Think about the meetings you’ve attended during the past week: how many of them did you leave thinking, “Wow. That was really useful. I’m glad we had that conversation.” And how often did you feel frustration or resignation during a meeting: “I spend the whole day at meetings discussing the status of my work. When am I supposed to do my work?” Ineffective meetings – especially recurring, once-a-week or once-a-month rituals – are a common source of frustration. Not only do they waste time, they lead to disengagement and a feeling of powerlessness. It’s time for us to stop tolerating meetings that waste time and disempower people. Why do we have meetings? Strictly speaking, the only reason to bring people together in a conference room is to have conversation: a real-time exchange of ideas and perspectives. But meetings are often called with the intention of sharing information. Many managers I work with say, “I could send this out in an email, but it’s better if everyone hears the same thing at the same time and I can answer any questions they have.” The result is what I call ‘serial broadcasts’. See if this sounds familiar: The manager begins with, “Here’s the flow-down from my boss’ meeting; here’s what I heard at the regional manager’s offsite; here’re the slides I’ll show at next week’s department review. Now, let’s go around the room and hear a brief report from each of you… oops! We’re out of time! Sorry, folks, we’ll do better next time.” Think about the message this type of meeting sends: you are not in control of your time; showing up where your boss tells you to is more important than what you produce; this organization wants you to do the impossible: sit in here and do the work waiting at your desk. What to do instead Here are three steps that can improve any meeting. Begin with an intention and a question. The best meetings have a clear intention and are designed to benefit from the presence of the attendees. Thus, the best meetings include conversation. And conversation begins with a question. If you don’t know the question you’re trying to answer at your next meeting, cancel it. If the person hosting the next meeting you attend can’t tell you the question they’re trying to answer, don’t attend. Some great questions around which to design meetings:
  • Here’s a problem / decision to be made: what do we think we should do?
  • Here’s what’s happening in the organization: how does this team contribute to the situation, and what should we do?
  • Here’s what each person is up to: what help do you need… and what help can you offer each other?
Solicit interaction and conversation.  If you’re leading a ‘serial broadcast’ meeting, here are a few ways to get folks talking:
  • What’s your reaction to what I’ve said? I’d like to hear from three people.
  • What do you think we should do next? I’d like to hear from each of you.
  • What can we do to help / make this better / learn from this? I’d like us to come up with five ideas.
If you’re the leader of the meeting, gently call on folks who are not weighing in. Also, encourage cross talk by asking for different views.
  • Ron, you’ve been quiet. What do you have to say about this?
  • Laura, what’s the argument against this idea? What objections will we encounter?
  • I’d really like to hear from folks on both sides of this issue — what do you have to say?
Few teams are lucky enough to have a full time facilitator, but it’s helpful to appoint a team member to act as a “traffic cop” — to notice who is doing most of the talking, who is quiet, and then invite the quiet people to speak up. End with meaning-making. In general, folks remember what they said more than what others said… and the way an event finishes often determines how they feel about it. So it is a good idea to end each meeting with a very brief conversation about what was accomplished at the meeting.
  • I’d like to hear one quick thing from each of you: what did we accomplish?
  • I’d like to hear something from five people — very brief: what’s something you learned today?
  • Jonah, I’m going to put you on the spot: what was useful about the conversation we just had?
Ask a question; solicit interaction; end with meaning-making Meetings are likely a fact of life, but we don’t have to tolerate ineffective, disempowering meetings. We can take control. If you lead meetings, commit to causing conversations; if you attend meetings, demand good meeting design. Life is short; work can be hard. Let’s not make it tougher by tolerating bad meetings. Interested in learning more? Ready to change the way your organization runs meetings and engages people? We’re ready to help. About the author: Andy Erickson is a principal and CTO at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at aerickson@humanus-solutions.com

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