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Aug092010

Making Meetings Mean Something

One of the things that happens a lot is a meeting.

A “meeting” is where people “meet” to talk about something – sort of.

The problem is that these things happen a lot.  When we say that they happen, we mean that no one really makes them happen, they just happen. 

Attending the average meeting is like watching late night TV.  You don’t know what’s on, you don’t particularly care, you keep flitting from topic to topic, your brain is in neutral, and you’re only there because you can’t sleep.  Sleeping is far more productive than either of these.

So, why?  Meetings are usually useless because we approach them like TV.  We expect to be entertained.  Since we didn’t call the meeting, there’s no burden on us to do anything.  So why do we go?  Because we were invited.  Someone must think that it’s important to have us at the meeting.  Besides if we don’t go, something important might happen, and we’d be left out.  Yeah - right!

Not that The Art of Work is against meetings.  We like nothing better than a solid mind jam, which is what meetings can be at their best.  A single meeting can fix a multi-year problem, or turn around a billion-dollar business.  The trick is to make that kind of thing happen more often and the other “thing” go the way of the dodo. 

In our courses, the students often end up struggling with meetings.  They have reasons to talk all together, but it seems pretty rare for anyone to have a good handle on how to do this less painfully.  From watching these classes, and from our experience with our own meetings, good and bad, before, during, and after Microsoft, we’ve come up with some hopefully helpful hints on making meetings work.

Rule #1: Always have an agenda.

Hold on, don’t change that channel.  We don’t mean that every meeting should have a stated agenda, we mean you personally should have an agenda of your own.  We’re making a bold assumption that your time is worth something to you, and that you would prefer to use it productively.  If you go into every meeting with a clear goal for yourself, you’ll have a reason for being there, and will have energy to make it happen.

Rule #2: Question the goal.

Is the stated goal of the meeting one that is best addressed with a meeting?  Do all of the people involved need to be there?  A good way to bring home the cost of a meeting is to ask people to use a guide of  $100/hr for each person there and do the math. 

Rule #3: Avoid reporting status.

What a bogus waste of time.  Identify issues, and work on those.  If anyone actually needs to know the status of something, they shouldn’t need to have everyone else in the room listening at the same time.  In particular, meetings where we “go around the room” and each person reports the status that they know off the top of their heads, are almost completely useless.  These meetings are prevalent because managers feel a “need to be kept in the loop” but don’t know how to differentiate the important from the mundane.  So they waste everyone’s time.

Rule #4: When stuck, take a break.

We had one group who got most of their productive work done during breaks.  One thing a break does is it allows people to cluster into small groups based on who they really need to deal with, or who they think will help them with their thinking.  It also allows people to “try out” what they’ve been thinking without presenting it in front of the whole group.

Rule #5: Wait a day before broadcasting big decisions.

We’ve learned this one from working with Jeff Beehler.  Jeff is an exceptionally thoughtful and intelligent guy who thinks with his brain instead of his mouth.  This means that quite often he would come back the next morning (after one of his shower epiphanies) with a better idea.  Knee-jerk extroverts like me tend to want to immediately tell everyone what was decided, before we forget.  Wait a day - it’ll pay off.

Rule #6: Pop context

Conversations between groups tend to fall into circular patterns, or get stuck at a level of detail which is far below optimal for the cost of the conversation.  It is almost always helpful to reset every five minutes or so, to make sure that the conversation is actually going to get the group to what it wants.  Think of it as jamming with the tape recorder on, then listening to what you’ve just done.

Some good questions to ask:

  • ·       Why are we discussing this now? 
  • ·       Are we doing what we set out to do? 
  • ·       Is this a symptom of a bigger problem? 
  • ·       Is this the real issue?” 
  • ·       If we could solve only one problem, would this be it?

Rule #7:  Shut up the big mouths

People like me can easily dominate a conversation, even among twenty people.  It has taken lots of mistakes to learn that talking all the time isn’t the way to get things done.  In particular, whenever the conversation subsides into a Ping-Pong match, you’ve probably lost some really valuable input from the peanut gallery.  Quite often, the silence of the lambs means that what is going on is irrelevant, and fundamental issues aren’t getting addressed.  One thing one student group did was to periodically say, “ok, anyone who has been talking can’t talk for the next ten minutes”.  That group had so many breakthroughs as a result.

Rule #8:  Dig

How many times have you sat in a meeting and thought “where the hell did that come from” in response to a seemingly random remark from someone in the room?  When this happens, the group usually is silent for a second, and then the previous conversation resumes with “as I was saying” or “where were we”.  The person who blurted the alleged non-sequitur lapses into silence, and the moment is lost. 

The problem with this whole interaction is that it asserts that this person was being random, without checking it out.  My new favorite question is “That’s interesting, what was your motivation for saying that right now?”  This helps the person to understand that we’re invested in what they were trying to get across, willing to give them time to do so, and tolerant of the simple fact that most of us are inarticulate, especially when we’re struggling.  In a great team, we help each other to reach clarity, rather than running over people who aren’t already clear.

Rule #9: Call out greatness

A simple idea.  Whenever something great is said, write it down and put it up on the wall.  Herald it somehow.  People need feedback, and will deliver more greatness when it is appreciated.  Make sure that everyone knows they can do this (not just the boss).

Rule #10:  Have synergistic conversation

When working on a topic, make sure that each remark builds on the idea before it.  If you can’t build on the idea before, make sure to check that the previous idea had run its course.  For example:

Non-Synergistic Conversation

Fred:            Here’s an idea for the new widgets on the foobar!

Ned:            Spec is frozen!

Red:            I used the foobar yesterday and it sucked, we should copy Lotus instead!

Ted:            Where is the spec anyway?  I can’t connect to the server.

Synergistic conversation

Fred:            Here’s an idea for the new widgets on the foobar!

Ned:            I’ve been trying to freeze the spec, but everyone’s still coming up with new ideas.

            Do you think its really important for us to still be thinking about new features like this?

Red:            I think it might be, I was using the foobar yesterday, and it needs some work - I’m interested.

Ted:            What’s the idea, Fred?

Rule #11:  Promote recursion

Every idea generation session is a micro-shipping cycle.  Every missed commitment is a potential slip killer.  One very useful thing to do in meetings is to point out how our meeting behavior is an example of exactly the problems we are grappling with.  One the flip side, modeling desired behavior in the meetings is a great way to demonstrate the power of an approach.

Rule #12: Use writing, pictures, games

Given the endless variation of human activity, its amazing how uninspired our meetings can be.  One of the things that we do in our courses is to use other forms of expression to get at valuable insights that are lurking in the subconscious mind.  For example, get each person to draw a picture of the project and its biggest problems.  Then trade pictures.  If you’re having trouble brainstorming, use writing, get each person to write down their top two ideas, then have one person read all of them. 

This may sound silly, childish, stupid, immature, whatever.  Personally, given a choice between mature and stuck versus childish and successful, we’ll take the latter.

Rule #13: Question the silent 

Silence may be golden, but gold has to be mined.  Silence always means something - usually either thought or fear.  Asking “what are you thinking” or “what’s going on” is a great way to open up the floor for this new gold.

Rule #14: Follow the energy 

We often beat ourselves up for “getting” stuck on one topic, or for not getting through the agenda.  The true measure of the value of a meeting is how much positive change results from that meeting taking place.  Its important to achieve what you set out to achieve, unless you find along the way that there is something more valuable to be doing.  Groups tend to have an innate wisdom about what is really important.  Always following the energy of the group will maximize the use of this wisdom. 

Hard problems with this are checking that we don’t mistake a ping pong match for group energy.  Group energy is what happens when everyone is engaged in the topic.  A ping pong match is what happens when two or three (usually a very small percentage of the room) are stuck saying the same divergent points of view.

Rule #15:  Leave the room

If you feel like the group is getting nowhere, and you don’t know how to fix it, consider leaving.  This can be dramatic, and will usually force the group either to address its “getting nowhereness” or at least get you out of the situation.

Rule #16: Change the environment

Small changes to the environment (going outside, changing rooms, getting some food, standing up, removing the table) can serve to shake us out of a stuck pattern.

 

Doubtless there are many more rules for making meetings make sense, but this is a start.  The leaderly thing to do is to commit to having meetings that matter, every time, and then keep pushing and leading until they do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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