How to hold better meetings

by on Jul.12, 2010 , under facilitative leadership, program management

Previously I wrote a response to Adriel Hampton’s thought-provoking blog post entitled “Five Reasons to Kill ‘The Meeting'” in which I argued why I think live meetings, preferably in person, are valuable, even though many of us hate a lot of them. Now I’m going to share some tips on how to make your meetings better.

I’m writing this primarily for people who run meetings, but most of these ideas can be used to good effect by mere “powerless” attendees. These are all classic facilitation concepts, and while a designated, trained facilitator will have advantages that attendees don’t, attendees can often speak up and “facilitate from their chair” with astonishing effectiveness, and in some groups, a peer will be far more effective than any authority figure.

What people hate most about meetings is feeling powerless.

Or ignored.

But it’s usually the same thing.

  • We all hate going to meetings where we’re talked at and nobody notices or cares if we fall asleep.
  • We all hate meetings where the decision has already been made, but nobody’s being up-front about that.
  • We all hate meetings where the people who need to hear the discussion aren’t in the room, or aren’t listening, or just don’t get it.
  • We all hate meetings where we know we’re going to have the same old fights and end up in the same old impasse, and nobody’s going to make a decision (or realize that their plan hasn’t been working and isn’t likely to).
  • We all hate meetings where only one point of view is important. I don’t really care if the CEO thinks this is the only way to save the company, if I know it can’t be done in the time and budget allowed, or if I know that the customers hate it when we do that, or if I know that’s the right thing to do but key stakeholders are too proud to accept a change in plans, or, or, or, or…

Meetings slow things down, and that’s good. (Sometimes.)

Central to many arguments about meetings is a premise that meetings slow things down. Certainly it’s true that many meetings are a waste of time for at least some if not all of the participants, and it’s not uncommon for people to have so many regularly-scheduled meetings that they effectively have only a one- or two-day work week. (More on that below.)

However, I question the premise that speeding things up is a good thing. The more important an outcome is, the more important I think it is to slow down and make sure it’s the right outcome.

“Go slow to go fast” is a facilitator’s mantra. It is far better to waste an hour in a meeting than to proceed with a plan that misses an important detail or a team that isn’t in full agreement.

A single team member who disagrees with the plan can sabotage an entire project. A good facilitator discovers who that person is and makes sure that person has a chance to voice their concerns. A good facilitator helps that person get the chance to explain what the others might not be considering.

Sometimes that person is just a nuisance. But even the troublemakers usually have useful points to make, even if you don’t like the way that they make their points.

When this person’s concerns are heard respectfully, and restated by others so that the person can be confident s/he was understood, then the group can weigh those concerns against the known constraints and competing concerns in a way that either incorporates those concerns or at least enables the person to go along with the plan. Even if the group reaches a different decision, if the dissenting concerns are acknowledged and weighed in a process that is transparent and is consistent with the group’s agreed-upon decision-making method, usually the dissentor(s) will be able to commit to the plan.

More on both of those ideas!

Transparent doesn’t mean public.

When I say that a group (or leader) needs to have a transparent process, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody is in on everything. It only means being clear and honest about how information will be explored and how decisions will be made. For example, a leader can say, “I want to get your feedback and ask for a show of hands on the different options today, and I will take that input to next week’s meeting with the directors, who will make a decision.” Most teams will accept that happily, but if they think they get to make the decision and then someone else does, they’ll be angry.

Transparency also requires following through on the stated process and being candid about any subsequent change of course.

Transparency and accountability means not pointing fingers at the team who tried to talk you out of it if it eventually turns out you were wrong. It might kill you to say it, but acknowledging that the team was right and you were wrong will buy you tremendous team loyalty—so much that I’d almost recommend doing that on purpose once. Almost!

Agree on (or at least announce) a decision-making method.

Decisions don’t have to be unanimous or even consensus or majority-rule. Many decision-making methods can work. The most important thing is to have one, and the next most important thing is to have group agreement or at least a candid announcement about what it is.

How do you decide how to decide? It depends on what’s at stake. Generally, the more say a team has in the decisions that affect them, and the more confident the team is that everyone on the team accepts the decisions, the more conscientious that team will be about executing on the decisions and being proactive about resolving issues that arise. The catch is that more say takes longer.

Here are some valid decision-making methods, from fastest and least engaging to slowest and most engaging:

  1. Leader decides and announces.
  2. Leader seeks input, then decides.
  3. Majority rule (discuss and vote).
  4. Consensus (keep at it until most people agree and those who disagree are satisfied that their concerns have been addressed or at least acknowledged).
  5. Unanimous (keep at it until everybody can agree with the plan).

Having a fallback is helpful. For example, “We want to reach consensus, but if we cannot reach consensus by the end of the week, then we’ll take a vote on Monday.” Or, “If the team can reach a unanimous agreement, that will be the plan, but otherwise I’ll make a decision based on our discussion today.”

When is something important enough to justify a meeting?

What is the value of a good decision, or an effective plan, or a group that agrees enough with the plan to remain committed to it? What is the cost of not reaching these? What is the risk of proceeding without certainty that everyone is onboard with the plan? That is the value of the meeting. The cost of the meeting is the number of people in the room, times the number of hours, times the hourly wage, plus any other costs such as travel, room rental, web-meeting fees, etc. You might multiply the number of hours by the number of people by an average cost of $50 per staff member or manager and $100 per executive or hired consultant. If the value is higher than the cost, you should have a meeting.

It’s often hard to estimate value objectively, but here are some subjective criteria that are probably good enough. Ask yourself these questions about the outcome:

  • Will more than a few people spend more than a few weeks working on it?
  • Will a customer ever see it?
  • Could a bad result lead to a lawsuit?
  • Is there anyone affected by it who might be silently disagreeing?
  • Is anyone’s influence out of proportion to his or her competence and credibility? (For example, a CEO who doesn’t understand crucial technical details, or a chief engineer who doesn’t understand business constraints, or a sales manager who is purely commission-driven?)
  • Are you worried about what you don’t know, or what you might not realize you need to know?

If your answers to any of these questions is yes, then it’s worthwhile to have a meeting.

Minimize the intrusion of meetings on the work week.

Meetings burn time, and not just the duration of the meeting but also the time it takes to get to and from the meeting and time spent with meeting logistics like calendar management, preparation, follow-up, and rescheduling other commitments. Worse, meetings have an interruption cost. If my work requires focused concentration for several hours at a time, then a meeting that runs from 10 to 11 am pretty much destroys my 9 am to lunchtime shift. The most I’ll be able to get done from 9 to 10 and 11 to 12 is handle some email and maybe an expense report or travel reservation. There is no way I’ll be able to debug and fix some code, or write a proposal, or intervene in a staff problem, or persuade my manager about something. If I have another meeting from 2 to 3, then my afternoon is also shot, and my most important responsibilities—the things I’m paid to do—will be postponed another day, or I’ll be forced to put in some overtime that night.

Minimize how your meetings intrude on the work week. Some easy ways to start:

Have designated meeting days.

If you can get all of a team’s meetings out of the way on Tuesdays, that leaves the rest of the week free for focused work. Mondays and Fridays tend to suffer from higher numbers of absences because of people taking long weekends, so Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday are better. Ask yourself whether your team benefits from having a break from work mid-week (making Wednesday a good day to meet) or from having several days in a row available to focus (making Tuesday or Thursday better). More important than which day(s) you choose, though, is that you choose, and you enforce the no-meetings-days goal as much as possible.

Have the shortest effective meeting.

Go slow to go fast—make sure everybody’s voice is heard when it’s important—but don’t waste time with unnecessary agenda items. Don’t hesitate to adjourn early. Offer breaks when people get restless, start yawning, or are clearly needing to check their messages. Start on time no matter who’s late, and never go over the allotted time without group agreement and permission for some people to leave. Don’t go overtime if it would deprive people who need to leave of their chance to be heard.

State the agenda and goals in advance.

Nothing is more frustrating than having to go to a meeting whose purpose is unclear, or worse, where some people might have (or seem to have) a hidden agenda. Send out a written agenda, with time allotments for each topic if possible, and with clearly-stated goals. The goals should be measurable and believable, and they should be nouns—for example, “a list of issues needing further exploration” or “a decision about how to proceed” or “a preliminary schedule with major milestones and goal dates.” Ask yourself how the group will know if they met the goal(s) of the meeting.

At the beginning of the meeting, check with the room: “Are these the right goals? Can we do this today? Am I missing something important?”

At the end of the meeting, even if you think you know the answer, ask the room questions like, “Did we meet this goal? Do we need another meeting? Is there anything for next week’s agenda?”

Protect your team from the risks of vague agenda items.

Your agenda might be vague or contain a vague element. If so, take steps to promote confidence that those vague areas will be handled efficiently and nobody will be ambushed by surprises.

For example, if you need to go around the room to get status reports, have everybody remain standing so that nobody will drone on and on. Add a fun element, such as “What progress did you make, is there anything you’re stuck on, and what’s the next movie you want to see?” (If you do something like this, include the list of movies in your meeting notes.)

Sometimes issues arise that might feel like an ambush to some people in the room. Do what you can to make people comfortable raising those hot-button issues, because sweeping them under the rug is never better, but take steps to protect people from unpleasant surprises becoming nightmare scenarios. For example, you might ask, “Does anybody need some time to research this before we discuss what to do next? Is there anybody else that we’ll need to include in this discussion?” Often the best course will be to allow time right away for the basics to be laid out, let people ask any immediate questions, and then schedule further discussion after people have had some time to ponder and research.

If the circumstances demand an immediate decision, do your best to let people be heard, to record objections and unsettled questions, and then take responsibility for the way you proceed. If you must make an executive decision, be transparent about that. Be honest that you’re making a judgment call with incomplete information, and remain accountable for it in future. Do what you can to revisit the unsettled points when time allows. If possible, plan ways to revise the decision as better information becomes available. If your decision turns out badly, be candid about that, too, and acknowledge that some people did raise pertinent objections.

Follow up with brief meeting notes.

Brief is the key here. All you really need is a record of the decisions and agreements, a list of points needing followup, an acknowledgment of any important disagreements or what have you, and a list of open action items with names and goal dates. Some action items might be incomplete, with names, dates, or other details to be determined. If you are ready to include the next meeting’s agenda and logistical details, great.

Always provide a method for people to correct your mistakes and omissions. For example, “Please REPLY ALL with errata and addenda. Have I missed anything important?”

Avoid detailed summaries of who discussed what or disagreed why; you can only lose at this game. Just record what was agreed and decided, and if appropriate also record the points that were left unaddressed, or the objections that were raised, or the points needing further discussion, without commentary. Ask yourself whether anybody who was in the room will be surprised by your notes or would state anything differently. Ask yourself whether somebody who missed the meeting will learn what they need to know.

Sometimes it’s helpful to consult with the room about what should go in the notes, as a way of preventing misunderstanding later on, or even as a way to bring discussion back into focus. For example, after a lengthy discussion or an uneasy resolution, you might ask questions like, “How should I capture this for the notes? Can somebody restate that for me? Does anybody disagree with this proposal? Are there any action items to go with that?”

Overtime costs a lot more than time-and-a-half.

Be especially careful about scheduling meetings that will force people into working overtime. Even if it doesn’t bring a direct labor cost increase, it usually brings a psychological cost increase.

Speaking for myself, I don’t think twice about working overtime to make up for my own poor decisions, for example, or to solve a problem that I just can’t wrap my brain around during the day. But I resent being forced to work overtime because somebody else wasted my time or made a poor decision. If I have concert tickets or a family obligation or am not feeling well, I resent it even more.

I will forgive my colleagues and take one for the team occasionally, and I’ll gladly go the extra mile when it’s the difference between success and failure for something I believe in. (And now that I’m a self-employed consultant who bills by the hour, I am extremely flexible about when those hours need to happen.) But if any work situation (or a social situation, for that matter) creates a pattern of abusing my time, sooner or later I will resent it. And that resentment will cost the organization in terms of my reduced commitment, my less-than-stellar attitude, my frayed nerves, my depressed health, and eventually perhaps even my departure. I won’t sabotage a project—I’m just not wired that way— but you’d better believe it that if you push some people far enough, they will sabotage your project. Maybe not consciously, maybe not deliberately, but they will find ways to undermine even their own success to get back at someone who has done them wrong.

Do you feel the same way? Do your colleagues?

I have some beliefs because of my experiences. You have had different experiences and reached different conclusions. I would love to hear from you!

What am I missing?

What have I gotten wrong?

What do you see differently?

What did I say that surprised you? Do you think I might be right, at least for some people or situations?

What do you think would surprise me? Can you tell me a story from your experiences that would help me understand your point?

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