I hear so many people complaining about too many meetings. It’s hard for me to understand because I love meetings; well I love productive meetings. Let me explain with a story. When I was beginning one of my more difficult assignments to turn around a large manufacturing complex, my boss had been going to the site and holding meetings each week. These meetings were about getting people to put priority on getting 50 Drug Master Files (a regulatory document for the FDA) updated as most were in danger of being late for a required annual update. These files needed input from many different departments and many were ignoring the documents in favor of their daily work. The meetings were sort of like an inquisition to have people report on progress. At the end of this very unproductive session which was filled with many excuses for not making progress, my boss introduced me as the new site leader and indicated that I would now take up the task of the updates. As we were leaving the room one of the locals asked if I was looking forward to our next meeting. I simply told him I never planned to have this meeting again. He was shocked, as most people thought the meeting was the only way to get proper priority put on the updates. I simply told him that I didn’t need a meeting to hold people accountable for doing their job and I hated unproductive and unnecessary meetings. The problem got fixed permanently with just some face to face sessions with my direct reports.
Now back to the point of loving productive meetings. When meetings are scheduled for proper reasons, planned in advance, and executed with skill, they are a powerful tool for achieving success, plus a rewarding experience. Did you note that 2 of the 3 points above happen before the meeting? Meetings require thought and preparation by the leader and all attendees to be productive. Start by considering the reason for the meeting (I am referring to formal meetings of 4 or more people as opposed to small informal face to face sessions). Here are some reasons to NOT have a meeting:
- Getting others to do what you need (or want) them to do is not an good reason for a meeting. The management hierarchy is responsible for holding people accountable, even when cross-functional tasks are involved. Therefore this should be done face to face with the manager(s) of the persons involved. Calling people together for inquisitions is not an effective use of time.
- A monthly staff communication meeting is not a good reason for a meeting. I usually have a monthly staff meeting but because we have productive work to do, not to chat about what is or is not happening. The idea that you get together once a month to “communicate what is happening” tells me you lack effective strategic planning and tracking processes. If you don’t have a plan for next few months or for the year, then use your next meeting to develop a plan. If you do, use the meeting to check progress and make the necessary resource allocation adjustments to make sure of successful execution of your plan. In the meantime, meet face to face with each of your staff, set context, clarify expectations, and answer the 4Q’s (see Post 8, Four Questions).
- I hate to add informational meetings to this list because most organizations fail to communicate enough and certainly not effectively. Organizations continue to spend millions trying to communicate with employees but the success of such efforts are limited. Here are some simple facts from a research study which will help me explain. About 90% of employees prefer receiving information face to face. However they trust their manager many times more than some other leader or executive. Therefore, here’s my practical plan for communicating important information to employees. Develop a cascaded communication process utilizing your existing hierarchical organizational structure. Use managers to regularly communicate important information to their direct reports. Make feedback loops a part of this system so your executives and communication professionals can hear what most interests or concerns the employees. Immediately after the cascade, schedule the informational meeting(s) so everyone hears exactly the same message from the leader. By doing it with the cascade first, employees hear the message from the person they trust the most (their manager) and then the informational meeting is about building on the foundation of trust already established by each manager. A skilled leader will have a great town-hall environment to build commitment for the implications of the message being delivered.
What about the planning and skilled execution to ensure productive meetings? Planning starts with an agenda. I assume you know to include the basics such as time, place, and attendees but your agenda should include the context of why the meeting is necessary. As you list each topic to be discussed, also include the context and purpose for that topic, a suggested time frame, and a presenter. You should include a note by any topic which needs a decision or output made during the meeting. The last item on the agenda should be a meeting review. Send the agenda to all attendees at least 48 hours before the meeting, giving them time to prepare and clarify any agenda topics.
If you haven’t been doing advanced agendas, let me suggest a fun approach (assuming you have some authority within your organization). Make an announcement that agendas are required 48 hours in advance of all meetings. If an agenda is not sent then attendance at that meeting is not required. Make it plain that you do not plan to attend any meeting which does not have an agenda sent in advance. The message is obvious. You are only interested in productive meetings and will not attend unproductive meetings. I did this and I found that I loved meetings. They are an effective way to get things done. Warning: You will hate unproductive meetings even more.
Start your meetings on time. Arrive a few minutes early and when the appointed time arrives close the door and start. If one or more of late attendees are your direct reports, you should hold them to account in a one on one session sometime after the meeting. Set the standard for making your meetings productive, not allowing tardy attendees to waste everyone’s time.
The senior person is normally the meeting leader and meeting management works better if this is true. Some managers are lazy and assign meeting leadership to subordinates. This challenges the leader to enforce good meeting management. This does not mean that every meeting has the senor person as leader but it should be the exception and not the rule. Nevertheless, the meeting leader is charged with keeping to the agenda, maintaining time commitments (unless agreed otherwise in the meeting), ensuring participation by all, managing discussion and conflicts, clarifying decisions, reviewing any improvement plans from previous meetings, and doing a meeting review at the end of the meeting. Attendees have a similar responsibility to take part and follow the leader’s guidance. When complex planning or problems are being worked in a meeting the leader and attendees should agree to a process before the beginning of the topic so everyone understands how to give input, make suggestions, and work together as a team.
Each meeting should close with a meeting review. I have attached an example document but the concept includes 5 simple questions.
- Was there effective planning including an agenda sent at least 48 hours in advance and each attendee taking time to study the agenda and prepare?
- Did the meeting leader do an effective job of managing the meeting?
- Did attendees participate and stay on task?
- Was the meeting productive and accomplish the intended output(s)?
- What improvement tasks are needed before future meetings?
I suspect that meetings are necessary within your organization. Why not make them productive and avoid unproductive ones? Your employees learn to love meetings and appreciate you if you set the standard for productive meetings.