Contrary Wisdom on Meetings

If you were to parachute me into a company anywhere in the world with the assignment to find a way to add value by sunset, one of the first things I would look at is the meeting culture. I have written here about meetings before (2007), but meetings can be so painful and such a drain on productivity that the topic bears a revisit.

It is tempting to string out here the list of sins that sap the energy of meeting-goers. Instead, I offer this month a list of proven best practices, all suitable for adaptation to fit your culture.

Are you certain you need a meeting? I think it was in 1998 that I decided I was never going to attend another project status meeting. Twenty-five project stream leaders sat around the room and read out what their teams were doing — right off the same report we all had in front of us. This kind of meeting predated the tools that we have today and was a zombie that simply would not die. Sad to say, the status update meeting is still the most common gathering in company meeting rooms. If you are not certain that you need a meeting, you probably don’t. One way to be certain is to identify your outcomes for the meeting.

Start with outcomes, not the agenda. When I get requests to facilitate a meeting, I ask a simple question first. “What do you want to be different at the end of the meeting from when you started?” Most early answers are general and vague. Many times, clients will get impatient with me when I push on this. But how can anyone create an agenda or, for that matter, decide how long the meeting will be without understanding what it is in service to? Most people start planning a meeting with an agenda. But in the absence of clear outcomes to be created by the meeting, an agenda is a lifeless, trite, vague document.

Design an agenda that serves the outcomes. Start by discarding ideas that are “conventional wisdom” but may not serve the outcomes. Remember that what makes meetings invigorating and productive is to do what cannot be done by email. Great meetings focus on debate, discussion and decisions.

Pay attention to time and place. The decision of where and when you have the meeting sends a message about the nature of the work. If a team is stuck and needs some time to grapple with getting past politics and silos, the normal meeting room at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday might not be the best idea. In contrast, a lunch meeting somewhere in a local restaurant may be too informal and social for a meeting to solve a thorny budgeting issue.

Start well. The best meetings start with a clear understanding about what the meeting is for and what the desired outcomes are. With that sorted, getting the work off to a good start makes all the difference. Let the first activity serve both the tenor you want to set for the meeting and the primary outcome you want to accomplish.

Know when to use a facilitator. I conducted a meeting study in 2006. Data showed that while outside facilitation was used in only a very small percentage of meetings, it was considered the highest ROI value for money spent on a meeting by a large majority of those who did use a facilitator. Meetings are expensive, based on the run rate of those around the table. Get the most from them by having a third party design the day and keep the day productive, especially if the boss is participating.

Apply meeting gimmicks with caution. I know of a number of productivity gurus who recommend that all meetings should be held standing up. There may be times when brevity is the soul of wisdom (as well as wit), but not all outcomes are best served by an extreme focus on efficiency. If you are going to use these kinds of extreme tactics, be certain that they match the character and desired outcomes for the meeting.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, May 13, 2013.