If there’s one pervasive obstacle to effective leadership, it’s meetings. Whether it’s the sheer volume of meetings that consume our days, or the way in which those meetings are structured, we’ve seen this theme emerge time and again, at organizations large and small.
In talking with our clients, we realized that most of them feel they have little to no power over the meeting culture at their company.
But isn’t time just as valuable to a company as money? So you have a detailed expense policy and budgeting process, but you don’t have any processes in place to govern how time gets spend on meetings? Anyone can call a meeting for anything? Without any rules for how those meetings are to be designed, prepped for or run in order to ensure a real ROI? Crazy, now you think about it, isn’t it?
The SharpAlice team decided to start tackling this by helping leaders develop meeting policies and philosophies that articulate a shared vision around meeting culture. Below we have summarized 6 key aspects of a meeting culture that we’ve found can transform meetings from a necessary evil to a competitive advantage, enabling your company (or maybe just your group) to make better and faster decisions.
I. Meetings should have a clear goal that moves the company closer to achieving its purpose and justifies the time expenditure
A meeting is a vehicle to ACCOMPLISH something – to make decisions and move things forward. Always be clear what it is that you aim to have debated, decided, or discovered at the end of the meeting. Moreover, meetings take time, and time is money. It’s your responsibility to make sure your people don’t squander your company’s resources on unproductive meetings.
- Require each meeting organizer to answer each of the following questions(incorporate these in your meeting invitation template):
- Why do you need to meet?
- What are the decisions that you’re seeking through this meeting?
- What is the estimated cost of holding the meeting?(Multiply the number of attendees x average hourly salary cost x meeting time.)
- Note: We recently used this tool with a mid-stage startup that was riddled by an unproductive, excessive meeting culture. Within four weeks of introducing this practice, we measured a decrease in the total hours per week spent in meetings by more than 60%.
II. Meetings are NOT a medium for information sharing. (You can do that through other channels.)
The reason many of us drown in meetings is the same reason why many of us drown in emails: people call meetings and send emails because it gives them a false sense that they took an action to move something forward.
In fact, meetings are one of the worst ways to share information because of the myriad communication inefficiencies that can occur when a group of people interact.
Here are the two most common examples:
- Information cascades:The phenomenon whereby members of a group discount their own views, and instead agree with the views of someone who shared their view or idea earlier in the meeting. Why does this happen? It all comes down to people’s confidence in their own views, ideas or information versus those of the people who went before.
- The common knowledge effect:When groups tend to overemphasize information held by all group members and ignore or discount unique information held by a few members. This happens especially when the unique information held by just a few of the members is opposed to the position that is initially the most popular. Majority pressures are partly to blame for this effect. Another cause is that individuals with unique information will often weigh the cost and benefit of speaking up. The personal cost of speaking up (being seen as disagreeable) usually outweighs the personal benefit of a better group decision. Therefore, they often decide to self-silence and not speak up. As a result, important information may remain hidden from the rest of the group.
It is for all these reasons that information-sharing should happen 100% before any meeting. That is why meetings need to be carefully planned and scheduled in advance as it allows:
- All attendees to prepare properly by reviewing any materials and formulating their points of view
- The meeting organizer to collect each of the attendees individual points of views or opinions on key issues ahead of the meeting to avoid an information cascade
- Any attendee who has additional information to come forward and share that with the meeting organizer, so she can share it with the whole group ahead of the meeting
- The meeting organizer is responsible for collecting and sharing all background and reference material at least 5 days prior to the meeting.This enables participants to review and formulate their own points of view in advance, and buffers them against the traps described above.
- Meetings cannot be scheduled ad hoc for the same weekto ensure there is enough time for meeting organizers to provide the pre-read materials and for the attendees to read it. The only exception is when there are clear unforeseen circumstances that require a decision to be reached within the same week.
- Abandon status update meetings.This is classic “information-sharing” at its worst. Replace regular status meetings with a simple template for people to provide updates on their projects and highlight issues or opportunities for input. Then design a regular “flag resolution” meeting to clear roadblocks and plan next steps.
III. Well-designed agendas are essential. Always prepare and distribute in advance of the meeting.
Agendas are a crucial, yet often under-valued tool for developing effective meetings. Here are some tips for writing a strong one:
- List agenda items as questions that the attendees need to answer.This is much clearer then listing items such as “Qualified leads”, or “Competitor XYZ”, which leaves everyone guessing what is to be discussed. Consider instead, “What is driving the reduction in our qualified leads and what can we do to reverse the trend?” This sets clear expectations for what will be discussed.
- Identify and measure the value of each item on the agenda.Value here is defined as impact on the bottom line of the business. Don’t get paralyzed by trying to be too precise. Start by asking the question, “How does resolving this issue impact the bottom line of the business”. Than rank each of the issues from highest impact to lowest impact. This ranking should inform the amount of time allocated to the issue on the agenda. Note: The ranking should not necessarily inform the sequencing of the agenda topics. How to sequence the topics should be informed both by how you want to pace the meeting, how certain topics might flow together, etc.
- Allocate a realistic amount of time to each agenda topic (see above), and assign each topic to a specific attendee.
- Be explicit about the process you’ll follow to reach a decision.One of our clients developed this basic formula: 10 minutes to clarify information provided in the pre-reading material, 10 minutes to discuss the pros and cons of the different choices or options to move forward, and 15 minutes to agree a final decision and plan for execution.
Decline/cancel any meetings which 5 days prior to the meeting date still lack a clear agenda and/or for which no pre-reading material has been distributed .
IV. Only include people who are actively involved in progressing the issue.
The effectiveness of any meeting is directly correlated to the relevance of the attendees to the meeting. When arranging a meeting, ensure that each attendee is directly involved in decision making of one or more of the topics at hand.
- Ask meeting organizers to always clearly state in the meeting invitation why each attendee is invited and what their role is(see above)
- Note: Implementing this approach enabled one of our clients to reduce the average number of people in a meeting by 75%, dramatically adding to the number of hours saved from people attending meetings they didn’t need to be at.
- Meeting organizers should focus on actively engaging each attendee.This both reinforces the idea that each participant will make a valuable contribution, and ensures that EVERYONE gets a chance to be heard.Every meeting needs to lead to action.
V. Meetings must result in clear plans for action, with all agreeing who is accountable for what, and when.
The solution here is to implement a standard process for how you close each agenda item to ensure alignment, agreement and accountability. Here is a list of questions that we coach our leaders to use:
- “Is there anything else someone needs to say or ask before we move on?” This helps flush out any unspoken concerns or unshared information.
- “Is everyone in agreement with the decision?” If someone isn’t, then ask what it would take to get him or her on board.
- “What specifically will we do by our next meeting to ensure progress?”
- “Who is responsible for taking action? What level of responsibility do they have? What resources do they have?”
- Recruit a team of “meeting scribes” to document meeting highlights and agreed decisions, actions and responsibilities.Their notes can then be shared with all attendees and act as a reference document when following up on responsibility and accountability.
VI. Meeting attendees need to be PRESENT – not just in body, but also in mind
To be invited to a meeting means YOU are invited, not your computer and your phone.
This probably sounds anachronistic and unthinkable to some millennials. However, for meetings to be effective platforms for decision making, each person needs to be 100% present. Not just in body, but also in mind. No distractions.
Meetings are not a time to do your emails, surf the web, multi-task. In fact, if that is what you are doing in certain meetings then you probably don’t have to be there as you are clearly are not DIRECTLY involved with the decision making about the meeting topic
- Ban all laptops, tablets and phones from meetings. Only allow notebooks and pens.
Running effective meetings takes a lot of work. But unless you want your teams to have meetings for meetings’ sake, we highly recommend developing your personal or organizational meeting philosophy. Your teams will have fewer meetings, allowing you to take action more swiftly. The meetings you do have will be more effective, and ultimately your team or company will end up moving towards its goals faster.