How to handle the blow-up meeting and create breakthroughs

If you're going to challenge people’s assumptions, be prepared to manage tough dialogs and lead them to breakthrough moments.

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When you lead digital transformation initiatives or manage change management programs, you are likely to find yourself in meetings that fall off the status-quo cliff. In these meetings, you intentionally or unintentionally catch one or more participants off guard in a way that hits a nerve. You challenged their thinking on a fundamental issue that is important to them, and they responded emotionally to what they perceive as a confrontation or even a threat.

I call these blow-up meetings, and how you respond to the situation can create a pivotal moment in the transformation or change management program. Handle it empathetically and help people to adjust to a new way of thinking, and you create a breakthrough moment that can accelerate your transformation or change management program in the desired direction. Fail to address the emotions and align people in a direction and you may send people home bewildered and require several follow-up sessions to get everyone realigned.

Thus, in my experience leading transformation programs, you have to view and manage the blow-up meeting as both an opportunity and a risk. What to listen for, how to read people’s emotions, and what the right words to say and when to say them are keys to navigating these meetings.

Mastering the inadvertent blow-up meeting

Many blow-up meetings happen inadvertently and sometimes spontaneously. You might be ending a meeting and assigning action items when a manager has the stark realization that they are assigned new work when they already feel overloaded. In another meeting, you might be debating a course of action when a participant expresses an emotional response to an issue they feel passionate about.  You might encounter reactions to setting new priorities, asking leaders to commit to a deadline, or selecting solutions for implementation.

Because these blow-ups are inadvertent, there are steps on how to manage them and turn a delicate situation into a breakthrough moment:

  1. The person leading the meeting should be the one to handle the response. However, if he or she does not have the knowledge or experience to manage it well, then the more senior person in the room should take the lead.
  2. Provide some room for the person or people to express themselves. Listen attentively for their key concerns or issues and what’s driving their reactions.
  3. Before responding, think about the broader context that might have triggered the reaction. What happened at this meeting and before it? What else might be going on in the person’s job and life that might also factor in why, how, and when they responded?
  4. Consider who is in the room. There may be some things that can be said and managed while everyone is attending, while more personal matters that must be handled in a smaller group or individually.
  5. After listening, your first attempts should be to address the emotions and look for signs that the person is ready to hear your feedback. When you are leading the response, your primary mission is to get to this state. You may not succeed, in which case you should pull out of the meeting and handle the discussion privately.
  6. If you do succeed, then use this opportunity to pivot the meeting. Invest the time to develop a shared understanding of the targeted direction. Continue to listen for feedback on where you need to adjust the direction that you are setting.
  7. If you get this far, you can cement a breakthrough moment by documenting the direction, findings, decisions, and concerns.

Orchestrating the blow-up meeting

The second type of blow-up meeting is a deliberate orchestration. In this case, you already know that a team is misaligned, and you are purposefully setting up a meeting to realign and reset the direction. But instead of addressing the situation head-on and possibly creating a confrontation, you elect to orchestrate a meeting to draw out dissenting opinions. The objective is to unfold the elephant in the room, expose the conflict, and then orchestrate a breakthrough moment in people’s thinking.

I find this approach most important in organizations that make many decisions by committee. It’s hard to break this culture or define clear lines of decision-making. Directly confronting leaders in these cultures is likely to create a visceral reaction from principal stakeholders and achieve little or no results. But orchestrate a scenario to challenge people’s thinking indirectly, and asked to respond to something that you show them, then the discussion can sometimes lead to the desired breakthrough.

The key to this meeting is to show something new and unexpected for people to respond and provide feedback. One way of doing this is with data and showing leaders the analytics and insights that challenge status-quo thinking. When you show the analytics to a broader audience, you might find that your assumptions were wrong and must regroup to adjust your approach. However, if the analytics is on target then leaders are forced to respond to the facts, and that this often leads to a breakthrough moment.

Other types of visualizations can lead to blow-up meetings and breakthrough moments. If there’s a better technology solution than what decision-makers are considering, completing a proof of concept and demonstrating its benefits may result in new thinking of the requirements. Running surveys and sharing both quantitative and qualitative feedback is an effective way to raise issues and concerns from people doing the work to leaders and decision-makers. Capturing and showing videos of how people are working, where customers are struggling, or what’s happening in the regions the company operates in can all bring new perspectives that challenge assumptions and breakthrough stubborn mindsets.

Once you create the blow-up moment, then follow the same management points I identified earlier. Because you’ve orchestrated the moment, you have the opportunity to have supporters in the room helping with the realignment, and you should know the likely detractors. Use this to your advantage to prepare for facilitating a break-through moment.

If you succeed in the breakthrough, then your job isn’t complete as most people will naturally go back to their comfort zones. Consider how you will follow up with people to ensure the breakthrough moment is instilled in peoples’ mindsets. 

Transformation and change management aren’t easy-to-lead programs. If you are going to challenge people’s thinking, assumptions, and mindset, then be prepared to manage tough dialogs and lead them to breakthrough moments.

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