3 ways meetings are broken

An interesting comment was made on my recent post about humanizing PowerPoint. A reader offered up the opinion that one of the reasons PowerPoint is broken just might be that we have too many meetings. I agree, to a point, but think that idea is just scratching the surface of why meetings are broken.

An interesting comment was made on my recent post about humanizing PowerPoint. A reader offered up the opinion that one of the reasons PowerPoint is broken just might be that we have too many meetings. I agree, to a point, but think that idea is just scratching the surface of why meetings are broken.

I think that organizations have failed to define what makes a meeting successful and left it to individuals to figure it out for themselves. Like e-mail and PowerPoint, the tool is only as good as the person using it and what is needed is a basic set of standards and practices that increase the odds that a meeting will be effective and produce positive results. Here are three proven techniques to make every meeting you organize more effective, more participatory, and more satisfying. Each of these techniques addresses one of the fundamental ways meetings have broken.

1. Provide a meaningful agenda in advance: Handing out an agenda as meeting participants arrive is pretty pointless. It guarantees two things - attendees will feel stressed about having to come up to speed quickly on the goals for the meeting and they will feel completely locked out of any ability to help define those goals. If a well-constructed agenda is provided in advance, a number of good things happen. At minimum, a good agenda should include the following:

  • A goal
  • A timeline of activities
  • Supporting information required to show up prepared to participate

Set a goal: David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, talks about picturing "wild success" for any project you plan to undertake. Wild success, to me, means what would the best possible outcome look like if everything went perfectly? With that picture in mind, it's a lot more likely I'll be able to calculate the actions necessary to achieve that success. All too often, an invitation to a meeting is actually more of a summons - you will appear at this time and in this place - without any clear idea why. Control freaks and power mongers hate the idea of having to "explain themselves". Effective meeting leaders understand that consensus is only meaningful and debate is only productive if everyone understands where "point B" is. 

Define a timeline: The average meeting seems to be one hour based on my completely unscientific research. The average workday is eight to nine hours long. So a one hour meeting represents a significant portion of the time each person has to spend getting their work done each day. If you are asking a group of people to give up one hour out of the eight or nine,  make it clear what will be accomplished in that hour and how. Is this a brainstorming meeting? A report on progress? Knowing the sequence of events helps attendees prepare for their role in the meeting.

Include or link to supporting material: Provide meeting attendees with reports, articles, or other information they need to be familiar with prior to the meeting. This is especially important if you wish to have a meaningful question and answer component in your meeting. You can attach the information to the invitation if it is concise or provide a link to an internal document or web page as appropriate. If you are conducting a brainstorming session, consider asking participants to bring a few ideas addressing the topic with them.

2. Assign roles in advance: At minimum, there are three roles that must be owned at every meeting - a leader, a timekeeper, and a scribe. Someone must own the agenda and lead the group through the stages of the meeting. With a defined timeline, someone must be watching the clock and making sure the hour (or whatever duration the meeting is scheduled for) is being used productively. Too many meetings go off the rails when a discussion gets off track or too emotional and the rest of the meeting ends up being rushed as a result. The scribe should capture the actions discussed, decisions made, and tasks assigned and send those results to attendees and stakeholders as soon as possible after the meeting concludes.

3. Makes meetings more interactive: Consider using something other than PowerPoint to drive a meeting. Use brainstorming exercises, mind maps, small group breakouts, and other devices to generate ideas, strategies, and meaningful conversation. Some meetings do need to be lectures but many work much better when active participation by all attendees is engineered into the structure of the meeting. For short topics, consider holding a stand-up meeting. Hold a creative session in an unusual place to break out of typical thinking modes.

Set a goal to change the emotion associated with a meeting request from dread to anticipation. All too often I hear people complain, "I  got nothing done today - I spent the entire day in meetings." Reflect on the irony in that statement and ask yourself what you can do to make your next meeting more effective, productive, and yes... enjoyable.

Have you developed a unique strategy or technique that has transformed your meetings into something everyone looks forward to? Post a comment and share it with us. I'll send a copy of More Space to the person with the best idea for making meetings matter.

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