Wednesday, January 20, 2021

What's in a Meeting

It is important to be aware of and honest about our flaws and biases. To that end, I have an obligation to tell my readership: I like meetings. 

Have you ever spent time thinking about what a meeting is, what defines the concept in a work environment? It is a specific time, with specific people, to discuss specific topics. How gloriously efficient is that? Let's make sure everyone knows when it is happening. No one will suddenly find themselves in a conversation they did not know they would be having.  Let's get the right people in the room, the ones who need to be part of this discussion in order to have the best possible outcomes. Let's tell everyone what we will be discussing. That will help them direct their thoughts and be ready to engage in deep, meaningful discussion and analysis. In an even moderately busy work environment, meetings are an absolute necessity for getting things done with our limited time. They are a truly wonderful invention.

Okay, if you live in the same world I do, the concepts "gloriously efficient" and "meetings" have never crossed your mind together before. 

Let me revise the statement I made at the top of the post: I like the idea of meetings. Most meetings are terrible, nails-on-the-chalkboard frustrating, in no small part because they could be so much better. It is like taking a bite of a cookie and discovering it was made with salt instead of sugar. And then being told that you have to eat the whole thing, once a week until you retire.

Meetings are successful when they achieve the definition above, when they specify time, specify people, and specify topic. Virtually every bad meeting is bad because it fails to achieve one of those three elements.

Specify topics: I know of a friend who attended an all day meeting once per month (6.5 hours not including breaks). The agenda would often have items like "updates from x, y, and z departments" or "management activity." Now, I'm sure the organizers of the meeting knew what that meant. It was totally unhelpful to my friend, however. To successfully capture the "specify topics" element of a meeting, you must do so for everyone in attendance. The goal is that people come prepared to meaningfully engage. That may mean discussion, taking down notes to execute a new process, coming to a decision, etc. Regardless of the activity in the meeting, people must prepare themselves in advance in order to be successful. Put time into crafting your agenda. Consider how topics will proceed. Give your attendees a real sense for what will be discussed. 

Specify people: It matters who comes to a meeting. You will get wildly different engagement out of the same person, with the same amount of preparation, depending on who else is with them. Small groups elicit more candid input. More levels of management in the room will increase formality and make people more careful of what they say. Same goes for having unfamiliar people in attendance. 

I worked at an organization that had a monthly meeting for all site managers--the bosses who supervised the front-line customer service staff at each location of the organization. There were 10 site managers. This meeting routinely had almost 25 people in attendance. That is standing attendance, not guests. There were the 10 site managers, their 3 bosses, their boss, 7 managers of other departments in the organization, and 2-3 subordinates to the site managers. The meetings were dreadful. Almost every topic was met with stone silence or milquetoast agreement. There were just too many interpersonal relationships to track, too much potential for saying something wrong. Only the most confident or the most ignorant attendees felt comfortable stating their opinions. The organizers had totally lost the plot when it comes to specifying people.

Specify Time: This element is more encompassing than it seems. It is not enough to say "the meeting starts at 9:00" or even "the meeting starts at 9:00 and ends at 10:00." Specifying time means setting clear expectations about how every moment of the meeting will be used, then enforcing that expectation. Virtually all meetings, even the productive ones, fail to fully achieve the element of specifying time. A good agenda can get you half way there. You must actively facilitate the meeting to get the other half. This means tabling topics when necessary, articulating the purpose of each agenda item, drawing out the quiet attendees and reining in the talkers, and, above all, sticking to the times you set. 

There is a great deal more to cover with meetings. Many other topics, and this is only a brief overview of what it truly means to specify time, specify people, and specify topics. For instance, "specify people" also includes giving people clear indications for how to act in meetings, providing feedback regarding engagement, and so on. For now, take a moment to reflect on your meetings. Look for ways to more fully achieve these three elements in the ones you run. 

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