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Transform Your Meetings

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shutterstock 643104079I’ve been to a lot of meetings. I’ve led a lot of meetings. Some meetings are amazing. Most aren’t. Today, we’re going to look at how to make meetings more productive and strategic – so more can be amazing.

We’ve all been in meetings where we are bored, annoyed, and feel like we’re stuck going down the rabbit trail of a rabbit trail. Just re-reading that sentence, several strong visual memories come to mind for me – how about you?

The boredom, annoyance, distraction, avoided topics, and minutiae that we often encounter in meetings grow out of how many of us structure and run meetings – and they prevent meetings from being productive. Even more importantly, they keep us from being strategic because the immediate and the detailed overwhelm the long-term and the big-picture items. Instead, we fall into the tired patterns and structures of reactivity or deferred decision-making on small-picture topics.

So how do we make our meetings more productive and strategic? There are three major areas we can address to make sure we don’t get lost in the weeds, and make our meetings amazing: good meeting planning, good meeting design, and good meeting management.

Good Meeting Planning

Before we even announce that we’re going to have a meeting, we work out the meeting basics by answering the following seven questions:

  1. Why are we having this meeting? A clear purpose will help keep everyone on track.
  2. Who is involved? Who should be in the room? Who doesn’t need to be there? Who’s going to need to be informed of decisions made? Making sure the right people are there, the unnecessary people aren’t, and who the wider audience is, will help keep people engaged toward the purpose.
  3. What goals and outcomes do we expect? Being clear about what needs to get done helps us to design the meeting well.
  4. When is the meeting going to be, and for how long? Make sure the timing and the time commitment are proportional to the agenda.
  5. Where is the meeting going to be? Sometimes, meetings are inefficient because the location makes it hard to hear, or too many people are crowded in, or people are too accessible during the meeting for interruptions. Moreover, longer meetings will require breaks.
  6. How are we going to proceed through the agenda? Not every meeting has to be the same. See the section on Good Meeting Design, below.
  7. How much time, personnel, and funds will our meeting require, and is that reasonable? Is the cost of time, payroll, people, and supplies proportionate to the agenda, or do we need to narrow the group or the agenda to make the best use of resources?

Good Meeting Design

Not every meeting has to have the same order and the same structure. In fact, good meeting design means taking the purpose and the goals and shaping the agenda to meet them. Here are seven key points for good meeting design:

  1. Give each item a time limit. Make sure this is reasonable, but make sure everyone knows what the time limit is. That will help keep the conversation focused.
  2. If we’re not sure how long something might take, go back to the planning phase. Work out whether the item is too broad. Break it down into chunks that are doable. Then set a time limit on each chunk.
  3. Be intentional about how the conversation is structured. Some bodies require formal debate, while others prefer the back-and-forth of brainstorming. Determine beforehand how the conversation and discussion will proceed for each item. Not every item needs the same type of discussion format.
  4. Put the items of the greatest importance that require the greatest engagement first. So many groups recite their minutes, have interminable reports that were already in the agenda packet, and discussion of minor topics at the beginning of the meeting. This drains everyone’s best energy away before the important and major items occur. When the items of greatest importance are at the beginning, people have the most energy and focus and are able to wrestle with the complexities of those items more thoroughly.
  5. If you are a body that meets regularly, consider annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily cycles for your meetings. The meetings at longer intervals may take more time and be in a different location than those at shorter intervals. The long-interval meetings are designed to take care of the most strategic items; the short-interval meetings take care of immediate and tactical items. (See Patrick Lencioni’s Death By Meeting for more details.)
  6. No surprises. When we are surprised, we work from a different part of our brains than we do when we are making logical decisions. We won’t get the best out of people – whether they agree with us or not – if we surprise them. They will tend to be more reactive when they are surprised.
  7. Make time for each stage of the decision process: consideration, discussion, and decision. Groups do this differently, and so there are a variety of ways to get this done. Nevertheless, the parts are the same. Consideration is a recommendation, a presentation, a proposal, or a request for action. Discussion responds to consideration. Well-structured discussion moves to decision – even if it is to defer action. Often, though, people miss one of these steps, and expect people to do two of the three, which confounds the participants. For instance, when someone starts discussing something without a clear proposal, and then asks for a decision on it, people often are confused. But by framing the conversation with all three steps, clearer conversations lead to clearer decisions.

Good Meeting Management

Not all meetings run the same way, either. Some are relaxed; others are tense. In general, meeting management can affect how engaged people are, whether they are bored, or whether they feel like they got stepped on. Here are seven tips for good meeting management.

  1. Open the meeting with a statement of purpose. Make sure all topics for conversation fit within that purpose and your group's scope. How many hours are wasted talking about things we can't do anything about!
  2. Make sure everyone knows the process, and make sure that the meeting process is fair. This increases trust, which allows for greater healthy conflict and discussion, and therefore stronger commitments to the outcomes.
  3. Don’t be afraid to interrupt people who dominate the conversation or take it off topic. Some people just like to talk more, and are uncomfortable with silence. It’s ok to tell them to give some space for others.
  4. Invite quieter people to speak up.
  5. Keep an eye on the clock: keep things moving.
  6. Keep the conversation focused on the issue at hand. If something else comes up, mark it for later conversation.
  7. If more information is needed, table further conversation until the information is brought forward. This might be at a new meeting. Many organizations still try to discuss the topic with missing information, because they have committed to making a decision. This just ends up wasting time if not all the information is available.

Employing good meeting planning, good meeting design, and good meeting management will help your meetings be more productive and more strategic – and more of them will be amazing.

What kinds of meeting challenges do you face?

Curious about how this might work in your organization? Drop a comment in the form below or drop me a note. I’d be glad to discuss!



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Matthew M. Thomas

Matthew M. Thomas, EPC, is the President of the L M Thomas Group.

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