Step into almost any organization at any time, and you will most likely find a meeting taking place.
(Hopefully with Vince Vaughn in attendance)
There are lots of reasons to have meetings (reporting, brainstorming, reviewing, etc.), but the core reason is communication.
And yet it is astonishing how little communication seems to happen. Often meetings seem to grind away without any real purpose or goal, just wave after wave of deadly Powerpoint slides. This on top of the fact that we live in a culture that likes to have a lot of meetings.
Sooo many meetings. According to accumulated study information by Daniel Russell, there are approximately 11 million meetings being held each day.
Daniel’s blog piece focuses more on the lack of structure and the general waste that goes into meetings (he makes the point that some meetings are actually meetings about future meetings), and how much salary is tied up in those hours that are spent discussing whatever. I want to focus more on the lost opportunity.
What is this meeting for?
Do we really know?
I try to ask this question before every meeting. Not because I like to be annoying, but rather because it helps to identify the framework for the conversation. Another way to think of this is “what are we hoping to get out of this meeting?”
Here are three things that usually come up when this question is asked.
- Build Consensus: there is often some issue or problem that requires the managers or team leaders to get up to speed, weigh in and agree on a strategy. This is a perfectly good reason for a meeting, unless “consensus” is code for “just go do it.” Confusion around whether the leaders of the meeting actually want input or are just looking for agreement can be a blow to morale and mangle the process in the long run.
- Generate Ideas: brainstorming sessions or problem solving discussions are important parts of teamwork and allow for creativity within an organization. While we might have an idealized vision of how brainstorming sessions work, they are usually a mess unless there is a clear articulation of the problem and the materials we have to work with. Shouting out random ideas produces a lot of randomly bad ideas. Focus the discussion on a goal and clearly outline the challenges. Also, make sure that you are actually interested in generating ideas and that you aren’t really trying to build consensus or inform. A team will feel demoralized if they find out that the process was not genuine, and that will lead to an overall resistance moving forward.
- Inform: there are times when upper management or leaders need to educate the rest of the group on what is happening and why. While these meetings can often be helpful, they don’t work if they are framed incorrectly or if the information is simple enough to have been put in a memo. If the information is complicated enough to spend time in a meeting, then you also need to give plenty of space for challenging questions. It’s okay to transition from a meeting that is focused on informing to one that tries to build consensus, but a group can’t get to the second part if they don’t fully appreciate and understand the first.
Process vs. Direction?
Sometimes much of the inefficiency in meetings can be defined by a tactical confusion between “things that we have to process” (i.e. discuss) and “things we have to do.”
Process is messy, but it implies collaboration and creativity, so we often default to it even when there isn’t any room for discussion. It would be helpful if the team leader made the call beforehand about whether this meeting is meant to be a process-oriented meeting or if it is more of a reporting/directive meeting.
What’s the difference?
Direction is for giving out clear and actionable orders. For example, if you want everyone to wear the color green on Tuesday (for whatever reason), then you give the order and answer the clarifying questions that come.
(Is that okay?)
When leaders make the mistake of presenting something like this as though it were a discussion (usually because they want to “build consensus”), they will move the group into process, which is going to make it messy. In other words, the group might interpret the directive as a choice or that it is up for discussion.
Process is for topics or problems that require expertise from around the table so as to develop a clear strategy. In this case the problem needs to be clearly articulated (team morale is low or our products are getting stale) and then open it up for discussion, looking for each group member to contribute his/her perspective.
Be aware that if you have already decided on a course of action before the meeting, don’t make the mistake of asking people for their input. You need to change this to one of direction and feedback. Again, the team will feel underappreciated and disregarded if they get the sense that you had the answer all along. The clearer you are with them (and yourself) up front, the more likely they will be engaged and understand the objective.
If we can only accomplish one thing, what would we want that to be?
Finally, if you are a leader of meetings, ask yourself this question as you plan the agenda. You might even want to write it down on the top of the page. The more focused the room is on the goal, and the clearer everyone is on the intention (process vs. direction), the more efficient you can be and the more engaged your teams will feel.