Ken was part of the leadership team at a large public university. And every week, the senior leadership team would meet to discuss “strategic initiatives.” The meetings didn’t bother Ken all that much. What bothered Ken was the complete lack of action after the meetings. No one on the team ever did anything when the meetings ended. Even worse, the meetings never acknowledged the prior meeting and the action items that were supposed to get accomplished during the week that passed. It was like being stuck in the movie “Groundhog Day.” And as a former Marine, it was driving Ken nuts.
Meetings like this are truly a shame. Pretty soon participants are going to start behaving like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day. With no obvious accountability, they can do whatever they want. Not show up. Come to meeting in workout clothes. Check Facebook. Eat a bag of chips. Etc…
So how do you ensure a productive post meeting? Very simple. Consider the following prescription:
Get participants to commit to what they are going to do out loud. There is nothing more effective at ensuring buy-in, accountability and execution than getting a person to announce to the group what he or she is going to do between now and the next time they meet. Dedicate 10 minutes at the end of every meeting to allow each person to say to the group what they are going to do. The other benefit of this approach is that it makes the “avoiders” quite obvious when they have nothing to say when it is their turn.
Put “Follow-up on Action Items” the first item on the next meeting’s agenda. If participants know you are going to check in to ensure they do what they say they are going to do, it is one more incentive to make sure they get something done. It’s all the more powerful when the accountability is being done in front of the group. Team members want to look prepared in front of their peers. Never underestimate the power of Jr. High peer pressure.
Assign someone the role of e-mailing a summary list of participants’ commitments. Great meetings have solid post-meeting hygiene. Ensure you are covering all of the bases by sending out to everyone their agreed upon action items. This serves as one more accountability mechanism because now it’s not just talk. It’s in writing.
Ensure participants actually have time to do what they need to do. In the graduate business school classroom, we professors have a saying that for every one hour in the classroom, students can expect two hours of pre-work. A similar ratio should be true for meetings. You need to allow a minimum of one hour of work time for every meeting hour scheduled (two or more would be a gold standard). If one followed that ratio, we would quickly see that no one should have more than four hours of meetings in a given day. We can dream.
See, I told you. Simple, easy and commonsensical. And yet, how many meetings have this kind of hygiene and accountability? As a leader I was coaching this week said to me, “people like you bring common sense and simple principles. It’s not hard, but somewhere along the line, leaders forget. I guess that’s why you get paid the big bucks.”
John’s meetings were some of the most painful I had ever experienced. Every week John would call a meeting with his senior leadership team (and I use that term loosely) in an effort to keep them updated, aligned and focused on what needed to get done. One by one, the members of his senior leadership team, all eight of them, would file into the room. They would find their seats, get settled and then proceed to turn their brains off. For the next hour, John would proclaim, ponder, question, entertain, inquire and generally try any approach he could think of in hopes of engaging them in dialogue. Typically all John would elicit would be the occasional trail of drool out of the corner of an attendee’s mouth. It was like trying to lead a meeting of workplace zombies. At the end of the hour, each individual would gather their things and quietly leave the room, never uttering a word to John or to each other. Once back in their respective domains, they would proceed to tell their teams to not collaborate with the other departments and only to do what he or she instructed. Leadership fail.
John’s dysfunctional leadership team meetings are simply one example of how dysfunction can rear it’s ugly heads in meetings. From attendee disengagement to the rogue emotional vampire, from the overly critical team member to individuals who say one thing and do something entirely different when they leave the room, meeting dysfunction can take so many messy forms. So how do you ensure a “dysfunction-free” meeting? I recommend the following prescription. Take daily:
1. Set meeting ground rules.Great meetings operate on a clear set of ground rules set by the leader. These ground rules set the expectations on what the leader wants to see (and doesn’t want to see) during each and every meeting. If you haven’t already established meeting ground rules for your team, I recommend starting off your next meeting by facilitating a discussion on what the meeting ground rules should be for the group. Once agreed, formalize those ground rules in some way (PowerPoint slide, poster, flipchart page, etc…) that allows you to bring those same ground rules back at the beginning of each and every meeting as a reminder on how to operate. This will make policing bad behavior a heck of a lot easier. When I facilitate this discussion with leadership teams, I have a few favorites I always try to work into the discussion. Consider these to get you started:
Silence = Acceptance – if you don’t say anything during the meeting it indicates that you agree with everything being said.
Be Authors, Not Editors – always provide a solution if you critique an idea or an individual. The world has plenty of critics already.
Las Vegas Rules Apply – what is said in the room during meetings, stays in the room.
Don’t Try to Say It Perfectly – just spit it out. I have seen too many great ideas and valid opinions are held back because participants try to say it perfectly at just the right time. Just say it.
Leave as One Team – Debate in the meeting but support each other when you leave the room.
2. Assign a timekeeper. This can be your job as the leader or you can delegate the role. The point is to assign someone the task of watching the clock to ensure the meeting finishes on time and to vocally attend to discussions that may have gone off topic. This role is vitally important. No meeting should ever go over its allotted time without the full consent of all participants in attendance. This is necessary to ensure efficiency, effectiveness and your credibility as a leader. This person also needs to be ready to confront bad behavior. Meetings are a feeding frenzy for emotional vampires. They’ll suck and suck until all the energy in the room is gone and the meeting is significantly derailed. The timekeeper needs to be armed with the following phrase, “Let’s call a quick time out. It appears our discussion is going down a different path from the agenda. We need to decide if this is the path we want to go down or if we need to table this for a later discussion.” This brings me to my final meeting inoculation against dysfunction…
3. Establish a “parking lot” for ideas or topics that emerge but don’t fit with the purpose of the meeting. A common meeting technique, declare a space (whiteboard, flipchart, blank document, etc…) that’s sole purpose is to capture valuable discussions that need to continue but DO NOT need to continue during the current meeting. Examples would include:
Topics that only pertain to a small portion of the players in the room
Ideas that are in the early stages and are not ready to present to the group in a way that is valuable and productive (Ex: opinions vs. evidence and data)
A strongly held opinion that does not fall within the agenda and/or is a poor use of the group’s time (Ex: “And since we are on the topic of celebrating our unit’s success, I have a particular opinion on the food we should order for those events. The stuffed mushrooms we had last time were horrendous.”)
Some of you may look at my list above and label it “too corporate.” After all, phrases like “parking lot” don’t really live outside of corporate-speak, right? If that’s you, you’re the non-traditional type. You just gotta go against the grain. Here is a list of alternative medicines for curing meeting dysfunction that may fit you better. However, like any alternative medicines, the evidence and success rates are inconclusive. Take at your own risk:
Standing meetings – in an effort to reduce meeting times and to keep meetings moving more quickly, a growing technique employed by some managers is to enforce a “no-chairs” meeting. Applied to the proper meeting purpose, this can be a nice way to reinforce the importance of brevity and using the group’s time efficiently. However, if something needs debate and discussion, you may have some cranky attendees on your hands. I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing “yoga pose” meetings. Hold downward facing dog until the discussion is over. Now that’s incentive to hurry up.
Walking meetings – A new growing trend, this “walking meeting” is exactly that. Meeting attendees walk with the meeting leader around “campus” while they chat. This has emerged in an effort to fight the latest corporate disease of the day: “sitting disease.” Walking, talking, deciding… now all we need is to rub our tummies at the same time and we are complete.
Over sized clocks in all meeting rooms – One organization put in place large clocks (and I mean LARGE) in all meeting rooms in an effort to reinforce the importance of keeping things moving. Large and loud, they definitely made a point. Was it the right one? Hmm…
People’s time is important. It is our job to honor it. Follow the above criteria and you are set up for a more efficient and effective meeting. And one more thing, avoid bringing or encouraging snacks in meetings. I’ve attended meetings with plates of brownies, homemade cookies, cheese dip, cute little dainty sandwiches, etc… Meetings are not supposed to be trips to Ryan’s Steakhouse. They are meetings. Not to mention, after several of these buffet meetings, “walking meetings” will soon be in your future whether you like it or not. Trust me.
It is sad, really. Every working day, the majority of us suffer from worthless and painful meetings that should have been avoided. These are those meetings that, with a little bit of intentionality, could have been scrubbed dysfunction-free. So what kinds of meetings am I talking about? Consider these particularly “dirty” gatherings that could have been made clean with a little pre-meeting hygiene:
“The ‘what’s the point’ meeting” – While you sit quietly in attendance, the question “what is the point of this meeting?” plays continuously in your head like a bad Pink song. No matter how hard you try, you can’t shake it. The more you resist, the louder it gets. As a result, you find concentrating nearly impossible. When it’s all over, you leave the meeting confused and angry. Another hour of your life gone forever.
“The birthday party” – The birthday party is a common meeting trap. The meeting organizer starts with a small list of attendees and quickly the list grows to include everyone he or she knows. There is little thought put into who needs to be in attendance. Rather the thinking is something more akin to planning a festive gala. The organizer thinks to him or herself, “The more people who come, the better. And who knows? They might bring food.” You know you are in one of these meetings when you look around the room and after trying to find the commonality with you and the other fifteen attendees, you say to yourself, “why am I here?” Pass another piece of cake.
“The ‘I’m gonna be fired’ meeting” – We all know the type. The person who leaves you a voicemail that simply says, “Call me back. We need to talk.” Vague and mysterious, these individuals refuse to tell you what they want to talk about, ever. As a result, your mind spins every time they make a request to connect. “What did I forget to do? Did I say something I shouldn’t have? What could they possibly be angry with me about?” They create an anxiety whirlwind in our minds as we begin to plot out worst-case scenarios. When these people schedule meetings, they do the same thing. No agenda. No objective. Nothing other than a meeting request. And if the person is your boss, in the back of your mind you wonder, “Am I going to be fired?” Wasted anxiety and worry that accomplishes nothing other than elevating your blood pressure and shortening your life expectancy.
So how do you avoid these messy meetings? Simple. Consider the following prescription on proper pre-meeting hygiene. Rub-a-dub-dub.
Decide the purpose or objective. Before calling any meeting, ask yourself “what do I want to get out of the meeting?” Most meetings are either informational (you’re just wanting to keep all attendees informed with what’s going on) or decision-making (you need folks in the meeting to reach a decision) or both. Write down your objective in one line. If you can do that, you are ready for the next step. If you can’t, do you really need to have a meeting?
Identify who should attend. Less is always more when it comes to meetings. Steelcase, a company known for office furniture, has been in the business of studying and providing solutions to make workspaces better for over 100 years. In their workplace research, they found that the most productive meetings are with three people. Not five. Not eight. Three people. When was the last time you were in a three person meeting? There is a natural temptation to expand meeting attendee lists. This person may need to hear what is said. That person could have something to contribute. He’ll be offended if I don’t invite him. So, before you end up with a party on your hands, seriously consider who is in attendance. If you are struggling to narrow your list, consider the hourly rates represented in the room. When I walk into a meeting of ten people, I don’t see productivity. All I see is thousands of dollars being wasted. Maybe that’s the contractor coming out in me. Time is money. You’ll know you have a good final list when you can say, “This is a good use of the resources I have at my disposal.” In other words, if it was your cash, you wouldn’t hesitate to pay to have those people in the room.
Send out a meeting agenda at least 24 hrs prior. No one likes mysterious meetings. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve read one of my many mantras: “In absence of communication, people always assume the worst.” In absence of meeting agendas and objectives, people will naturally assume the worst. As a result, the worrying begins resulting in a total waste of mental and emotional energy. Avoid this by sending out any meeting agenda complete with meeting objective at least 24hours in advance. This also allows you to clearly spell out what preparation you expect attendees to have made prior to the meeting (Ex: “Come prepared to discuss the attached budget,” “Come prepared to review your department’s accomplishments last week,” etc…).
The steps above are simple and obvious and yet very few meetings qualify as “clean” based on the above criteria. So, do you and your team members a favor and show up all cleaned up and ready to go. And spread the word. All it takes is one badly planned meeting to stink up the place. Yuck.
Next Up: What do you do when you are in a dysfunctional meeting? The best ways to stomp out meeting dysfunction in the moment are on deck. Stay tuned…
Manuel stared blankly at his calendar. It was a Wednesday, the middle day of the week in the middle of a typical month. 9:00am – meeting, 10:00am – meeting, 11:00am – meeting, 12:00pm –working lunch meeting, 1:00pm meeting, etc… It was 8:37am and shortly Manuel was going to start another day that comprised of nothing but meetings. According to his calendar, from 9:00am until 6:00pm he was in meetings without one break. At this realization of another day lost and out of his control, Manuel should feel some level of anger or resentment but he numbed himself to that anger long ago. As one of a handful of Directors of Information Technology at a University, Manuel had seen his role become more and more critical over the last 5 years. Budget cuts combined with massive change in higher education made the need for increasingly better technology platforms a must. On top of it all, it was a University. Administration needed to be bought in – unanimously. Faculty needed to be bought in – unanimously. Staff and students didn’t seem to have much say, but they needed to be involved in the conversation anyway. As a result, there were meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. One week Manuel estimated he spent over 42 hours in meetings. This didn’t include all of his time spent preparing for the meetings and following up after meetings. Manuel’s real work day was beginning to look more and more like one of his early IT jobs, 6:00pm to 12:00am. If that wasn’t bad enough Manuel had a team of four managers and 30 support staff under them. The only time he could coach and develop them was after 6:00pm. That meant that they were staying late at work, away from their families, longer than should be necessary. Family. Manuel tried not to think of family this early in the week. He needed to at least hold out until Thursday afternoon to let himself go there in his mind. He bit his lip in an effort to distract himself. His calendar came back into focus and Manuel suited up for another wasted day filled with meetings.
Meetings own a special place in my workplace dysfunction Hall of Fame. They are the flagship exhibit at the end of the hallway set aside for “most common workplace dysfunctions that shouldn’t exist.” Think of it as the workplace equivalent of the measles. There are simple antidotes and inoculations, and yet, almost every organization is guilty of this pervasive dysfunction. There is no damn good reason for it. Unlike a dysfunctional boss or an unhealthy culture, meetings can be easily reworked, restructured and managed to prevent dysfunction. This month, I’m loading you up with all of the booster shots, vitamins and antibiotics you can handle. We’ll make sure we hit the following:
What’s the purpose or objective? If you can’t articulate one, you shouldn’t call one.
Who should attend? Meetings are NOT a party. More is not merrier.
How long should the meeting be? Meetings shouldn’t be marathons.
What’s that post-meeting hygiene? How are you gonna ensure that stuff actually gets done?
Simple enough, but I have yet to have attended a meeting run so well that I could check off all of those boxes. Ridiculous. We’re gonna change that starting today. Just imagine living a world where meetings were all done right. No wasted time. No soap-boxing. No pointless blather. No fuzziness on why you’re there and what you need to do. No politics. No dysfunction. I know, I know. It sounds too good to be true. But what option do we have? Death by meetings?No thank you.
Here’s a teaser on what we’ll be covering this month. Have a taste: