(by Lencioni, Patrick M. (J-B Lencioni Series))
There is nothing inherent about meetings that makes them bad--it is entirely possible to transform them into compelling, productive, and fun activities.
What is the real problem?
Meetings are boring.
Meetings are ineffective; they don't contribute to the succes of our organizations. It is frustrating to have to invest energy and hours in any activity that doesn't yield a commensurate return.
Meetings are boring because they lack drama. Drama is essential for keeping humans engaged. Rather than mining for that golden conflict, most leaders seem focused on avoiding tension and ending their meetings on time. To make meetings less boring, leaders must look for legitimate reasons to provoke and uncover relevant, constructive ideological conflict. By doing so, they'll keep people engaged, which leads to more passionate discussions, and ultimately, to better decisions.
Meetings are ineffective because they lack contenxtual structure. Too many organizations have only one kind of regular meeting, often called a staff meeting. Either once a week or twice a month, people get together for two or three hours of randomly focused discussion about everything from strategy to tactics. Because there is no clarity around what topics are appropriate, there is no clear context for the various discussions that take place; in the end, nothing is decided because the participants have a hard time figuring out whether they're supposed to be debating, voting, brainstorming, weighing in, or just listening.
To make our meetings more effective, we need to have multiple types of meetings, and clearly distinguish between the various purposes, formats, and timing of those meetings.
Meetings are by definition dynamic interactions involving groups of people discussing topics that are relevant to their livelihoods. So why are they so often dull? Because we eliminate the element that is required to make them interesting: conflict.
Which would people enjoy more: Meetings or movies? Meetings should be more interesting than movies because they have more inherent potential for passion and engagement than movies do.
Reasons why meetings should be more interesting.
Meetings are interactive, movies are not.
Meetings are directly relevant to our lives, movies are not.
Screenwriters and directors figured out long ago that if you avoid nurturing conflict in your story, no will wnat to watch your movie. They also figured out that it is during the first ten minutes that they must use drama to hook their viewers, so that they are willing to stay engaged for another two hours.
They key to injecting drama ito a meeting lies in setting up the plot from the outset. Participants ned to be jolted a little during the first ten minutes of a meeting, so that they understand and appreciate what is at stake. Employees aren't expecting Hamlet, but they're certainly looking for a reason to care. And that's what the leader of a meeting should be giving them. Ironically, most leaders go out of their way to eliminate/minimize drama and avoid the healthy conflict that results from it.
When a group of intelligent people come together to talk about issues that matter, it is both natural and productive for disagreement to occur. Resolving those issues is what makes a meeting productive, engaging even fun. Avoiding the issues that merit debate/disagreement not only makes the meeting boring, it guarnatees that the issues won't be resolved. So a leader must make it a priority to seek out and uncover any important issues about which team members do not agree--and when team members don't want to engage in those discussions, the leader must force them to do so, even when it makes him/her temporarily unpopular.
The only thing more painful than confronting an uncomfortable topic is pretending it doesn't exist.
Getting people to engage in conflict when they aren't accustomed to it is a challenge. After a leader announces to a team that more conflict will be expected from them--and it is critical that this is made clear--there will be a key moment when team members take their first risks in engaging one another in active debate. And it is going to feel uncomfortable. When this happens, leaders can minimize the discomfort and maximize the likelihood that conflict will continue by interrupting the participants and reminding them that what they are doing is good.
Meetings follow an agenda strictly, even if the order isn't in the order of importance. Later items get shorted. People also fill the meeting time, rather than reaching the goal and stopping. Everybody is frustrated for different reasons: the meeting went overtime, somebody's issue didn't get on the agenda, another agenda item got added to the end of the meeting when there was little time and even less interest, another believes the meeting was too administrative, and yet another thought there was too much brainstorming and not enough time focused on solving immediate tactical problems.
The single biggest structural problem facing leaders of meetings is the tendency to throw every type of issue that needs to be discussed into the same meeting, like a bad stew with too many random ingredients. This only ensures that the meeting will be ineffective and unsatisfying for everyone.
The purpose of the Daily Check-In is to help team members avoid confusion about how priorities are translated into action on a regular basis. It provides a quick forum for ensuring that nothing falls through the cracks on a given day and that no one steps on anyone else's toes. Just as important, it helps eliminate the need for unnecessary and time-consuming email chains about schedule coordination.
Getting team members to stick with it long enough to make it part of their routine. They key to overcoming this is to keep these meetings consistent in terms of where/when they occur. Don't cancel any, even if only two members are in the office on a given day.
A more common challenge will be keeping it to five minutes.
Commit to doing Daily Check-Ins for a set period of time--perhaps two months--before evaluating whether or not they are working.
Every team needs to have regular meetings focused exclusively on tactical issues of immediate concern. Cadence (weekly or every-other-week) doesn't matter; what does is that everyone always attends and that it is run with a sense of discipline and structural consistency.
The Lightning Round: Quick, around-the-table reporting session in which everyone indicates their two or three priorities for the week. Should each team member no more than one minute to quickly describe wwhat is on their plates. Lightning round sets the tone for the rest of the meeting. By giving all participants a real sense of the actual activities taking place in the organization, it makes it easy for the team to identify potential redundancies, gaps, or other issues that require immediate attention.
Progress Review: The routine reporting of critical information or metrics: revenue, expenses, customer satisfaction, inventory, and the like. The point here is to get into the habit of reviewing progress relating to key metrics for success, but not every metric available. Four or six, maybe. Should also take no more than five minutes; lengthy discussion of underlying issues, on the other hand, should be avoided here.
Real-Time Agenda: Once the lightning round and progress review are complete (no more than fifteen minutes), now it is time to talk about the agenda--counter to conventional wisdom, the agenda for a weekly tactical should not be set before the meeting, but only after the lightning round and regular reporting activities have taken place. This makes sense because the agenda should be based on what everyone is actually working on and how the company is performing against its goals, not based on the leader's best guess prior to the meeting. Leaders of meetings must therefore have disciplined spontaneity which means they must avoid the temptation to prepare an agenda ahead of time, and instead allow it to take shape during the meeting itself.
During the Weekly Tactical, there are two overriding goals: (1) resolution of issues, and (2) reinforcement of clarity. Obstacles need to be identified and removed, and everyone needs to be on the same page.
The temptation to set an agenda ahead of time, either formally or informally. It's critical for team members to come to the Weekly Tactical with an open ind, and to let the real activities and progress against objectives determine what needs to be discussed.
Too much detail during the lightning round. This causes others to lose interest, which clouds the ability of the team to identify the right issues for discussion and resolution. Hold team members to sixty seconds during the lightning round.
Discussions about long-term strategic issues. Why is this such an important problem to avoid?
The key to overcoming this challenge is discipline; when strategic issues are raised--and they will be--it is critical for the leader to take them off the table and put them on a list of possible topics to be discussed during a different meeting: the Monthly Strategic.
This is the most interesting and in many ways the most important type of meeting any team has. It is also the most fun. It is where executives wrestle with, analyze, debate, and decide upon critical issues (but only a few) that will affect the business in fundamental ways. Monthly Strategic meetings allow executives to dive into a given topic or two without the distractions of deadlines and tactical concerns.
Length will vary depending on the topic(s) being considered; it is advisable to schedule at least two hours per topic so that participants feel comfortable engaging in open-ended conversation and debate.
Ad Hoc Stratetic Meetings: In some cases, a strategic or critical issue that gets raised in a Weekly Tactical meeting cannot wait for the next Monthly Strategic meeting on the schedule. But it shouldn't be taken up during the Weekly Tactical; instead, executives should create an ad hoc meeting specifically for the purpose of taking on that issue. In many ways, this Ad Hoc Strategic meeting is the most important one that occurs in an organization. It demonstrates that an executive team knows how to identify those rare strategic issues that deserve immediate attention even at the expense of the urgent but less important tactical concerns that surface every day. Great organizations rally around these issues with the kind of focus and urgency that allow them to outmaneuver competitors who are too mired in the monotony of their meetings, or who wait for a full-blown crisis before rallying around an important topic.
Failure to schedule enough time for them.
Putting too many items on the agenda.
Failure to do research and preparation. The quality of a strategic discussion, and the decision that results from it, are imporoved greatly by a little preliminary work. This eliminates the all-too-common reliance on anecdotal decision making.
The fear of conflict. Monthly and Ad Hoc Strategic meetings cnanot be effective unless there is a willingness on the part of team members to engage in unfiltered, productive ideological debate.
Effective off-sites provide execs an opportunity to regularly step away from the daily, weekly, even monthly issues that occupy their attention, so they can review the business in a more holistic, long-term manner. Topics for reflection and discussion at a productive Quarterly Off-Site Review might include the following:
The Four Meetings
|Meeting Type||Time Required||Purpose and Format||*Keys to Success|
|Daily Check-In||5 minutes||Share daily schedules and activities||Don't sit down; Keep it administrative; Don't cancel even when some people can't be there|
|Weekly Tactical||45-90 minutes||Review weekly activities and metrics, and resolve tactical obstacles and issues||Don't set agenda until after initial reporting; Postpone strategic discussions|
|Monthly Strategic||2-4 hours||Discuss, analyze, brainstorm, and decide upon critical issues affecting long-term success||Limit to one or two topics; Prepare and do research; Engage in good conflict|
|Quarterly Off-Site Review||1-2 days||Review strategy, industry trends, competitive landscape, key personnel, team development||Get out of office; Focus on work; Limit social activities; Don't overstructure or overburden the schedule|
When property utilized, meetings are actually time savers. Good meetings provide opportunities to improve execution by accelerating decision making and eliminating the need to revisit issues again and again. But they also produce a subtle but enormous benefit by reducing unnecessarily repetitive motion and communication in the organization.
Most executives I know spend hours sending e-mail, leaving voice mail, and roaming the halls to clarify issues that should have been made clear during a meeting in the first place. But no one accounts for this the way they do when they add up time spent in meetings.
I have no doubt that sneaker time is the most subtle, dangerous, and underestimated black hole in corporate America. To understand it, it is helpful to take a quick look at the basic geometry of an executive team within the context of an organization.
Consider that an executive team with just seven people has twenty-one combinations of one-to-one relationships that have to be maintained in order to keep people on the same page. That alone is next to impossible for a human being to track.
But when you consider the dozens of employees down throughout the organization who report to those seven and who need to be on the same page with one another, the communication challenge increases dramatically, as does the potential for wasting time and energy. And so, when we fail to get clarity and alignment during meetings, we set in motion a colossal wave of human activity as executives and their direct reports scramble to figure out what everyone else is doing and why.
Remarkably, because sneaker time is mixed in with everything else we do during the day, we fail to see it as a single category of wasted time. It never ceases to amaze me when I see executives checking their watches at the end of a meeting and lobbying the CEO for it to end so they can “go do some real work.” In so many cases, the “real work” they’re referring to is going back to their offices to respond to e-mail and voice mail that they’ve received only because so many people are confused about what needs to be done.
It’s as if the executives are saying, “Can we wrap this up so I can run around and explain to people what I never explained to them after the last meeting?” It is at once shocking and understandable that intelligent people cannot see the correlation between failing to take the time to get clarity, closure, and buy-in during a meeting, and the time required to clean up after themselves as a result.
Bad meetings exact a toll on the human beings who must endure them, and this goes far beyond mere momentary dissatisfaction. Bad meetings, and what they indicate and provoke in an organization, generate real human suffering in the form of anger, lethargy, and cynicism. And while this certainly has a profound impact on organizational life, it also impacts people’s self-esteem, their families, and their outlook on life. And so, for those of us who lead organizations and the employees who work within them, improving meetings is not just an opportunity to enhance the performance of our companies. It is also a way to positively impact the lives of our people. And that includes us.
Last modified 18 April 2022