The greatest myth that exists about meetings is that they are inherently bad, unavoidably painful, unproductive, and necessary evils. Bad meetings are a reflection of bad leaders. Worse, they take a devastating toll on a company’s success.
Fortunately, for those leaders who challenge the notion that meetings are unfixable, it is possible to transform what is now tedious and debilitating into something productive, focused, and energizing. The key to improving meetings, however, has nothing to do with better preparation, or agendas.
The first step in transforming meetings is to understand why they are so bad. There are two basic problems. First, meetings lack drama, meaning they are boring. Second, most meetings lack context and purpose. They are a confusing mix of administrivia, tactics, strategy, and review. This creates unfocused, meandering conferences, with little resolution or clarity.
- Produce drama. The key to making meetings more engaging (less boring) lies in nurturing the natural conflict. The best place to learn how to do this is Hollywood. Directors and screenwriters know that movies need conflict to be interesting. Viewers need to believe that there are high stakes, and feel the tension the characters feel. They realize if they do not nurture that drama in the first 10 minutes of a movie, audiences will disengage. Leaders of meetings need to put the right issues (often the most controversial ones) on the table at the beginning. By demanding that their people wrestle with those issues until resolution has been achieved, they can create genuine, compelling drama.
- Create context and purpose. Drama will not matter if leaders do not create the right context for their meetings and make it clear to team members why the meeting is occurring and what is expected of them. To create context, leaders must differentiate between different meetings. Too often, however, they throw every possible conversation into one long meeting. This creates confusion and frustration among team members who struggle to shift back and forth between tactical and strategic conversations, with little or no resolution of issues.
Nevertheless, be warned, by creating context, leaders might have more meetings. They may spend less time in meetings, but have different types of meetings.
Time for Meetings
Teams should ideally be having four distinct meetings regularly:
- Daily Check-in is a schedule-oriented, administrative meeting that lasts 10 minutes. The purpose is to keep team members aligned and provide a forum for activity updates and scheduling.
- Weekly Tactical is what most people know as staff meetings. These should be about one hour in length, give or take 20 minutes, and should focus on the discussion and resolution of issues that affect near-term objectives. Ironically, these work best if there is no pre-set agenda. Instead, the team should quickly review one another’s priorities and the team’s scorecard, and then decide on what to discuss. This will help them avoid wasting time on trivial issues, focus on issues that are relevant and critical, and postpone the discussion of more strategic topics.
- Monthly Strategic is the most interesting meeting for leaders, and the most important indicator of strategic aptitude. It is the place for big topics that have a long-term impact. These issues require more time and a different setting-one in which participants can brainstorm, debate, present ideas, and wrestle with one another in pursuit of the optimal long-term solution. Each strategic meeting should include just one or two topics, with two hours for each topic.
- Quarterly Off-Site Review is a chance for team members to reassess issues: the interpersonal performance of the team, the strategy, the performance of employees, morale, competitive threats, and industry trends. These can last one or two days each quarter.
The key to making this four-pronged meeting structure work is to overcome the objection: “How am I going to get my work done if I’m spending all of my time in meetings?” There are two ways to answer this. First, these meetings require about 20 percent of a leader’s time. Most leaders spend even more time on meetings anyway. Second, leaders need to ask: “What is more important than meetings?” If they say “sales” or “e-mail” or “product design,” they should reconsider their roles as leaders. A leader who hates meetings is like a symphony conductor who hates concerts. Meetings are what leaders do. The solution to bad meetings is not to eliminate them, but to transform them into meaningful, engaging, and relevant activities.
Leaders need to cascade communication. Members of an executive team should leave each meeting having agreed on a set of messages that they will communicate to their respective staffs within 24 hours. Then, members of their staffs communicate those same messages to their staffs. This forces executives to get clear about what they have agreed upon and what actions they will take. Employees in different departments hear the same messages from their respective leaders. This gives employees confidence and allows them to pursue their work without doubts and distractions. Cascading communication also allows people to implement decisions quickly and promotes action and buy-in.
Because of its personal nature, cascading communication evokes more trust. There is no substitute for personal, interactive communication when it comes to inspiring people to act. Therefore, take 10 minutes at the end of their meetings to get clear about what has been decided and what needs to be communicated to turn decisions into actions.