If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’
– Dave Barry
John Kenneth Galbraith said “meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.” This isn’t because meetings are unnecessary. They serve an important purpose in any organization or team, providing a place to share information and ideas, to make decisions and solve problems, to formulate strategy and orchestrate change.
A meeting is also extremely valuable time because you’re paying everyone to participate. But are you really getting your money’s worth? Are you fully capitalizing on the learning-potential in your meetings? Are you using your meeting time well, or are you wasting it?
If the answers to these questions make you wince a bit, here are some ideas to help you get far more value out of your meetings:
Have a clear purpose – The first step is to get clear on what your meeting is all about. What are you trying to accomplish by having the meeting? Another way to think about it is this: what should be different in your team organization after the meeting is complete? These are important questions. There’s no way to know who should attend, how long it should last, or how to structure it, until you’re clear on WHY you’re having the meeting in the first place. Is it just to disseminate information? Help people grapple with decisions and problems? A little of both? Get clear on the purpose of the meeting and make sure everyone understands it.
Have a clear decision making process – One of the easiest ways to waste time and energy in meetings is to have an undisciplined, fuzzy, inconsistent decision-making process. Make sure people know that a decision is being made, who is helping them to make it, and how long you want to spend wrestling with the relevant information to help the person making the decision do so in the most informed way possible.
Have the right people in the room – It doesn’t do any good to have a well-defined purpose and a clear decision-making protocol unless you have the right people around the table. As yourself these questions: In order to achieve the intended purpose of the meeting, who needs to be in the room? What views, information, and ideas need to be present to help make the smartest decisions possible? Who will be essential in helping implement the decision?
Establish a structure that suits the purpose – Taking the purpose of their meetings into account, one of my clients decided to structure their executive team meetings in two parts. The first part was for sharing information – status updates, reports, and other information sharing that helped keep the team on the same page. The second part of the meeting was for wrestling with decisions, addressing problems, looking at new opportunities, and other issues that required rigorous dialogue and collaborative critical thinking. The length of each segment, and, therefore, the meeting itself, varied depending on the amount of work on the agenda each week. They structured their meetings around the work they needed to do, in other words, rather than try and find stuff to do with the time set aside for the meeting. Because they used their time so wisely the value of their meetings increased dramatically.
Provide advance notice for big issues so people can bring their best thinking to the meeting – We all know people who are microwave thinkers, able to wrap their mind around an idea quickly. We also know people who are Crock-Pot thinkers who need more cognitive stew time to think an issue through. If you’ve got a mix of such people on your team, one way to help everyone participate in meetings more effectively is to provide them information ahead of time so they can noodle it over. Encourage people time to think about the issues you’re asking the team to address, to gather data and assemble their thoughts, so they come far more prepared for the conversations in the meeting. What questions do you want people to consider before the meeting? What information do you want them to review?
High conversational capacity – You can have all this other stuff right and your meetings still won’t work if the conversational capacity – the ability to have open, balanced, learning-focused dialogue about tough issues and in challenging circumstances – is too low. Many of my clients create a conversational code of conduct – a clear, shared agreement for what they expect from one another – and what they expect not to see from one another – as they go about their work. They agree to a set of principles and behaviors that help them maintain balanced meetings, where the conversations are candid and curious, so they’re on the same page not just about what they’re trying to accomplish but also how they’ll work together to accomplish it.
Here are a few questions for you and your colleagues to consider:
- Considering the 6 things listed in this article, what do we need more of, and less, for our meetings to be far more effective?
- Is the purpose of our meeting clear? Do people know what the meeting is designed to accomplish?
- Do people know what’s expected of them in meetings?
- How clear is the decision-making process in our team?
- Do we have a clear and actionable set of expectations for how we’ll work together in our meetings?
- What steps will we take to build our conversational capacity?