Find Another Way (a.k.a. Better Than Gluten-Free Pasta)

Last week, I had an interesting conversation over lunch with a smart, savvy friend who’s a senior leader in a large global organisation. We were discussing the changes to workplace dynamics due to people working from home. As one example, she compared online meetings with in-person meetings – and in particular, how difficult it was to create the same sort of personal connection in online meetings.

I pointed out that many leaders and managers try to make an online meeting just like an in-person meeting, even though they are not the same thing. Instead of trying to create the same experience, ask yourself, ”What I am trying to achieve by calling this meeting?” And you might find other – better – ways to achieve the same thing.

My friend replied, “Oh, yes, I understand what you mean now! It’s like me with Celiac disease. I can’t eat gluten, but when I go to an Italian restaurant, I don’t order gluten-free pasta because it tastes bland. Instead of putting up with a poor substitute, I look for other options on the menu that I can enjoy.”

That’s exactly right!

(See, I told you she was smart)

This pandemic has changed many of the things we took for granted, and is forcing us to find new ways to do old things: meetings, greetings, dining, socialising, schooling, and more.

When we look for alternatives, it’s natural to try to replicate the old way, because we’re familiar with it. But that’s not necessarily the best way to find a suitable alternative.

When you create a poor substitute, it’s easy to find faults with it. If you say, “A Zoom meeting will never be as good as meeting in person!”, you can find plenty of reasons to justify that:

  • “We don’t get cues from body language.”
  • “It’s too easy for people to get distracted.”
  • “We never seem to get the technology exactly right.”
  • “There’s always somebody who has trouble with the tech.”
  • “We get Zoom fatigue from attending too many meetings.”
  • “We don’t have those informal five-minute chats walking back to our desks.”
  • … and so on.

But instead of trying to make do with a gluten-free meeting, a much better approach is to ask what problem you’re solving and then find a better solution to that problem.

In other words: Know your goal, and find another way to achieve it.

For example, if your weekly meeting brings people together for a status update, you could achieve the same result without a meeting – for example, with group email, regular chat using Slack or Teams, or separate one-on-one conversations. Even better, if you had an online status dashboard, you might not even need everybody to share their status update in any other way.

Your meeting might have other goals as well, so you need alternative solutions to achieve them all. And sometimes a meeting might even be the best way to achieve a goal. But don’t assume it! Each “problem” might have many solutions, so actively look for alternative solutions.

Build the habit of looking at things differently.

As I said, it’s natural to start with what’s familiar. That’s why the earliest online shopping Web sites were grouped in a “shopping mall” (even though the concept of a “mall” makes no sense online). And it’s why computer keyboards still use the QWERTY layout, which was designed for early typewriters.

If you want to change this habit of defaulting to the familiar, here’s a simple three-step exercise I use in workshops …

First, think of something that has changed as a result of COVID-19, and write a statement complaining about it – for example:

“A Zoom meeting is not as good as an in-person meeting.”
“A telehealth consultation with my doctor is not as good as an appointment in her rooms.”
“Bumping elbows is not as good as a firm handshake.”

Next, change that statement around by swapping the old and the new. In other words, if your original statement is, “A is not as good as B”, change it to, “B is not as good as A” – like this:

“An in-person meeting is not as good as a Zoom meeting.”
“An appointment to visit my doctor is not as good as a telehealth consultation.”
“A handshake is not as good as bumping elbows.”

Finally, force yourself to find at least 10 reasons to justify this new statement.

For example, I’ll get you started with “An in-person meeting is not as good as a Zoom meeting”:

  • “We can invite people from outside the office.”
  • “We don’t have to worry about parking, traffic, etc.”
  • “The meeting room isn’t still occupied by the previous meeting running late.”
  • “We can record it automatically.”
  • “It can get transcribed automatically and stored for easy search and retrieval later.”
  • “We can play back the recording for coaching purposes.”
  • “There’s no paper involved.”
  • “There’s no risk of spreading COVID-19.”
  • … you get the idea!

The goal of this exercise is to disrupt your thinking by taking a different perspective. Even if you don’t find any practical, useful ideas in your list (but I bet you do!), it’s worth doing the exercise just to break up your thinking patterns.

Try it now – by yourself and with your team. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.


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