Someone clever (?) once said something like “A meeting is a collective tacit confession of participants’ unwillingness to work”.  A bit harsh!

General Stanley McChrystal, the lead author of the 2015 New York Times bestseller, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, sheds a different and more positive light; “As a leader, you must consistently drive effective communication. Meetings must be deliberate and intentional – your organisational rhythm should value purpose over habit and effectiveness over efficiency.”

Meetings are seen by many as an excuse to avoid work but managed and implemented properly they are exactly the right tool for discussions that lead to decision’s that drive your organisation forward.

The question is how do we make that happen?

Meeting purpose / objectives

The first point to make is that meetings are held for different purposes, so, in order to make them effective that’s the place to start.  Purposes of a meeting might include:

  • To provide a status update / progress check
  • To solve problems
  • To communicate
  • To make decisions
  • To build your team

Clearly, some meetings are going to be a combination of all the above, but this is important to decide where the priorities lie.

The meeting cascade

It’s also important to create a hierarchy of meetings so they “cascade” into one another allowing information to be passed up and down and across the organisation.  As General McChrystal (and Verne Harnish) suggests, there needs to be a meeting “rhythm”; which becomes the heartbeat of the business.

With the advent of the pandemic and more remote working, given the need for social interaction and communication meetings have perhaps become significantly more important.  Many people have set-up short 5 to 10 minute daily huddles to remove some of the stress caused by remote working.  But video meetings are no substitute for direct one to one contact.  If we want to have the best discussions and make the best decision, as someone else clever said, “We need to be breathing the same air”.

Thinking and focus

1. Do the prep’

Many meetings require reports and information to be collected and disseminated prior to a meeting for people to review, consider and properly prepare.  

Undertaking the proper preparation also allows thinking, sometimes hard thinking, to be done outside of the meeting.  It allows you the time to consider the issue and therefore to bring solutions rather than problems.  Any pre-work needs to be sent out on time with sufficient time to allow recipients time to consider issues and respond.

Other meetings won’t necessarily require report preparation, but the previous minutes should certainly be reviewed to ensure all actions have been completed, and if not updates can be prepared for the meeting and delivered efficiently and effectively.

One trick we have employed ourselves, and with others, is to allocate specific meeting preparation time to people’s calendars in advance of the meeting.  A description of the preparation required should also be placed in the calendar invite, along with the purpose of the meeting and the agenda.

2. Be on time

Sir Clive Woodwood, famous for the UK rugby team and the 2012 Olympics, calls this “Lombardi time” named after Vince Lombardi the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers.  His golden rule was if you weren’t 15 minutes early for a meeting, you were late.

3. Focus on meeting goals and the agenda

Some of the best companies we work with have managed to create a culture that allows, and actually positively encourages “pressure from below”.  This means that all staff feel comfortable openly and honestly stating their current position, providing their perspective, challenging decisions and asking hard questions.  They want to contribute to discussions and share their ideas in order to drive the business forward to meet its goals.

Meetings need agendas and the agendas should mesh up and down and across the meeting cascade.  Astonishingly, one American study we came across suggested 63% of meetings occurred without an agenda!  We would suggest adding the purpose of the meeting, the preparation required and the agenda to the calendar invite.

4. Stay present and open minded

Fortunately, I have never been witness to it, but I have heard of board meetings, particularly in large companies, where people bring their laptops to meetings hide behind the laptop screen and process emails. Deplorable.

Additionally, in order to make the best decisions you need to respectfully listen to others and properly consider their views. 

One of my old mentors, Brian Wood, used to comment that he loved meetings where everybody had an open mind; discussions that were passionate, and that in the end, a better consensus was gained as during the discussions he had his mind changed, as did others.  The lesson here is we all need to learn the value of different perspectives and to do that we all need to listen properly.

5. Tackle the issue, not the person

Its sometimes much easier said than done, but every effort ought to be made to properly identify the root of the problem (obviously, given that the meeting is focused on solving a problem… it might not be).  Respectfully challenging the specific problem goes some way to removing any emotion from the situation resulting in efforts being focused on the resolution to the problem rather than scoring political points against an individual.

One of my favourite pithy one liners (I sometimes use with my kids) is “will that approach take you nearer to or further away from your goal?”

6. No war stories

This is a difficult one and there does need to be a balance here.  The no war stories rule is about staying on point and staying on time; war stories often lead to lengthy and difficult to recover from, distractions.  The difficulty is in some instances stories about previous events can uncover golden nuggets that do help take the organisation forward.

7. Log actions to drive progress

The result of most meetings would be some kind of action or actions which have been discussed and agreed.  Each action needs be allocated to one person responsible for seeing it through and given a time frame.  Some actions may be kicked up, or even down, the meeting chain others may be longer term issues that need to be dropped into the quarterly plan or even annual business plan

A key point here, and one that is missing from many organisations, is there needs to be an effective process for logging, monitoring and driving the execution of actions.  It’s very dispiriting to create inspired actions that results in nothing getting done.

What’s next?

The above is obviously just one take on meeting rules.  A good teamwork exercise is to create your own.  Ask each of the team members for each of your meetings to do their own (10 minute Google) research on team rules and come together collectively to develop their own.

Once finalised some companies have created posters for each of their meetings displaying the purpose of the meeting, the rules and the agenda.  They provide great reminders.

How does this fit with my management system?

There is a critical requirement in all management systems to hold a management review. In the majority of instances this takes the form of a management review “meeting”.  So, all of the information above would relate to that meeting.

However, there is nothing stopping any organisation taking the agenda points that any ISO standard requires and grafting individual points into relevant and existing meeting structures.  This approach turns the management review requirement into a “process” rather than a meeting.  In fact, in one large owner managed organisation, a £200m construction company, there were a plethora of meetings across 11 different construction teams as well as the QuSHE department, the finance department and board meetings.  On investigation the vast majority of the management review ISO requirements we’re already being covered in one or more meetings.  As such the management review process simply became a cross check to ensure activities we’re being reviewed

Conclusion

Managed properly, meetings are an ideal vehicle for getting stuff done and driving an organisation forward.  But there are some ground rules:

  • Define the purpose of each meeting
  • Ensure meetings blend and cascade both up and down and across the organisation
  • Focus on effectiveness rather than efficiency
  • Ensure there is a robust method of tracking, updating and executing actions

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