Don’t you just love meetings?
Yes, this is a joke: almost no one loves meetings. Most people groan, sometimes out loud, when they think about them. In fact, I know people who hate them so much they can barely say the word — they refer to them as “the ‘M’ word.”
Meetings tend to be tedious; they rarely accomplish much; they consume far too much time for the outcomes that they generate; and people rarely learn much. In so many ways, meetings are a real drag on everyone who attends.
To make meetings more effective, it pays to consider a meeting’s purpose. Meetings often have one of two goals. They are called either to identify and choose the best solution to a problem or to influence team members after a solution has already been determined. I’ll focus on the first goal here.
One reason why problem-solving meetings are so bad is that leaders have good intentions! By trying to be fair and open to their team members’ ideas, they can create a terrible, truly useless meeting. Here’s why:
Effective leaders have learned that they should start their problem-solving meetings with a simple agenda: (1) outline the overall goals; (2) identify the problem; and (3) solicit information and ideas. This is an outstanding agenda for all sorts of meetings.
Effective leaders also know that they should not state their own opinions early, as this will bias their team members’ responses. Thus, instead, they should open the floor for anyone and everyone. From a process point of view, however, opening the floor is disastrous, not because people want to sidetrack the meeting (although they might): even when people are conscientious and thoughtful, their natural tendencies are not to bring in new, useful information but, instead, to bring in information that everyone already knows.
Why would anyone do this? Well, let’s imagine that you are the leader, and I am a member of your team. I want to impress you as you are my boss. Let’s also imagine that I am not shy about stating my point of view. As a result, when you ask for information, I will try to be the first person to share my thoughts.
Now, what kinds of information will I share? If I present information that everyone knows, and do it fairly articulately, how will everyone else react? Their natural instinct will be to nod their heads, because I am confirming what they know – and it feels good to have your information confirmed.
In contrast, how will these same people respond if I present new, unique information that no one else has? Their natural instinct in this situation is to ask a question about it. What does this signal? The implicit subtext of a question is “How the hell do you know that?”
Thus, it’s natural for team members to present redundant, useless information rather than new, useful information. It’s no wonder that meetings are so awful.
A solution, however, does exist. And it’s not difficult. Start with an agenda distributed in advance. Our three agenda items (outline goals, identify the problem, solicit information) are a great foundation.
Timing the agenda’s distribution is also important – send it too soon and people forget about it; send it too late and they won’t have time to think about it before the meeting. An ideal timing for distributing an agenda is the morning of the day before the meeting, i.e., a bit over 24 hours in advance.
The next step is critical: rather than just soliciting information at the start of the meeting, ask for information and ideas in advance. If the meeting is at 2 pm, ask team members to (typically) email information and ideas to your assistant by 10 am that same day. Then have someone print out everyone’s transmissions on flip chart pages, and tape them on the walls of the meeting room, with the author’s name at the bottom of each page.
What do you think will happen when everyone arrives? It would be hard to stop them from walking around the room and looking at all of the postings. Which ones will they look at most? The ones with unique information; they already know the redundant stuff.
As a result, the meeting will have a strong, task-oriented focus, right from the start. This saves an enormous amount of time compared to people sharing their ideas verbally. Also, because everyone is focused on the unique ideas, the content of the discussion improves, people learn new stuff, and a great solution becomes much more likely.
This process also gives leaders an opportunity to publicly compliment people who have provided useful, unique information, thereby motivating other team members to bring in unique ideas at subsequent meetings. This can make a huge difference in the quality of the information that team members provide, and redundant information will soon disappear from your meetings.
You might even find that, hallelujah, you look forward to meetings. Shocking!
- I heard many (maybe all?) of the ideas in this blog from my colleague and friend, Victoria Husted Medvec. Among many other activities, she runs an amazing organization, the Center for Executive Women at Kellogg.
- Many thanks also to Fred Schmalz, who is an Editorial Operations Coordinator for Kellogg Insight.