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Running Effective Meetings

Meetings are the space in our day we make to provide some sort of service to other people.

In a recent workshop I attended on running effective meetings, the facilitator reeled off some statistics. According to The Muse and Atlassian, the average employee attends 62 meetings per month. Of these, around 50% are a waste of time. Executives take an even dimmer view of the scene and attest to 67% of meetings being a complete failure in communicating the reason for the meeting. Turning to the group, the facilitator asked, ‘what does that tell you?’ By way of answer, I quipped: ‘I’m impressed that people think meetings are so effective.’ Cheap laugh out the way, and we apprehend a challenge to an organisation’s Strategic Outlook that is hiding in plain sight — the illusion that communication has taken place because we held a meeting.

There is nothing original about this observation, if you work in a bog standard company then chances are you have seen mugs with ‘this meeting should have been an email’ laying around. Perhaps there is a ‘Ten Commandments’ for meeting etiquette taped to a wall, or more likely laying on the floor as the sign has been there so long the adhesive has finally given way. For those wandering this wasteland of efficiency and productivity I have little comfort to offer because the root cause is human nature. Some people are productive — that is they are motivated, literate, insightful, and self-aware — while others will tend to social loaf because ‘there will always be work’.

However, while there is no light at the end of the tunnel, those who are keen to effect change can improve the quality of the tunnel. This takes the shape of addressing some of the symptoms, long present in organisations, that the recent Covid pandemic exacerbated.

Managing Vs Leading Meetings

One of the key failings of many meetings, is a lack of shared understanding. Be it understanding why everyone is there; understanding roles and responsibilities once there; understanding what the meeting should achieve; understanding what the meeting has achieved — usually nothing more than the need for another meeting; understanding who is accountable for the meeting actions; or understanding the value to the organisation — by this I mean the real value not the asserted value by the manager in the room with positional authority. This lack of shared understanding has only worsened in recent years as people were cut off from their offices.

While many see working from home as both a productivity boon, and a right, essential elements of the communication process are lost when we drop to two dimensions and become little more than talking heads — that is when people manage to turn on their cameras.

Poor managers will respond to this issue by doubling down on their preferred approach — ‘get everyone into the office’ or ‘get everyone online and into an alignment meeting’. This is what I term the positional authority approach as it seeks to leverage organisation charts, line management, and that curse of effective communication — ‘let’s take this offline’.

Managers uttering the phrase ‘let’s take this offline’ seldom complete the reality of the sentence, which is: ‘let’s take this offline and into another meeting to try and achieve the outcome that should have been achieved by the first meeting’. The reason for this obfuscation is that anything less would highlight their management of the meeting for what it is — poor design and implementation of collaborative processes.

This brings me onto leadership vs management. The latter is largely driven by positional authority within an organisation. An example of this would be that as your manager, I am granted the authority to approve or deny your leave applications. It is usually assumed this positional authority is the result of me having some special knowledge about organisational behaviour, HR practices, and management philosophy, which equips me with the skills necessary to effectively manage your leave. The reality is usually lightyears from the ideal. Leadership, by contrast, requires no positional authority whatsoever. It manifests when someone has expertise, a capacity for argumentation, charisma, etc., and people listen to that individual not because they must, but because it makes sense to do so.

A meeting is an opportunity for any individual in an organisation to demonstrate leadership and take the attendees on a journey that will usually fall into one of five possible meeting types: Information Sharing, Kick-Offs, Decision Making, Problem Solving, and Brainstorming / Blue Sky thinking. Of these five meeting types, I would single out three purposes:

  1. Information Sharing: this type of meeting is fundamentally about education. That may seem self-evident, but if sharing information is little more than a data dump, e.g., me copying and pasting from Wikipedia, it is not going to achieve the same outputs as engaging in critical thinking, writing an article and taking a reader on a journey of illumination. A meeting is the same, if the attendee does not leave seeing the organisation and opportunity differently, hopefully for the better, the meeting has failed
  2. Creating Solutions: this can take the shape of innovating new approaches to existing problems, generating fresh ideas, or running a strategy session to ensure what happens next is by design and not accident.
  3. Decision Making: generally involves a manager or executive with the positional authority to decide on behalf of the team or organisation. These meetings are vital inflection points because from them can flow months of effort and millions of dollars of investment.

As is likely already percolating in your mind, the pitfalls, and opportunities to waste time in the above meeting types are myriad and readily apparent. This is where developing leadership skills in all team members comes in, so that if an employee attends a meeting, they have done their pre-reading, circulated any relevant notes ahead of time, considered some of the rabbit holes into which the meeting may dive and have some answers or an inchoate plan for how to pull the session back on track.

While this is easier said than done, and for each employee there will be a unique set of opportunities to achieve this meeting leadership nirvana, there are six things everyone can start doing today that over time will see a marked improvement in the quality of meetings in their organisation.

The first is to set clear expectations and involves things such as: why are we meeting (information sharing, decision making, etc.).

Second, define the roles and responsibilities of attendees. If it is a decision making meeting, ensure the relevant managers are present and that they have obtained any additional authorisation necessary so that a decision can be reached without the need to ‘take it offline’.

Meeting roles can be divided into four types:

  1. Advisers / Subject Matter Experts (SMEs): their role is to provide the information essential to achieve the projected meeting outcomes. They are required to give any additional detail needed for the effective generation of recommendations.
  2. Proposers: their role is to propose recommendations, options, or opportunities for decision. They may also be advisers / SMEs or decision makers in the meeting. Their role is distinct and essential as meetings can often end up with people sharing information, decision makers waiting to make a call, and no one proposing any recommendations from the information on which a decision can be made.
  3. Decision Makers: they are the only people in the meeting with the authority to make a call on behalf of a team or organisation. If their decision can be overridden by a more senior manager, it is their responsibility to obtain any sign off necessary ahead of time or engage their escalation point in the meeting. This underscores the importance of circulating information about the meeting ahead of time. Decision makers also need to ‘disagree and commit’ — a phrase coined by Jeff Bezos in a 2017 letter to Amazon shareholders. Put simply, decision making is not simply an opportunity to get your own way.
  4. Implementation Staff: they are responsible for acting on any meeting decisions or outcomes. While it is not always feasible, it is helpful if they can be in the meeting. Self-important managers who like the idea of ‘taking things offline’ and communicating meeting outcomes with execution staff in a vacuum, invariably create confusion and chaos as they steadily alter their story with the telling. Better to have execution staff in the room so they can hear the vision first hand and start thinking about how the implementation will begin to evolve.

Third, and linked to roles and responsibilities, is to ensure someone is tasked with keeping minutes and recording action items. It is helpful, if the meeting format allows, for these notes to be shown to the attendees in real time (either by sharing a screen or using a whiteboard). This helps to keep people present because seeing the action items will prompt them to call out anything missing or if assumptions are being made.

Fourth, engage with attendees. In person meetings are often challenging enough, but on remote calls people frequently have their camera and mic off, are doing other work, daydreaming, or I often wonder, have just left their desk with the meeting still running. I encourage you to cold call on people to ensure everyone feels included and is accountable. For your own part, please be prepared and ensure everything is circulated prior to the meeting so people don’t feel their time is being wasted. If people do feel their time is better spent elsewhere, this is an opportunity to understand why. Perhaps you could have done a better job, perhaps they need realigning as the meeting was run well but they are not comprehending the value of the process.

Fifth, communicate and enforce meeting etiquette. Arrive on time, avoid being on your phone, responding to an email or message, sitting idly with your camera off. And for the love of all things holy, unless it is specifically a breakfast meeting or a lunch and learn session, do not bring food to meetings. It doesn’t make you look ‘terribly busy and frightfully important’, just disorganised.

Finally, have a plan for how to close the meeting effectively. Respect your colleagues by assuming they have another meeting directly following this one. Therefore do NOT run to the last tick of the clock and ensure you allow everyone time to commute — both physical and mentally — to their next meeting. Also ensure you don’t leave the summation of outcomes, action points, and decisions to the last 30 seconds. I have seen people desperately trying to get a ‘so that is decided’ out of a group as people are leaving the room or dropping from the call.

What’s Time Got to Do with It?

I have a lot of time for Dr Tom Peters. His work over more than 40 years is as prolific as it is prescient. Yet where I am at odds with the esteemed thinker is when he observed:

The only thing on earth that never lies to you is your calendar.
— (Peters, 2014)

I would argue, particularly if you are in management, that the thing most likely to lie to you is your calendar. This is because our calendar, at least if we are not running effective meetings, is an impressive list of what we should have achieved in our week. Yet, take a moment in the still watches of the night and reflect truthfully on if you did achieve all those things.

Did the decision making meeting result in a decision or only in the need for another meeting to arrive at a decision? Did the information sharing meeting provide the information needed, or are you even more confused now than you were before the call? Did the solution session yield viable new avenues for revenue, or just pass the time until the next round of excuses to the board?

Where I think Dr Peters is on much more fertile ground is when observing, citing an idea from the Israeli executive Dov Frohman, that half of a leader’s time should be unscheduled. To explain why, I will return to the notion that managers are not necessarily leaders, and therefore this sentiment is about finding the thought leaders in an organisation and freeing up their week so that they are not mired in wall to wall meetings. This is critical as the leaders in an organisation are the ones who will be sharing information, innovating, and either taking or helping decision makers to form decisions — all of which requires they have the time to read and think. In short, do not assume that because someone’s calendar is packed that they are being bold with efficiency aspirations.

To address this, it is not advised to leave it up to individual employees to sort. Instead, the optimal approach is to conceptualise time management as an organisational problem. Mckinsey recommended five ways to achieve optimal balance in allocating time. I have adapted these slightly to arrive at the following:

  1. Implement a ‘time budget’: be it organisational change, implementing the outcomes of a decision, new ways of working, or simply doing your job to the best of your ability, ‘more time’ is often cited as the hinderance or blocker to the work. Managers need the time necessary to make decisions and endorse recommendations. If their available time is consumed with supervising employees or attending meetings, their decisions and endorsements will be sub-optimal. Employees, by extension, need the time necessary to prepare for meetings, prepare recommendations, and execute meeting outcomes.
  2. Conduct Time and Motion Studies: when professional management was in its infancy, people wandering around with stop watches were all the rage. While the modern employee tends to resent such an approach, there is much to ensuring people routinely measure their time and account for their activities. I have spent many fruitful moments helping people to reorganise their calendar so that it becomes a more accurate reflection of their output and creates the space necessary to be more effective.
  3. Assess Recurring Meetings: daily stand ups, routine WIPs, all hands calls, these are but some of the regular meetings that adorn the average work calendar. By revisiting these recurring meetings, and asking the meeting trinity questions listed below, managers can assess if value is being created or time wasted.
  4. Provide Support: understand your role and responsibilities in a meeting and ensure you are getting it done. Then, call out when other people are not performing their role or attending to their responsibilities.

The Meeting Trinity

While running an effective meeting is essential to good organisational management, so too is knowing when not to run a meeting — effective or otherwise. Thus, even if you and your organisation have the process of effective meetings running well, a meeting can still be a waste of time and a source of distraction for staff. To ascertain whether to click send on that immaculately written agenda and take people’s time, ask the following questions.

First and foremost, should this even be a meeting? The only way to get time back in the week is to challenge invitation assumptions. For example, that I need to regularly meet with a Project Manager to understand if a project is on track. In reality, reports and even a daily log can be a more effective way of communicating this information. Such an approach has the benefit of challenges and opportunities being documented rather than getting lost in the blur of verbal updates that soon get forgotten. There is also an opportunity to look for trends which can, by definition, only be spotted over time. One of the challenges with this first question is that buy in from the Executive is essential. If organisational culture militates against individual decision making, preferring to ‘find’ the answer through consensus building, it requires leaders to change the prevailing culture. One approach, if you are in such an organisation and have the positional authority, is to carefully consider all meeting invitations and treat leadership capacity as a finite resource. Encourage your team to do the same, by creating the psychological safety necessary so they do not see being in back to back meetings as a sign of working hard.

Second, what is the purpose of this meeting? Whether you are sending or receiving a meeting invitation, the title and body should make the purpose clear and outline what are the anticipated outcomes. Work with HR and other managers on this element as taking an individual approach will be slow to yield results. Instead, it requires an organisational strategy for effective meetings, and one which has both buy in and enforcement from all levels of the organisation.

Third, strive for responsibility, ownership, and accountability at all stages of the meeting process. If people are not performing their role within the context of the meeting, for example ensuring all information is circulated 24 hours in advance, then the process will begin to break down.

A meeting is fundamentally a team endeavour and when responsibility, ownership, and accountability become blurred we are back to square one and having our time wasted in futile meetings. Yet, get it right and the observation of Dr Peters will ring true for your organisation: ‘Plus 21L equals minus 21L’. Which means that leadership in the twenty-first century AD is fundamentally the same as leadership in the twenty-first century BC. In that ‘it is about organizing the affairs of our fellow human beings to provide some sort of a service to other people.’ Effective meetings conform to this conceptualisation, because in essence they are the space in our day we make to provide some sort of service to other people.

Good night, and good luck.

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash.

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