There’s an idea in Dick and Emily Axelrod’s new book, Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done (Berrett-Koehler, 2014), that’s sure to raise the eyebrows of managers around the world: Make meeting attendance voluntary—no strings, no reprisals. That’s right. Leave it totally up to the invitees to decide whether it’s worth their while to show up… or not.
The idea is borrowed from Eric Lindblad, a vice president at Boeing and general manager of its 747 program, who adopted voluntary meeting attendance as a feedback mechanism. He figured that if people didn’t show up for his meetings, the meetings needed to be either canceled or improved.
The Axelrods, a husband-and-wife team specializing in organizational development, wrote the book for executives whose meetings fell into the category of needing improvement. They believe that far too many of the estimated 11 million meetings held daily in the United States are mind-numbing, energy-sapping encounters during which participants are more likely to be motivated to hide from work than to get it done.
If you suspect that people might not show up to your meetings if they had a choice, read on.
S+B: Why should executives be concerned about meeting effectiveness?
DICK AXELROD: Meetings are the factory floor for knowledge workers.They are where a lot of work gets done—or should get done—these days. Organizations are getting more complex, and making them work requires people to meet. Meetings are also artifacts of the organizational culture. If you change the way you meet, you can begin to change your culture. And meetings are huge engagement opportunities. They are where people decide whether they’re going to sit on their hands or they’re going to put their wholehearted self behind whatever needs to be done.
“Meetings are the factory floor for knowledge workers.”
S+B: You liken meetings to video games in the book. How are they similar?
DICK AXELROD: During a workshop we were doing in Scotland, Colin Anderson, the CEO of Denki, a video game company, told us that the meeting principles we were teaching are the same principles that his company uses in designing its games. In order to engage people, both meetings and video games must have a clear and meaningful purpose. There has to be a challenge—kind of a sweet spot beyond your grasp, but not so far away that it’s impossible to reach. There needs to be autonomy; the players must feel like they can influence outcomes. There needs to be an opportunity to learn something. And there needs to be feedback, so you know how well you’re doing.
These five factors—purpose, challenge, autonomy, learning, and feedback—provide a way of thinking about a meeting that goes beyond the agenda and mechanics, like how you set up the room. If you can embed them in your meetings, you should have good ones.
S+B: How do you embed them?
DICK AXELROD: We use something we call the “meeting canoe” for that. It’s a six-stage process that represents the order, shape, and flow of the meeting experience. First, you welcome people and connect them to one another and the task. Then, you help them discover the way things are, and elicit their dreams about what could be. Next, you help them come to a decision about what should be done and ensure that everyone is clear about the decisions reached and who is going to do what. Finally, you attend to the end by reviewing the decisions reached, identifying next steps, and reviewing how you worked together.