How to implement Mini-M support groups
In the last post, we looked at how Mini-Ms work and what they are. In this post, we cover how to implement Mini-M support groups.
This post is second in a series:
- Last post, we looked at how Mini-Ms work and what they are.
- In this post, we cover how to implement Mini-Ms.
- Next, we discuss variations you may want to consider.
- Finally, we share a history of Mini-Ms, including where the name came from.
Mini-M implementation principles
To roll out Mini-Ms, you need to know what to optimize for. These principles can help you as you introduce Mini-Ms to make sure you’re focusing your efforts.
- The single most important thing is that participants feel safe and able to be vulnerable. All of your decisions around how to set things up should optimize for psychological safety. \
“[Mini-Ms should be] a safe place to vent, both about frustrations with the team that you manage or frustrations with your own manager or senior leaders. This is much healthier than bonding inappropriately with your tech leads or your organizational aunts and uncles. Encouraging this, without becoming overly negative, is always a balancing act. But I think a good Mini-M should feel slightly conspiratorial.” – Nic Benders
Mini-Ms are diverse, deliberately. You want participants to feel like they are from a random selection of teams. This helps avoid groupthink. Ideally, you’re talking with managers from product engineering, infrastructure engineering, and platform teams. They all have different ways of working and contribute different perspectives.
“Everyone should be about the same level, hierarchically and energy wise. A bunch of keen new managers will learn way more from each other than they will learn from someone who has seen it all.” – Nic Benders. I’ll add that the facilitator can be a little more experienced as long as they are careful not to make it a teaching session.
Steps to roll out Mini-Ms
- Identify the Organizer.
- Create an implementation plan, modeled on this and modified to your purposes.
- Identify Facilitators.
- Train Facilitators.
- Communicate program to managers.
- Organizer creates Mini-M assignments.
- Run first sessions.
- Retrospect and adapt.
Roles in a Mini-M
You have three main roles:
- Usually a senior leader in the Engineering organization. Needs to be trusted.
- Responsible for the overall program.
- Decides who goes in what group.
- Decides who the facilitators are.
- Monitors how well the groups are doing.
- Shuffles members when groups aren’t working.
- Encourages Facilitators to learn from each other. This often meant lunches or meetings to check in with Facilitators.
- Assigns new people to groups.
- Responsible for the overall effectiveness of the program, to senior leadership.
- Leads a Mini-M group.
- Facilitates each Mini-M meeting. Ensure quiet people speak, and that people have equivalent time speaking.
- Schedules meetings.
- Makes the group function as a team.
- Make sure participants are fully engaged, with cameras on. Follow up with people who aren’t participating, to understand why and to encourage participation.
- Make space for venting, but ensure that the group problem-solves. Don’t allow the group to become a complaint session.
- Consult with the Organizer when there are challenges or the group isn’t gelling.
- Attends Mini-M meetings.
- Brings problems to share with their group.
- Provides a sounding board and shares solutions. One of the most powerful things a Mini-M can do is to reassure a participant that they are not alone in their problem, provide a different perspective that might ameliorate the problem, or help workshop a solution.
- Maintains confidentiality of conversations held within the group. This of course is as long as it isn’t something egregious that would require reporting to PeopleOps.
Advice for Mini-M Facilitators
The most critical factor that determines the success of a group is that the first few meetings must establish a sense of vulnerability. People need to build a sense of trust with each other, and must feel comfortable bringing up their challenges. In organizations with low trust or high competitiveness, this can be a challenge.
One of the larger things Facilitators need to watch out for is participants that are showing off, criticizing others, or trying to look good. This is a meeting for showing your underbelly. It is a meeting where showing your weakness is desirable.
Facilitators can explicitly discuss this in the first meeting. But they also need to model this behavior. Because the first few meetings are so critical, they should also intervene to stop unwanted behavior. Waiting until after the meeting is over may not be sufficiently timely. Intervention can be a delicate matter, requiring tact, attentiveness, and sometimes humor.
Why are the first few meetings so important? Social psychology suggests that groups settle into patterns of behavior within the first couple of meetings. After that, it takes much more effort to change the expectations of a group. It’s also a crucial window to show the value of the group. If participants see the value in the first few meetings, they make it a priority to attend consistently. If they don’t, you will struggle with flagging attendance.
A good working agreement might be to abide by ”Chatham House Rules”.
The group should feel like they own the meeting. You as Facilitator can modify the format of the meeting to suit the needs of your group. You should feel some freedom to experiment. One Facilitator told me they made a point to throw out the structure, and that it worked as well or even better after doing so. The initial structure was helpful as people were getting used to it, but after that it was most important that the participants were getting what they needed out of it.
Groups can sometimes devolve into complaining. “Having someone ask ‘What can this group do about that right now?’ and leaving with action items was a sign of a useful meeting. This often turned into small projects with the collaborators being the Engineering Managers of that group.” – Jason Poole, former Organizer.
Facilitators can help build empathy across the organization by asking skillful questions. For example, if someone is complaining about a decision a leader in the organization made, the Facilitator might ask, “Why do you think the leader made that decision?” The Facilitator is not the mouthpiece for the organization’s leadership, but they can encourage an appreciation for the tough calls that leadership has to make.
One issue for in-person groups can be putting things on a whiteboard. You need to make sure the room is private, so topics aren’t visible to passersby.
Advice for Mini-M Organizers
One of the most important parts of your role is to ensure the groups are going well. This means you should be periodically polling participants, and talking with Facilitators about problems.
When you find a group that isn’t working well, don’t let it persist. It’s often better to explode the group and shuffle some group members to form new Mini-Ms than to let people have a bad experience with Mini-Ms.
You can vary the size of the Mini-Ms depending on the rate of participation. When participation is lower, raise the size of the groups. You need at least three people to attend meetings for them to be useful.
It can be difficult to know if the Facilitator is an effective Facilitator or not. Some groups don’t gel for reasons unrelated to the Facilitator’s effectiveness. If you see a pattern of groups not performing well under a Facilitator, change the Facilitator. The effectiveness of the group is the most important thing. You might choose to coach them, but don’t have them compromise the effectiveness of the group.
When organizing participants into groups, we took care to ensure that people were never with their managers. And we generally aimed to have people in the group not report to the same manager. This made for more of a safe space, and also bred cross-organizational ties. Bjorn: “Many people, when I first describe mini-Ms, don’t grasp that the boss cannot be part of the Mini-M. It’s a peer group and having any senior executive or boss as a part of group, whether it was me or someone from human resources or anyone else would destroy that peer group.”
At New Relic, “manager of manager” groups were largely less successful than frontline manager groups. Participation was lower, and perhaps the perceived value was lower. To counter this, we made the groups larger. A core group would attend, and the rest would either not attend at all, or attend more sporadically. One theory for this was that VPs and Directors had more difficulty being vulnerable with each other, making their groups less successful.
Contact me if you’re interested in getting some help rolling this out. What we will provide is:
- A detailed implementation plan, customized to the needs of your organization.
- A timeline to roll it out.
- A description of the artifacts each role will need to track.
- A checklist of steps each person will need to do.
- A training for Facilitators and the Organizer.
- Implementation assistance while you’re kicking off the program.
- (Optionally) We’ll run a few Mini-M sessions, to help set the pattern for how they should operate.
Let me know your experiences
I’d love to hear from you if your organization is experimenting with Mini-Ms or something similar.
Not a lot has been written about Mini-Ms, but there is one post currently on the New Relic blog, and another that has mysteriously vanished.
Bjorn Freeman-Benson was the founder of the Mini-M practice. He shared a lot of his thinking about the principles behind why Mini-Ms were successful and what they were aiming for. He advised me to break up this post into sections and make it easier to get to the implementation section. And shared overall feedback.
Nic Benders ran the first Mini-M, and established and evolved the practice. He also ran one of the more influential Mini-Ms for years. He reviewed this post, offered feedback, and contributed to the history section and described some of the design goals for Mini-Ms.
Darin Swanson authored some content that were inspirations for large parts of this article. He and I have worked together on helping other companies implement Mini-Ms, so contact me if you’re interested in help. He also provided feedback and suggestions on drafts of this article. He encouraged me to explain the first team concept more fully, and to describe why pre-product market fit companies may not be a good match. And he suggested I split the content into separate articles.
Elaine May provided feedback, some of which was so good I just ended up quoting her. She was gracious enough to offer some talk to talk about her experiences setting up or participating in similar programs at other companies. And she talked about her experiences with me in New Relic’s Mini-Ms. Elaine introduced me to the Chatham House Rules, which I incorporated into the post.
Merlyn Albery-Speyer helped me improve the section on “when to use Mini-Ms” by pointing out some preconditions for success. He pointed out that the structure became less important after the Mini-M is established. Merlyn pointed out that we tried to keep people from being in the same Mini-M as their managers, or other people reporting to the same manager. He also shared the theory about VPs not being willing to be vulnerable as a possible explanation for why the Mini-Ms never took off in manager of manager groups to the same extent they did for frontline managers.
Molly Graham contributed the section on “Manager coaching circles” in the variations post. She has an insightful newsletter.
Jason Poole shared his experience as an Organizer of Mini-Ms. He pointed out a now mostly disappeared second post on Mini-Ms. He also suggested ways Facilitators could counter unproductive ranting, and pointed out how effective the Mini-Ms were for improving our performance reviews.
Marty Matheny shared feedback based on his experience as an Organizer. He helped improve the advice for Organizers. And he pointed out that engineering adjacent departments participated.
Chris Hansen pointed out that confidentiality was an issue with whiteboards. He noticed an error that would have been embarrassing. He pointed out the value of M-teams in distributed organizations to counter isolation among managers. He also added some advice for participants. Chris also helped with a point about the value of the first few meetings.
Teresa Martyny reviewed a draft of this post and pointed out some redundant assertions I was making. And she recommended I break this into multiple posts or edit for brevity.
Natasha Litt was another early Mini-M leader, and she reviewed a draft of the post and contributed to it.
Marco Rogers influenced some of my thinking on building communities in a recent conversation, so some of his ideas were reflected in that section.
Image by Ekaterina Ershova from Pixabay
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