Monday, July 12, 2021

Team Meeting Series: Topic Purpose

Actions to take: Make sure you know what you are trying to achieve with each agenda item. Mentally categorize each item into these four purposes: Informational, Discussion, Brainstorm, and Decision. Add those headings to the item descriptions in the agenda.

This is a post in a short series about running your team meetings, i.e. the regularly scheduled meeting with all of your direct reports in attendance. Many of the lessons apply to other meetings, but team meetings are the focus.

When you are running a meeting, how often do you get exactly what you want out of your attendees? If your experience is anything like mine was, you get dead silence when you want lively discussion, and you get two people arguing back and forth about a topic that was supposed to be a one minute heads-up to the team. In the early days of my managerial career, I found myself frustrated after every team meeting. My employees were always getting sidetracked by unimportant details and were never prepared to discuss the meaty topics.

It was some time before I realized that it was entirely my fault. If this sort of thing happens in the meetings you run, it is your fault too. Your team will do what you want them to in virtually any circumstance, meetings included. But you must stop expecting them to read your mind. Indicate what you want out of your meetings. The easiest way to do this is by tagging each of your agenda items with its purpose. I recommend the following four categories:

  • Informational: Have a standing section of your meeting for the "information dump." These are items that require no discussion and take a minute or less for you to explain. Some would argue to "just send an email" for this type of thing. If you are pressed for time in the meeting, fine, but email is far less efficient. You can knock out 10 items in 10 minutes in a meeting, or you could spend 5 minutes per item writing emails as things come up...pretty obvious which is a better use of your time. 
    • Examples: "Training deadline: Quarterly safety training is due in a month. Please email me to confirm your completion before the due date." "Budget Kudos: The finance department sent us a big kudos for getting our budget documents in early and completed so thoroughly. Nice work everyone!"
  • Brainstorming: Brainstorming is for new issues/ideas that you want to explore in an open-ended way. Use brainstorming agenda items to get your team thinking positively about something. It is easy to let brainstorming bleed into discussion and vice versa, but it is more effective to split up these mental tasks. In brainstorming, we want to open the floodgates and let as many ideas in as possible.
    • Example: "Brainstorm: Library closure: Our doors are closed for at least the next two weeks due to major global pandemic. Let's think up as many productive things we can do with our time while customers aren't coming in the building."
  • Discussion: Use the discussion tag when you want to have your team focus on a narrower band of ideas and explore the pros and cons in depth. It is also used when you are reviewing how something is going post-rollout. Your goal with discussion is distinct from brainstorming. Here, we are exploring targeted information as a team.
    • Example: "Discussion: Management best practices: how would you handle a situation where your employee has a conflict with another manager's employee? I'll lay out a more detailed scenario for us to consider in the meeting."
  • Decision: Use this tag when you (or the folks upstairs) have made a significant decision that you need to explain to your team. The first half of a decision agenda item works like an informational item, just for more important topics that require greater explanation. The second part of this agenda item is for questions. That is distinct from a "discussion" though. Your employees are asking questions and you are providing answers, not really exploring a topic together. If you find it turning into a discussion, that is an indication that you may not have thought through your decision fully.
    • Example: "Decision: Refund procedures: We have standardized refund procedures for customers. I will explain the significant changes to our process and give time for questions." 

Notice the natural progression in the last three agenda tags. For a particular issue or idea, you might brainstorm in the first meeting, discuss it in the next to narrow down options, and explain your final decision in the third meeting. 

I recommend that you tag your items right on the agenda for all to see (I further recommend that, as with all managerial change, you roll this out by telling people about it before you start). These tags cover about 90% of all agenda items. You will find yourself with an occasional item that doesn't fit. That's fine. Either make up a new tag or just have no tag.

Now, before you can tell your team the purpose of each agenda item, you have to figure it out for yourself. Expect to take a little extra time preparing each agenda item. Picture how you want the meeting to go during that time. Bonus tip: If every agenda item is "informational," then you are not using your meeting effectively. 

Roll out topic purpose tags for your agenda items, and I guarantee that you will have more productive and more thoughtful team meetings. Your employees will notice. You'll start to get feedback that the meetings are "more on track" and "run smoother." At the end of the meeting, your team will be energized and talkative rather than drained and quiet. 

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