Meeting Mayhem and Magic
I was invited to observe a meeting with a client last week. Ten of the invitees arrived on time but the meeting didn’t start on time because a couple of ‘key’ people were missing. And then, when it finally got underway, I realized that most of the attendees weren’t sure what the meeting was all about. As the conversation progressed, one or two people dominated the conversation and the rest to varying degrees, were mere onlookers. In fact, many were so disengaged they were sitting back from the table, staring into space or their smartphones. If you have never experienced a meeting like that, PLEASE let me know .... you’ll be in a very elite group.
Unfortunately, the experience above is an all too common experience. When I talk to clients about frustrations in the workplace, a common topic is unproductive meetings. Let’s have a look at the scenario described above; there is more to it:
- Ten people arrived on-time and waited 10 minutes for their missing attendees – that is a total waste of time of 100 minutes (1 hour and 40 minutes).
- Meetings, very generally, are there to provide information or solve problems and set a direction or course of action. With no clear idea of what the purpose of the meeting was, many things were discussed at a very shallow level, and the whole organisation failed to move forward.
- Everyone who attended the meeting was, supposedly, there for a reason – they should have added value to the meeting and the meeting should have added value to the company’s output and outcome. The two people that did all the talking, regardless of their experience and expertise, were looking at the world from their ‘limited’ perspective, imposing their habitual thinking.
- The other people were not able to add their perspectives, they were not adding to the quality of the discussion. They were not being given the opportunity or encouraged to provide the ‘different’ way of looking at things that just may have been the key to achieving greatness. Neither the algorithm that put Google WAY ahead of its competition, nor (topical just now) the single multistage Apollo rocket system that got man on the moon were introduced by the people that did all the talking
But it’s even worse than that. Those kinds of meeting may not only be limiting value creation, they may also be destroying value:
- Only the people who did all the talking went away with a feeling of having enjoyed the meeting. But they weren’t challenged by the discussion so didn’t add their full potential to the meeting. The rest went away having learned little, contributed little, and added little of their potential. No novel solutions to complex company problems.
- Those ‘other’ attendees at best felt neutral (probably resigned to the idea that this is how meetings go), or had a sense of frustration which would take a while to overcome as they slowly got back into their ‘value creating’ role.
- While in the meeting, those valuable employees were not doing their value adding role which they were desperate to get back to. There is a double whammy here: no value-add in the meeting and no value-add in their non-meeting role. All of a sudden, 10 of the people in that meeting had ‘wasted’ 10 hours.
So, what to do about that? Here are 6 things you can do for your next meeting that will have a very quick impact on meeting productivity:
- 1. Time. Lead by good example. Set a start time. Start on time. Set a strong ‘expectation’ that meetings will start at the time specified. A meeting takes as long as it takes – not an hour as dictated by our schedulers.
- 2. Purpose. Set an agenda– that can be a list of things to be discussed, decided upon, issues to be solved. Or it can be a statement: “today we are going to solve the xyz issue”. Often in meetings, less is more – one good solved problem is better than 10 half-discussed and unresolved issues. Set an expectation of the output and outcome of the meeting.
- 3. Contribution. Ensure everyone knows why they are there and what they need to contribute. Set the expectation that they are there ‘to contribute’. This is where that agenda helps, so people can be prepared.
- 4. Inclusion. Ensure everyone ‘can’ contribute – there are many ways to ensure people are included in the discussion. Many people, especially more junior or introvert people, have lots of good things to say or add, but just don't know how to contribute. Help them. You may need to have one-on-ones with people outside meetings to help them with this aspect of their professional development. Encourage the ‘talker’ to give other people a chance – be prepared to limit their talking time in a meeting.
- 5. Focus. Remove distractions: don't allow side conversations; ask / tell people to put their smart phone out of sight, out of hearing, and out of touch (so not in a pocket) – some companies have a policy of leaving them outside the meeting room.
- 6. Action. For short or creative meetings, stand (don't sit) around a whiteboard and give everyone a whiteboard pen. There is a strong link between action, learning and creativity.
If your meetings are more like the ones described in the opening paragraph, then this will come as a challenge to many of your people – but, trust me, they will welcome the change.
There is of course another major element to this (and the topic for a future post), that the purpose of the meeting should dictate the approach. Solving a complex problem will require a very creative process, which is different from reviewing a list of admin items that need consensus, or updates to keep everyone informed. Regardless of the type of meeting you need to hold, the above guidelines should give you a boost to get the most out of any type of meeting.
We could have tried to go to the moon, land and return with just one single HUGE rocket, that was the expert view – it’s a good job NASA listened to a mid-level engineer who suggested the innovative Apollo System that was eventually used.