Building a Learning Culture, One Meeting at a Time

Aug 15, 2018 by Matthew Baker Comments (0)

Just over a year ago, when the USAID LEARN team grew to 30+ staff, we noticed a gap in our learning and knowledge management practices. Ad hoc conversations and team-wide emails were no longer working for such a large group of people to share important information. So, set out to design a weekly meeting to meet the following needs:

  • First, we needed to create an opportunity for staff to be aware of how each other is doing. One of our team values is nurturing, and we take this very seriously. As our daily schedules pulled us in many different directions, we wanted to make time to all be in the same room together (and connect with remote staff via phone).
  • Second, the meeting needed to be a venue for staff to become aware of what each other is working on to encourage coordination and reduce duplication of effort.
  • Third, the meeting needed to facilitate learning and knowledge sharing, particularly as it relates to contextual information about our work and operating environment.

Oh, and all in 30 minutes.

So how did we do it? Let me share how we currently do it and perhaps inspire you to apply our approach to your own meetings. Along the way, I’ll also share a few insights into those meetings using some textual and sentiment analysis on the data we have collected about these meetings so far.

During these Monday morning stand-up (yes, we actually stand around a conference room table) meetings, each of the 30+ members of our team answer three questions in a round-robin fashion. After a period of experimentation with the structure of the weekly meeting sessions, we landed on each team member–both in person and those joining remotely–answering the following three questions with an optional last item:

  • What is your one-word check-in? This could be anything–a feeling about upcoming work obligations or weekend activities, an allusion to the weather, etc. In interest of time, an explanation is not permitted, though curious colleagues frequently inquire about the reason or story behind particularly interesting words after the meeting is over.
  • What is your priority for the week? This is the most clearly work-related part of the meeting where people describe what they plan to focus on that week.
  • What did you learn last week? This could be anything from insights gleaned from a presentation attended the previous week, to an important piece of contextual information or a technological tip.
  • Optional Item: Words of appreciation for fellow teammates or requests for help.

The one word check-in words are recorded using PollEverywhere, and a word cloud is generated each week. We believe this meeting structure can have some real positive impact on team morale, especially as staff members head into the week. The meeting sends the following sorts of implicit (and sometimes explicit) messages:

  • Each team member’s voice is important to hear, and their emotional states are acknowledged rather than ignored.
  • It is important for staff to set work priorities for the week and stay informed of others’ priorities so as to facilitate collaboration and efficiency.
  • Continuous learning is the key to ongoing improvements in performance.
  • Expressing gratitude and asking for assistance are encouraged.

These Monday morning stand-up meetings therefore set the right tone for the week and allow the surfacing of any real issues, while also reinforcing the psychological safety of the team. In sum, our Monday gatherings point to the things we care about the most and represent attempts to embody LEARN’s values in our everyday work.

The words we have collected over the past year bear out some of these assumptions. The word cloud in Figure 1 below depicts the most frequently mentioned words from the one-word check-ins during Monday stand-up meetings from the past year, and it is clear that they revolve around being focused, excited, rested, grateful and ready.

Word Cloud

Figure 1. Word Cloud Using Most Frequently Used Words from Weekly Monday Meetings from LEARN from 2017-2018.

The positivity of the most frequently mentioned words might seem surprising for a Monday morning meeting, but this finding is also borne out by some simple sentiment analysis of the three words we collected. Using the NRC Emotion Lexicon, a list of English words and their associations with eight basic emotions (anger, fear, anticipation, trust, surprise, sadness, joy, and disgust) and two sentiments (negative and positive), we can look a little more systematically. Using an algorithm to categorize each of these words as positive or negative in nature, it is evident that around 70% of the check-in words mentioned during our Monday stand-up meetings were positive. One quarter of the words used were related to joy (26%) and anticipation (24%), followed by trust (20%) and surprise (14%). Less than five percent of the words used were related to fear, anger or disgust. These findings are depicted in Figure 2.

Chart 1

Figure 2. Positive and Negative Polarity and Emotional Categories for LEARN Three Words.

Structuring any meeting to achieve its desired aim may require some thought but it need not be complicated. The structure of LEARN’s Monday morning stand-up meetings is simple but allows us to collectively focus our attention on how we are doing and what we plan on doing, and provides a venue for us to share back what we’re learning.

How have you structured your regular meetings to support a learning culture?