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Meetings: As certain and as joyous as death and taxes

There are very few people that actually enjoy meetings.  I have never heard anyone say, “I can’t wait for the meeting this afternoon” unless it’s followed by “I won’t have to eat at my desk.”

Certainly, the people who are called to attend a meeting largely lack enthusiasm are energetic unless they, or their project, are the reason for the meeting – and even then, only if it’s expected to be a positive experience for them.  And the person calling the meeting will not usually be enthusiastic or energetic unless the reason for the meeting is something joyous or dreadful – or unless they are an autocrat or narcissist who just wants to tell people what to do, how to do it – and otherwise ladle-on (usually unreasonable) commands and demands.

So, if nobody enjoys it, why do we meet at all?

Is it because meetings have become a tradition?  We have them because we have always had them, and we somehow feel empty, even untethered and anxious if we are not having them?

Do we have them just to see and be seen?  Are we suffering from “Fear Of Missing Out” (FOMO)?  How many of us would rather have JOMO, “Joy Of Missing Out”?  Or maybe we suffer from “Fear Of Joining In” (FOJI) and dread sitting in a meeting and having to contribute (either voluntarily or being called upon).

Do we enter a meeting expecting a transformative decision – or any decision – about anything – to be made?  Or do we wonder, “Why the heck am here?”

How many of us can relate to being a meeting and feeling like we are in the class of the Economics Teacher in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”?

“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.” – Dave Barry

Let’s take an oath to run better meetings, including conference calls. The following are my recommendations for achieving this objective. Some of my recommendations might be rather harsh, but they will all result in more productive meetings on every level. Try them out and let me know the results.

What is the purpose of the meeting?

We need to start here. No meeting should ever be had without a specific outcome in mind. Why is the meeting being held? What is/are the issue(s) to be deliberated and decided? A meeting should not be called to determine the questions, but to distill the decision. After all, this is an expensive use of time and treasure.

Kill the recurring weekly (or periodic) status meetings. The only status meetings that should be had are those related to a specific and urgent issue that needs resolution quickly. Otherwise, they are largely a waste with people coming together and rehashing stale agendas. Most status meetings can be decided using proper project management tools and techniques combined with an effective communication protocol.

If we are going to have a recurring meeting, make sure it adheres to the protocols detailed below.

“I make a habit of asking myself, ‘Is there purpose to this meeting or conversation? Is there purpose behind this meeting that aligns with my life and business strategy?’ If the answer is ‘No,’ then I pass every time.” – Brandon Webb

Is a meeting necessary?

Assuming we have determined the purpose of the meeting, is an actual meeting necessary? There is a lot of overhead in organizing and conducting a meeting. Maybe an email or a few one-on-one calls will yield the necessary results.

If we do call the meeting, one of the underlying mantra’s should be to have fewer meetings that are short in duration and specific in the subject to be decided. Do not heap a bunch of subjects into a single meeting. Inevitably, there will be people in this meeting who are not involved in all matters and we are wasting their time and draining their energy. When they are called upon, they will not be as engaged as they should be, having been dulled by enduring things that don’t involve them.

“The least productive people are usually the ones who are most in favor of holding meetings.”
– Thomas Sowell

What is the meeting agenda?

Every meeting should have a specific agenda. When will the meeting take place? Where will it take place or is it a conference call? How long will the meeting be (consider this end-time a “hard-stop”). What is to be decided? A meeting should be about debating and deciding the question, not debating and deciding what the question is. Certainly, there will be questions that precipitate from having the meeting. This is to be expected. But the objective of the meeting should be to reach a decision.

Also, be sure to provide the agenda with enough lead-time so that participants can properly prepare to share their insights. Notice that I use the term “participants” instead of “attendees”. Everyone in the meeting should be expected to contribute. In fact, we should place the participants on the agenda and specify what their expected contribution will be. There is nothing more unfair and unproductive than calling a meeting without enough notice so that the participants can be properly prepared.

Ask the participants how long they will need to deliver their material. Then add time to that for group discussion and “Red Teaming”. Everyone, for each speaker individually, needs the opportunity to offer input and pose questions to the participant delivering the material. We will also need to allocate time at the end of the meeting for distilling the material delivered during the meeting, making decisions, and determining and assigning action-items and responsibilities. Make sure this time is worked into the plan and available – it will reduce the need for future meetings on the same subject.

“It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” – Joseph Joubert

Who do we invite to the meeting?

When it comes to who should be in the meeting, simply put, the fewer the better. The more people involved in the meeting, the more overhead there is, the more prone to chaos it will become, and the greater the likelihood that a successful conclusion will not be realized – leaving more questions left unanswered than were answered.

A simple acid test would be to look to the agenda for the list of participants (contributors, not attendees). Only those who are going to contribute should be invited.

One important person and role who is always an after-thought is the person responsible for memorializing the meeting deliberations – the recorder. Be sure to name that person in the invite list and assign this specific and important role.

If we see our name on the attendee list, but not called-out for contribution, call the meeting organizer and ask the purpose for our being there. If there isn’t a specific reason given or the reason is weak, we need to ask to forego the meeting. And if we find ourselves in a meeting where we are not contributing, we need to leave – politely excuse ourselves, get-up, and go. Of course, this might be a Career Limiting Move (CLM) if the meeting organizer or the company culture that is autocratic.

“Meetings should have as few people as possible, but all the right people.” – Charles W. Scharf

What is the format of the meeting?

Except for “official” meetings (such as Board Meetings, meetings of Government, and the like) forget strict adherence to Robert’s Rules of Order. That being said, there are some general meeting protocols for routine meetings that need to be followed;

Meeting preparation:

  • Start the meeting exactly on time. I would even recommend that the door be shut and secured at the start of the meeting so that stragglers are not permitted in after the meeting starts. Nothing is more disruptive to the flow of a meeting or disrespectful than to have late arrivals join – they can get the meeting minutes afterwards. This might sound rather harsh and we might think it undoable, but I guarantee that people will be on time once they heard someone was locked-out.
  • No meeting should last long enough that people get hungry. So, there should be no food available during the meeting – only simple beverages. If we are going to offer refreshments, call out the time for refreshments in the agenda, and have any food in a separate room (beverages can be in the meeting room itself). But make sure to start the meeting itself at the appointed time.
    No personal devices are allowed – not even for taking notes. Anyone who claims that they “must” use their device for taking notes is being disingenuous. It’s important that everyone be in the moment – the emails, news, and social media updates can wait. Such devices will only distract other participants or the user.
  • All the materials necessary for the meeting, whether handouts or other presentation materials, should be at the ready and in front of the participants or loaded on the presentation computer prior to the start of the meeting. If possible, the materials should be sent to the participants in advance of the meeting (1dy minimum) for review and preparation. This means the people who are contributing (all of the participants, remember?) should arrive at the meeting early enough so that the materials are at the ready.
  • If we really want to keep a meeting moving, are very pressed for time, and need to come to a resolution quickly, perhaps consider removing the chairs. Besides keeping a meeting moving, in one 7-week study, participants using standing desks reported less stress and fatigue and standing appeared to have a positive influence on thinking and overall well-being than those who remained seated the entire work day. Additionally, 87% of those using standing desks reported increased vigor and energy throughout the day. Of course, make accommodation for anyone who might have a physical challenge with standing. Not only is it right, it’s the law.

Meeting execution;

  • Start the meeting by welcoming everyone, thanking them for their time, and introducing those who might be new to the group meeting. Don’t let them introduce themselves, the hand-off takes time, we never know how long they will want to take to introduce themselves, and it interrupts the flow.  Besides, we invited them.  We should know who they are, what they do, and why they are there.
  • Make sure to share with everyone the safety protocols. Where the exits are and where people should meet after they escape in the case of an emergency.
  • Announce the purpose of the meeting. Why is everyone here and what is the question(s) that are to be decided at the conclusion of the meeting.
  • Review the agenda. As we go through the agenda, gesture to those who will be sharing as their name and contribution is called-out.
  • As the meeting unfolds, make sure the participants deliver their contributions themselves. There is no person who knows their material better than the person that prepared it.  The change-overs should be as seamless as possible since all the materials were staged for the meeting in advance.
  • The opportunity to “Red Team” the speakers, as determined in the construction of the agenda, will present itself as the material is being delivered. It will be the responsibility of the meeting organizer to manage the clock and end the discussion so the meeting progresses on time.  We don’t want to “squeeze” the last speakers because the early ones took too much time – and we don’t want to go beyond the scheduled end-time of the meeting.  Any open items left should be placed in a “parking lot”; a place on a white-board or flip-chart where open discussion points are listed for later review.
  • It is also the responsibility of the meeting organizer to keep the meeting on target and to guard against it going down a rabbit hole. It is easy for a meeting to go sideways, starting to discuss things that are not relevant to the meeting objectives.  Don’t let that happen.
  • The participants – those delivering the materials and those engaging – need to keep the syntax they use simple, clear, and concise – minimize the use of jargon, acronyms, buzz-words, colloquialisms, and clichés. Not everyone knows them, they will be too embarrassed to ask, and the result will be they’re not having a complete understanding of the material being shared.

Meeting conclusions;

  • It’s been a long meeting, and we are all tired. But we still need to perform one last critical task which is the purpose of the meeting; deliberate and make decisions.
  • We have left time in the Agenda for open discussion. This is the opportunity for everyone to share their thoughts on the overarching content of the meeting. If time, there might also be an opportunity to revisit items left in the parking lot. It is also time to start listing action-items that need to be assigned and completed.
  • The responsibility for action-items should first be “claimed” by the people who are confident they can deliver. Those action-items left unclaimed need further review to determine why they are left unclaimed. Perhaps the action-item is unclear, or the person who is best to deliver has a workload challenge, and so on. In any case, the action-item is not going to deliver itself and someone must take ownership of it without being set-up for failure – which I define as; “Having responsibility and accountability, but no authority.” Make sure whoever has ownership of the action-item can be honest and transparent about what is required (time, talent, and treasure) to deliver. At the end of the day, an action-item needs and owner and a due-date.
  • Thank everyone for their participation and contribution and conclude the meeting.

The hallmarks for a successful meeting will be that the meeting; i) adhered to the agenda and its schedule of activities, ii) covered all the items on the agenda with opportunities to “Red-Team” each participant, iii) should have allowed for time for deliberations at the end of the meeting, iv) ended on time, and, most important, v) the conclusion of the meeting should have seen that the purpose of the meeting has been decided.

Lastly, I am not a fan of scheduling a follow-up meeting at the conclusion of a meeting (unless it’s one of those dreaded “recurring meetings” I cautioned about earlier). In my opinion, whoever is responsible for the program that was the purpose of the meeting should manage the action-items assigned and only call a follow-up meeting if and when it might be necessary.

At the end of the day, we might be able to have a meeting that was truly enjoyable from time to time, but we will probably never love attending a meeting and never get others to love meetings. We will never hear in the hallway or at the coffee machine, “I just love our meetings so much, they are the best part of my job.” It just won’t happen.

But what we can strive to achieve is that people do not dread meetings. And they won’t dread them because the meetings are well managed and, most importantly, the meetings will have relevance to those attending – either adding or seeking value, perhaps both. Each participant will have an active role as a contributor and/or a personal stake in what is being deliberated.

“If time be of all things the most precious, wasting time must be the greatest prodigality.”
– Benjamin Franklin

by Joseph Paris

Paris is the Founder and Chairman of the XONITEK Group of Companies; an international management consultancy firm specializing in all disciplines related to Operational Excellence, the continuous and deliberate improvement of company performance AND the circumstances of those who work there – to pursue “Operational Excellence by Design” and not by coincidence.

He is also the Founder of the Operational Excellence Society, with hundreds of members and several Chapters located around the world, as well as the Owner of the Operational Excellence Group on Linked-In, with over 60,000 members. Connect with him on LinkedIn or find out more about him.

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