I hate bad meetings. It’s partly due to my fundamental impatience and partly to my experience of how productive and – yes – fun a good meeting can be. Fortunately for me, I’m seldom at the effect of crappy meetings: I’m generally either facilitating (in which case I better be able to keep it from being bad, or why are you paying me), or it’s a meeting of people in my own company (and if I can’t keep those from being bad, yikes.)
So the title of this article on the Inc. website appealed to me: Meetings Suck? Make Them Better. The author, Tom Searcy, offers great, simple advice: Keep them as short as possible; don’t overwhelm people with information and data; involve everybody; follow up. As is often the case when I read good articles, I thought to myself – “Right on! This is straightforward and practical. Everybody should do this.” And then my next thought: “If the solution is so simple, why are so many meetings still so bad?”
This really interests me. When the solution(s) to a seemingly intractable problem are so simple, I get curious about why the problem still exists. I believe meetings are bad for three main reasons, each which involves the mindset of the person in charge:
1. We don’t understand the importance of the "who"
In bad meetings, most of the people in the room are sitting there wondering what it has do do with them … and generally concluding that the answer is "not much." Poor meetings are generally either somebody talking and everyone else is pretending to listen, or a conversation that only involves a couple of people.
Try this: think about how costly group meetings are in terms of people-hours. Seriously: if you’re holding an hour-long meeting for the top 15 people in your company, that’s hugely expensive. Rather than thinking of it as a necessary evil, think of it as a major investment on which you need to get a good return. Two things that help: 1) only focus on those topics that are important and useful to all or most of the people in the meeting, and 2) have the "owner" of a topic (the person responsible for making something happen) run the part of the meeting where that topic is being covered.
2. We don’t understand the importance of the "why"
Recently a friend of mine regaled me a with a tale of a particularly awful meeting he’d been required to attend. He said, “The worst thing about it was that no one really knew why we were there, what the meeting was supposed to be about, or what was expected of us. Beyond a superficial "We’re meeting about our 2013 goals" memo that went out beforehand, we had zero useful information. And it didn’t get any better … I left not knowing any more about the purpose of the meeting than when I walked in.”
This is shockingly common. Back to my earlier comment about how expensive meetings are: I’ll bet you anything if the leader of the rambling, unfocused meeting my friend described was paying a lawyer $500 or $800 an hour, he or she would go into each conversation with that lawyer pretty clear: here’s what we’re talking about, here’s what I hope to accomplish, and here’s what I expect from you. And a team meeting is hugely more costly per hour than that – it makes sense to be at least as clear!
To help with this, clarify and then share, in advance of a meeting, four things: what are we talking about (topic), who’s primarily responsible for the topic (owner), why are we talking about it – what do we hope to accomplish (goal) and how long will we spend on it (time). Imagine getting an agenda before a meeting that clearly and simply stated the topics, owners, goals, and time! And then imagine the leader actually keeping the meeting focused on the stated agenda. We use this approach in our own meetings and in meetings we facilitate. And those meetings, I am proud to say, do not suck.
3. We don’t understand the importance of the "what’s next"
This goes to Searcy’s advice about follow-up. Even if you have a good meeting, one that feels focused and productive, if nothing happens afterwards … it’s a still a bad meeting. If the next steps after a meeting aren’t clear or simply don’t happen - you will lose credibility with your team. Clear next steps that actually happen post-meeting aren’t just a nice-to-do, they’re an important signal to your folks that you’re a trustworthy leader.
You can do two things to make good follow-up more likely. As you wrap up each topic, make sure the group agrees on what’s going to happen next, when it will be done and who will do it. Say it out loud, write it down and distribute it after the meeting. Then keep it alive: Find a way to check in with the person responsible, to see how it’s going and whether they need support. When it’s completed, have the "owner" share that with the group. If it slips, engage the team in figuring out how to get it back on track. If you deal with the commitments you make in meetings as though they’re real and important, others will start to do the same. And more of the important stuff will get done.
Thinking about meetings as an investment on which you want to get a great return is the best way I know to motivate yourself actually to do these things. And if you’re in bad meetings that you’re not in charge of, you can often improve them by asking the leader: “How can I help you get a better return on the investment of time and effort we’re putting into this meeting?” He or she probably hasn’t thought about it this way, and your question may spark a great conversation … and a better meeting.
Look for Andersen’s latest book, "Leading So People Will Follow," coming in October from Jossey-Bass.
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