When business people hear “Let’s schedule a meeting,” they react the same as they would when they hear “Let’s schedule a root canal.”
Do you spend many of your days staring across a table at co-workers, wishing that you were elsewhere? Meetings, off-sites, conferences, launches, presentations, group calls—gatherings are what organizations do. The problem is that too many of these events are an ineffective use of people’s time. A few small changes can make a big difference. Here are some insights into having more productive meetings.
Non-productive meetings pull people away from accomplishing tasks and eat up a fleeting asset: time. Productive meetings are a time for decision-making and for charting a path toward execution. In this post, I reflect on insights from three of my past post plus four ideas from Priya Parker, who recently published her new book The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, and five ideas from Forbes contributor Jerry Weissman.
iBox – remove distractions
A simple and effective way to eliminate the electronic distractions that haunt many meetings in The iBox – A Breakthrough innovation for meeting effectiveness. The iBox sits at the center of the conference table. Before meetings start, executives mute their smartphones and deposit them in the box. The box slams shut, and the session commences, freed from the distractions of texts, emails, and instant messages.
Use Collective Intelligence
There is a ton of research literature analyzing how meetings do or do not work. Advice includes providing agendas, documents, minutes, presentations, preparatory e-mails, and evaluations. Effective meetings boil done to engaging the collective intelligence of those attending to develop a path forward. In “How to use the collective intelligence in the room” I set out that the great meetings that I had over my career all had the right people in the room. All participants came to the meeting well prepared. We debated the matters at hand. We built on each others’ ideas – using the collective intelligence of the group for a full and meaningful discussion. We achieved consensus decisions. Those attending the meeting left energized, supporting the decision, and ready to sell it to stakeholders.
Have an Open Mind
An essential ingredient to meeting success is having participants with open minds and prepared to explore and build on new concepts. I set this out in “How to be Remarkably Lucky – Have an Open Mind.” Lucky people don’t magically attract new opportunities and good fortune. They stroll along with their eyes wide open, fully present in the moment — including at meetings. This also means that anything that affects our physical or emotional ability to take in our environment also affects our so-called “luckiness.”
All participants are responsible for productive meetings
Whether you’re an early career professional or a C-suite executive, remember you were invited to the meeting because your perspective is valuable. In “How to make your meetings remarkably useful” I provide insights that all participants you invite to the meeting are responsible for making the meeting productive. So, take ownership of your role in the meeting, and meetings magically become useful. Everyone will notice.
Small changes can have an enormous effect
Priya Parker says few small changes can have a considerable impact on how people feel about meetings, how they interact with them and what they take away. Some years ago, as part of her advisory work, she set out to learn the secrets of the most transformative gatherings. She interviewed dozens of organizers to understand how they create galvanizing, generative moments. Here are a few of the lessons she learned:
Set the stage
Whether it’s your weekly meeting or your annual off-site, the culture of a gathering takes shape early, often well before the event. Give your gathering a new, specific name. Is it a sales meeting, or a How to Crush It This Quarter Meeting? Language and tone give people cues about what to expect. Moreover, try to prime attendees for any personal expectations right from the outset. If you are planning a session on mentorship in your firm and you need people to show up with their guards down, send out an email ahead of time that includes real, heartfelt testimonials from three senior leaders sharing specific examples of how a mentor helped them.
Let everyone see and be seen
In high-pressure environments, people often want to get right to business. Many surgeons, for instance, want to start operating immediately, skipping over formalities like introducing themselves to their team. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine a decade ago found that when surgical teams took time to do such things as greeting each other and sharing their concerns about what might go wrong, the likelihood of complications and deaths fell by 35%. Your meeting may not have life-or-death stakes, but it’s still helpful for everyone to see who’s in the room and to know why. Set a norm that everyone in attendance is supposed to be there and has an equal right to speak. For meetings of ten or fewer, give everyone a chance to address the whole room early on, by sharing their name and perhaps some personal information relevant to the business at hand. For example, when a global health-care company was meeting to review a maternal mortality initiative, the organizers asked each of the participants to share one unexpected thing about their mothers.
Issue pop-up rules
Creative or even amusing rules that apply to an event can change how people interact and what they create. Consulting for a company in Asia, Ms. Parker found that executives were calling clients during the breaks in an all-day meeting, re-entering the meeting late and disrupting everyone. She instituted a rule: Anyone coming back late had to do ten push-ups on the spot. It was a stunt, but the more significant point was to encourage the executives to start taking their obligations to their colleagues as seriously as they take their duties to their clients.
Cause good controversy
One of the most significant problems with business meetings is that all the risk has been wrung out of them. The responsible harnessing of good discussion—handling with care the hot-button issues that we prefer to avoid—is one of the most difficult and necessary duties of a leader. However, good debate rarely happens organically. It needs careful engineering.
For example, Ms. Parker facilitated a gathering for an architecture firm that needed to make a tough long-term choice: to remain a traditional creator of buildings or to change its focus to “experience design,” that is, how people navigate through a space. However, the firm’s culture was so polite that no one would debate the issue. So, she set up a cage match: They threw towels around two architects and asked them to argue each side. Everyone else had to choose their preferred side. This helped the firm get closer to a decision. It also helped the team see how a peace-at-all-costs culture made them ambivalent, and how learning to be more (respectfully) argumentative could be healthy.
Use rhetorical questions
Jerry Weissman offers five solutions to chronic problems that prevent productive meetings. His solutions are in the form of rhetorical questions that each leader, as well as each attendee, must be able to answer before and after a meeting—but especially during the meeting.
What’s the point?
Take a lesson from the rhetorical question teenagers often pose when they interrupt long parental lectures with “…and your point is?” Define the goal or goals of your meeting in advance and state them precisely at the start. Practice the second of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Habits of Highly Effective People: begin with the end in mind.
How long will this take?
Set the length of the meeting—in the advance invitation and again at the actual start—then countdown occasionally as the session nears its designated end. Conclude promptly at the announced time. If you do not get to all the agenda items, roll them forward to another meeting. At all costs, leave the conference room before the next scheduled group starts peering into the room impatiently.
Where are we going?
Establish a roadmap or an agenda of the items to be covered. Distribute the list in hard or digital copy, write it on a whiteboard or project it on a monitor. Along the way, track the progression.
What am I doing here?
Every participant should understand his or her role and responsibilities in the meeting and participate accordingly.
How are we doing?
At pivotal points, pause in the agenda to give each attendee an opportunity to react. Invite challenges and different points of view, get them out into the open, rather than sweep them under the carpet. They may not get resolved, but they are open for discussion and will create an environment for productive meetings.
In the end, productive meetings change the way a company gathers can go beyond just that meeting or event. It can help improve the broader culture: If it can be done in one gathering, why not across the whole enterprise?
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