“Unboring” Meetings

Have you ever heard someone say –  “I can’t wait to attend this afternoon’s team meeting.  Should be fascinating!”.  Even if you have, it is likely a rare occurrence.  More often than not people see meetings as an interruption from “meaningful” work and you are more likely to hear something like “Are we done so I can get some real work done?”

Meetings suck because they are often treated as necessary evils to communicate information from a leader to a group of direct reports.  It is often a one-way information dump that people could just as easily have read in an email or memo.

Amount of meeting time that is wasted ranges anywhere from 30 – 50%.   45% of senior execs said that their employees would be much more productive simply by implementing one meeting free day per week.  One poll indicated that employees spent 30 – 70% of their time in meetings.  The results further showed that ‘a typical company’s monthly leadership meeting was costing the company $180,000 per year!”

Research from the University of Minnesota showed the impact of meetings on the congnitive skills of participants.  They confirmed research that showed that we do not have endless mental resources to expend without re-nourishment.  “In fact, those all-day corporate meetings and breakout sessions that require constant focus and commitment are counterproductive to sound decision-making.”  Yet we continue to pull groups of people together for ‘soulless staff meetings, multi-day retreats and regional conferences and wonder why participants are staring at the floor like cattle at the slaughterhouse.

Agile processes include a lot of meetings or ceremonies that provide great opportunities to build collaboration, innovation and trust within a team.  But when I first introduce the scrum framework to teams I teach and coach, more often than not, I hear, “we will be in meetings all day, when will we get our work done.”  To be effective, agile ceremonies must be facilitated with great skill and efficiency.  When done well these meetings, or working sessions as I like to call them, are used to get meaningful work that requires collaboration done together as a team – leaving room for focused independent work.

Tips for effective working sessions

“A meeting is an event where minutes are taken and hours wasted.” – Capt. James T. Kirk (Starship Enterprise)

  • Start and end a meeting on time.  This is a non-negotiable.
  • Meeting should not last more than 90 consecutive minutes without a 10 – 15 minute break that involves getting up and moving around.
  • People lose focus in the last 5 – 10 minutes of every meeting in anticipation of it ending and moving to the next commitment.  To not lose their attention, plan the agenda so that the hour-long meeting ends after 50 min.
  • No phones.  If necessary, put a basket near the door for attendees to deposit their phones in as they walk into the room.
  • No interrupting each other.  It is the # 1 sign of disrespect.
  • Review agenda with everyone prior to starting.  Whenever possible, distribute the agenda in advance of the meeting.
  • In routines meetings, give others the opportunity to facilitate after training them on how to do it.
  • Limit the agenda to items that cannot be simply shared via email.
  • Make sure everyone can restate their newly assigned responsibilities and delivery dates prior to ending the meeting.
  • Routinely ask for feedback.

To make all this happen, you need an effective and skilled facilitator.

Role of a facilitator

An effective facilitator is able to frame and maintain the flow of a meeting as a collaborative discussion when brainstorming a creativity abound and all in attendance become active participants.  Mindful and effective facilitation takes a lot of practice and deliberate action on the part of the facilitator.

Here are some tips on what you may want to consider the next time you are a facilitator.

Before the meeting…

  • Consider the agenda through the lens of the attendee.  Remember that different people are in different emotional states coming into the meeting.  The meeting may have just interrupted an important thing they were working on.  Others may want to socialize with someone they have not seen for a while.
  • Review the meeting participants and the purpose and desired outcome to anticipate how people may react to the meeting and think of ways you may be able to engage them and maximize their interest and participation.
  • Determine the WIIFM (what is in it for me?) for each part of the agenda to prepare for the concerns and questions of attendees.
  • Leaders may be using the meeting as an opportunity to get the work off their plates and pass them on to someone else.  Stop for a moment to think of the potential reactions, risks and consequences.
  • Be self-aware.  If you get into a meeting frazzle, with your hair seemingly on fire, those in the room may get nervous and be distracted anticipating bad news.  Dragging in late with slumped shoulders and collapsing in a chair may communicate that were hassled and exhausted.
  • Send out the agenda in advance.  Participants can come with potential solutions to the problems.  Introverts thrive when given the opportunity to do work in advance so that they don’t feel put on the spot in front of others.

During the meeting….

  • Meetings may be the only way for people to check in with others in the room.  “It can be counter productive to expect that everyone can flip a mind-switch and become fully present upon request.”
  • Build a few minutes in the agenda for everyone to get on the same page…..sometimes, it may just be letting the normal conversation go for for 5 min.  or you may have everyone do a check in of their current state of mind.  Leaders are now beginning meetings with some deep breathing or silent reflection to bring about present moment attention.
  • Check environmental factors: Do the participants feel psychologically safe to professionally share their opinions without fear or reprisal?  Often this requires ongoing, offline one-on-one conversations to help those with reservations feel more comfortable.  Make it safe to share mistakes that you have made in front of others.  Transparency is an important piece of building trust.
  • “Leaders tend to believe that being vulnerable equates to being weak but it can be a powerful tool in building team cohesion.”
  • Include the introverts / the quiet ones.
  • Give kudos to those who take risks by making innovative suggestions regardless of whether or not they are implemented.  This encourages creativity – it only takes one novel idea to separate your organization from its competitors.
  • Have some fun!
  • Change up the format….keep it interesting….jazz up your meeting with a game, skits or just humor in general.  Humor helps bring more focused attention to the subject.  It is important to lighten up a little!
  • Observe each participants attention.  Give them an out if they are called on.  “I was in Italy”!
  • Watch out for dominating dons, passive aggressive people…read the room
  • Assign a time keeper to keep things moving.  Strictly adhering to predesigned rules can potentially shut down creativity and great ideas.
  • Find time to draw out and recognize achievement….People appreciate the opportunity to shine and strive harder to have a chance to do it again.  Focus on what you are doing well – including supporting peers engaged in challenging personal battles.
  • Be cognizant of your team’s stress levels.  It can be beneficial to scrub a meeting’s agenda just to talk about the pressures being felt at the moment.  Knowing that your boss empathizes when you or the whole team is struggling to cope with an unusually high number of stressors can be extremely reassuring.

After the meeting….

  • Capture an action item list with details of who owns the action item, the time box within which it will be completed and the desired outcome from this action.
  • Any actions / decisions / outcomes of the meeting are communicated with those who need to be informed as well as those who attended the meeting.

The next time you are ready to facilitate a meeting ask yourself:

  • Have I considered the agenda of the meeting through the lens of the attendees?
  • Do I need to have this meeting?  Do we need collaboration or is this meeting just an information dump?  Are the people I have invited really needed in this meetings?
  • Do you have a clear purpose and desired outcome from this meeting?  Are you ready to communicate that with the participants?
  • Do you have a way to engage all participants for their input?
  • Do you know how you will gain feedback about the effectiveness of your meeting?
  • Did you include personal and professional achievements as part of a meetings’ agenda?  Are you recognizing the little wins?

References:  How to Make Meetings Suck Less – Erik Engberg