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How to Maximize Meetings

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the director of research at the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative and writes frequently about leadership and resilience.

 

Judging by readers’ reactions to my column “How to Craft Meetings People Love (Really),” it’s clear that meetings are a major pain point in many organizations. I received notes from readers bemoaning “soul-sucking” meetings that involve lots of activity and little productivity.

But readers also shared some of their own ideas on how to make meetings better. I thank them for sharing their wisdom.

Mentioned most often in reader responses was the need to have a well-crafted agenda on paper (or screen), and I cannot agree more. A game plan helps participants understand what will be discussed, how to prepare, how much time will be allocated to each item, and who else is expected to attend.

Further, composing an agenda is a useful exercise to help the meeting leader structure and frame the gathering. And, as one reader noted, you can get the most out of an agenda by sharing it in advance of the meeting, rather than introducing it after everyone is at the table. Sufficient time to consider the agenda is important for others to be able to be ready to add value once the meeting is under way.

Also helpful is putting the difficult issues high on the agenda. This suggestion, which I first picked up from Patrick Lencioni’s best-seller, Death by Meeting, assures that time and attention are directed at the items that most deserve them. Few things are more frustrating for meeting-goers than to have the big issue given short-shrift at the close of a meeting after valuable time has been frittered away on more routine matters. If you want the tough stuff resolved, get it on the table early.

One reader suggested the importance of clarity of intent for a meeting. In my experience, the component of a good agenda that is most often missing is a statement of the desired outcome: Is it a common operating picture, a decision, a recommendation, or something else? Articulating the objective for the meeting creates transparency and focus, and provides an effective way to measure success.

In correspondence with one reader, the idea of meeting proficiency arose. Companies train people in their computer systems, HR policies, and more. They devote energy to optimizing production lines and supply chains. They invest in innovation workshops. Yet they seem to assume that the ability to effectively lead and participate in meetings is somehow embedded in the human genetic code. Perhaps it seems too basic a skill. However, if any organization adds up the amount of time people spend in meetings, it will become clear how important meeting proficiency is to overall operational excellence.

The commitment of time and talent to meetings is too significant to leave execution to chance. One organization with which I worked trained all of its middle and senior managers in basic facilitation. The small, dog-eared core skills handbook from that training is so valuable that it remains within easy reach on my desk some 20 years later. Although the evidence is anecdotal, there was a feeling among the staff that meetings became more productive and enjoyable after the training. It also stimulated a desire to get the basic organizational blocking-and-tackling right — a recognition that overall excellence required paying attention to mundane daily activities, not just breakthrough products or revolutionary services.

A reader who had also received facilitation training shared the GOTE framework that she learned there: State the goals for the meeting. Note the obstacles to the goals. Articulate the tactics to be used to overcome the obstacles and/or achieve the goal. State the long-term expectations for the project or relationship to ensure that participants don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. This is but one framework. The takeaway is that there is value in having your people trained to run meetings according to a consistent, disciplined methodology.

The commitment of time and talent to meetings is too significant to leave execution to chance.

Amsterdam-based mindfulness expert Wibo Koole (full disclosure: he’s also a friend) shared with me the results of a study he conducted showing that a three-minute breathing exercise at the beginning of stand-up meetings — gatherings where participants remain standing to keep things short and focused — lead to an “immediate positive impact on perceived effectiveness, decision-making and improved listening.” Although this is just one study, there is increased interest in mindfulness as a technique to foster full presence, stimulate creativity, and reduce stress — and wouldn’t we all like more of that in meetings?

Lencioni published his book on meetings in 2004. The fact that this is still a hot topic in 2017 shows that there is clearly a lot of work still to do. The problem of painful and pointless meetings persists, even though many of the remedies are in plain sight. Organizations looking to improve efficiency, engagement, and results should target their meeting culture, protocols, and training. Meetings should receive the same intense attention as manufacturing and marketing get.

Start the change by modeling great meeting techniques yourself. Nudge others with requests for an agenda with a clear objective as a condition of your attendance. Push for training in meeting facilitation and other related topics so you and your team can avoid unnecessarily painful meetings, and start taking advantage of well-crafted ones.

Here are more tips on what makes a good meeting, drawn from the related articleHow to Craft Meetings People Love (Really)”:

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How to Maximize Meetings