Family Sync-Meetings

by Geof Lory

One of the key elements of highly effective teams is clearly defined roles and responsibilities. In many books, articles and talks covering the topic of teams, this is a recurring theme. It stands to reason that it is difficult for many parts to function as a single whole if a shared understanding of "who is doing what/when to produce what" doesn't exist. The execution or common practice of these expectations becomes the every day living that maximizes the collective capabilities of the team.

In teams where the activities are repeated over and over again, such as in a play or a dance routine, the specific roles and associated responsibilities are usually well-defined. They are part of the script (read plan for project management). The practices and rehearsals for a play focus less on the individual roles and more on how the roles interface. The transitions between the roles, like the hand-offs in a project, become the area of focus. Each team member understands their general deliverable and is left free (under the guidance of the director), to perform their role as well as possible. However, each team member is responsible to the rest of the team to be at a certain place on stage, deliver certain lines, and prepare for the hand-off to the next performer. Properly executed, the audience sees a fluid and seamless performance.

As you might imagine, I see our family as a team, albeit a small team, but not that much smaller than many teams I work with in my consulting practice. As a team, our family has the potential for both highly effective performance as well as total dysfunctionality. I have seen both sides many times, but we have put in place a strong and commonly accepted set of guidelines around roles and responsibilities that keeps us largely in the highly effective space and avoids most of the dysfunctional abyss.

As you would with any other team, our family team starts with the strengths of each individual to try and fit their responsibilities with what they do well and enjoy most. This inspires them to stick to their strengths and motivates them to perform their role to the highest level of quality. That's because they take personal ownership for their deliverables. The definition of each deliverable they are responsible for is clearly stated so there are no surprises or misunderstanding. Each effectively negotiated deliverable becomes the interface between the roles.

I have countless examples, and they continue to occur almost every week, where an ineffective or vague description of the expected outcome has led to undesirable deliverables and sometimes degraded to dysfunctional behavior. Since clearly stated deliverables (requirements and specifications), are difficult and time-consuming to create, especially in an environment as informal and dynamic as a family, we use the equivalent of a sync-meeting to manage our weekly interfaces. During these sync-meetings, which occur regularly at Sunday dinner, we accomplish two things - one very practical and the other developmental.

First, on the practical side, we pull out a large monthly calendar that hangs on the refrigerator, right next to other convenient necessities like the shopping list and other family reminders. Erika is in charge of documenting the meeting discussion and she facilitates it as well. The phone is ignored and she keeps everyone focused and on task with her gentle but persuasive technique. She enjoys being in charge and relishes the rare opportunity as the second child to run the show.

It's my and Beth's job to clarify outcomes. We go through the upcoming week, day by day, and Erika documents on the calendar everyone's activities. Each person is asked not only to express what they have going on, but how that will affect someone else or what they might need from someone else. This continues until we reach the following Sunday. Items not expressed during this sync-meeting are considered "out of scope" and are negotiated separately as they occur. (More on our change management process in a future article.)

The second thing accomplished during these sync-meetings, focused more on development, is that we have a chance to learn through practice.
  • We learn to surface our needs clearly and express them in terms of their impact on the rest of the team. Saying you have dance practice and saying you need a ride to dance practice are two entirely different needs from the perspective of the only two drivers in the family, Beth and me.
  • We learn to respect the deliverables of others as equally important as ours. This is a challenge for two teenage girls who are still learning that the world does not revolve around them and their lives.
  • We learn to temporarily turn off or ignore the distractions of the phone, the TV and other interruptions and focus on the task at hand.
  • We learn to negotiate respectfully. This is a work in progress, and as you might expect with two teenage girls who are as different as can be, it challenges all my meeting facilitation skills on a regular basis. However, the more we all practice, the better we get.
  • We learn the natural limitations of time and resources and how they affect our individual deliverables. Somewhere in all their needs and wants, schoolwork and our jobs still have to get done. The girls have learned to explore alternatives for better use of time, money and resources to pursue their interests. Although sometimes we feel like chauffeurs, I like to remind them we are more like taxis. You pay to ride and the fee is always negotiable.
We learn all this in the context of the safest environment possible - the family. We have found it is one of our greatest exercises, and is irreplaceable in building the trust and respect necessary for our team.

When we started this practice many years ago and the girls were much younger, it was a challenge to maintain their attention long enough to get any information out of them. (Perhaps this sounds like some of your customers or project sponsors, unavailable or unable to express their requirements but expecting them delivered just the same.)

We have all learned the benefit of the Sunday dinner calendar sync-meetings, and have come to rely on the central communication the calendar provides. Whether you use a project web site, some team collaboration software, or good old fashion sync-meetings, providing a deliberate and consistent forum for clarifying the responsibilities between the roles is essential to creating teams that operate well.

The best part? Our sync-meeting tool cost a mere $1.99.

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