M.I.N.M.: Fireside Chats
Who: Peter Kirwan, chief technology officer, NaviSite Inc.
Players: About 20 technologists
Frequency: Quarterly. Each chat runs about 30 minutes.
Why I Never Miss It:"I'm on the road a great deal, and these chats give me a good beat on the collective mood. When you hear several people say the same thing, you know that's an important issue."
The trouble with the pace of work today, even at companies with free-flowing email, is that there's so little time for reflection. That's why Peter Kirwan, 35, chief technology officer of NaviSite Inc., a leading provider of outsourced Web-hosting and application services, schedules quarterly "fireside chats" with his 20-plus engineers, programmers, and technical writers. (The company is a majority-owned subsidiary of CMGI. Its minority investors include both Dell Computer and Microsoft.) These one-on-one sessions are designed to be what life on Internet time isn't - cozy, comfortable, relaxed. Kirwan serves tea, cocoa, or coffee in front of a cardboard cutout of a fireplace.
"Technologists are experts at systems thinking and at problem solving," Kirwan says. "And a company is a complex system. The role of these fireside chats is to identify - and to fix - organizational bugs and difficulties."
Relaxed honesty. "This is a chance to discuss tough issues in a friendly, informal setting. My role is to ask questions that help people to open up: How can we make the company more fun? How can you become more productive? Business issues are always changing, and so are personal and organizational issues. That's why holding these chats regularly is so important."
Constructive criticism. "Open-ended chats can easily turn into gripe sessions. The basic expectation here is that if you have a complaint, you have some responsibility for resolving it - whether or not it falls within your official area of expertise. After one fireside chat, a programmer who had some concerns about our organizational structure helped us devise a reorganization plan. We eventually implemented the plan that his concerns set in motion - with great results."
Therapy lite. "I start the meeting by opening a homemade cardboard 'fireplace' and pulling up two chairs. It's a purposely silly ritual: If the atmosphere is deadly earnest, people clam up.
"So I'm always working to keep the tone informal and candid - to help people discern the issues that are critical. Sometimes, I feel more like a therapist than like a manager."
How much conversation actually takes place. "The more people talk, the more I learn."
A version of this article appeared in the October 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.