useful. Many organisations today share this view.

To bring values closer to home, how can we make these real at the University of Kent? Well, here is one example. Back when the Social Sciences Change Academy group first gathered in September 2011, we decided at a grassroots level some values that were important to us – in fact, so many values we had difficulty remembering them all (after all, 11 values is a lot and we even added a 12th – learning – based on our collective experiences this past year).

LESSON 1 – most people can likely remember no more than seven key words; five or six values are much more manageable than twelve.

And how did we get from twelve values to our final five? It was quite simple really. Firstly, we refined our existing purpose and vision through a lively discussion with everyone taking part and working to ensure we didn’t get too precious about who came up with which idea. We ended up with some refinements to our working statements created this past year.

Our Purpose

To encourage a stronger community of learning through collaboration between students, academic staff and professional services staff.

Our Vision

We will be stronger by working together through times of complexity, ambiguity and uncertainty. We will inspire creative partnerships that deliver positive organisational change.

LESSON 2 – leaving egos at the door to allow for an open discussion is critical in obtaining consensus on purpose and vision.

Finally, with our purpose and vision in mind, we individually voted on our top 5 from the 12 values we had developed. We used post-it-notes to write these down, and then posted them up on the wall. We then counted them up and took stock. We found there was some repetition with wording when we considered values compared to our purpose and vision and after some further discussion, ended up with the following five values.






It is our goal to exemplify these values, both in our day-to-day behaviours as well as how we approach activities within the Social Sciences Change Academy initiative and with regular check ins against our purpose and vision.

LESSON 3 – take the time to set strong foundations and then use this as the basis to develop something the group believes in and can be proud of.

What kind of environment might we build if we all did our best to live these values at the University of Kent?