One of the most common complaints I hear in organizations is “too many meetings.”
I believe in most organizations there are too many meetings. However, I also believe that what is causing and augmenting people’s frustrations about meetings is the fact that most meetings are ineffective. They don’t produce enough and they don’t leave people with the experience of time well spent and having produced great accomplishments.
If you make your meetings much more powerful and effective I believe people will feel differently about “too many meetings.”
I want to share two useful and powerful guidelines that if you follow would make your meetings much more effective and productive:
Focus your meetings on achieving outcomes, not discussing topics.
This guideline may seem simple and common sense. However, it is counter-intuitive for most teams and people. In fact, most teams orient their meetings around filling time slots with discussion points. Most teams plan for their meetings by making a list of important topics that require dialogue or decision, then attributing time to each topic on the list, then slotting them into the agenda that gets distributed to the team.I have been in so many meetings that begin with a slide that shows the agenda – the sequence of topics in their time slots. Further, I can’t tell you how many times when I ask people “How did the meeting go?”, they say “Great, we kept to the agenda”.
- Instead of falling into the trap of filling time with topics, begin each meeting with creating clarity and alignment around the intended outcomes of the meeting. You can do this prior to the meeting as part of the preparation or in the meeting itself. Always state the intended outcomes in terms of clear end results, not activities.
- Having clear outcomes in front of you throughout the meeting will help you to navigate the discussion and stay on topic, especially when people react to others’ statements and want to steer the dialogue down unproductive rat holes or in unplanned directions.
- Also, make sure that when you achieve an outcome acknowledge its fulfillment and completion. Don’t just jump to the next one. This will generate a sense of progress and accomplishment, consistent with your purpose.
Spend as little or much time as is needed to achieve the outcomes.
As we all know, people will discuss any topic for as long or short as the time allocated for that topic. This is unrelated to what is effective.
- The less time the better. If you allocate 45 minutes to discussing a topic but achieve the outcome you set in 20 minutes, that is a good thing!
- I was working with the leadership team of a technology startup. They understood the value of generating total alignment around important decisions and commitments. However, they were asking “How can we gain genuine alignment faster?”.
- I was participating in one of their meetings as they were making a key decision about a new direction. Two of the senior leaders presented the information and then it was time to align and make a decision. So, the senior leaders asked “How do you all feel about this?” and “Does anyone have anything to say?”. I see this in many meetings – when the time to align comes the leader asks “Does anyone have an opinion to express?” And, surely, every time many people do.
- Now, this may seem trivial, but it isn’t – if you ask people to share how they feel or if they have anything so share, guess what – they will. How people feel is not a critical topic for alignment. Rather, there are two key questions that would make the conversation more effective: “Does anyone have any questions about our new direction?”. If so, someone should answer the question as rapidly and effectively as needed. Second question: “Are you all willing to align with this direction?”. If everyone says “YES” the topic is complete. If someone says “NO” then you need to continue the dialogue to see what is missing or needed for the unaligned to align.
- Last note on this – there is no contradiction between “I am aligned” and “I still have concerns, fears etc” As long as everyone has the same understanding of what “Alignment” means – “Owning the decision/commitment as your own” – you should be in great shape.
- Don’t shortcut topics – On the other hand, if an important topic takes more time than allocated, do not shortcut the discussion and move on without having achieved its outcome. Manage the agenda based on achieving the outcomes, not time allocations.
- Sometimes topics are large and complex and you may need more information or time in order to align on the decision, beyond the time you have during the current meeting. That’s fine, just make sure that in this situation clear decisions and commitments are made about when you will make the decision by. Don’t leave anything vague or open.
- It’s also legitimate to say “Let’s agree to not make any decision or commitment here.” That statement is a clear commitment. Just make sure everyone understands and owns the consequence of that commitment.
- As stated above, some topics require more debate. Don’t lose patience, react or make shortcuts to alignment. It will come to bite you in the future.
- When people passionately debate topics they often say things like “That’s just semantics”, but then they continue to fight for their point of view with vengeance. Everything is semantics. We live in semantics. How we articulate and say things – especially decisions and commitments – is critical to our future direction and team strength. Remember, another few minutes today could save you many hours and heartaches in the future. Therefore, reach genuine alignment.
In one of my Leadership on a Napkin series I wrote:
If you want your team members to speak and engage in effective conversation that achieves 100% alignment especially around complex issues or decisions, get your people to follow this rule: “Always forward the action when you speak”. If you don’t have something to say that will forward the action – don’t say anything!
There are simple, powerful and practical tips there on how to manage your meetings and conversations in a powerful way.