I look at my calendar for the remainder of the day. I have 3 meetings scheduled: a lunch appointment with a friend I had not seen for some time, a 1:1 with one of my direct reports and a staff meeting with my boss.
I look forward to the first two meetings, but definitely not excited too much about the third meeting.
Why are some meetings more interesting and exciting than others?
What makes a great meeting? What makes a bad meeting?
My curiosity made me go and explore this topic in quite some detail. I have done some research and it turns out that there is a magic wand to transform all the meetings into engaging, meaningful and effective!
You want to know how? Then keep on reading…
The key to run successful meetings requires you to address 2 major pain points: Lack of Engagement & Low Effectiveness
Meetings are hugely important for organisations to function properly: they allow for discussions to happen, for joint decisions to be made, and, probably, this is why the number of meetings in managers’ agendas have been increasing over time continuously. But if we don’t approach each meeting critically, preparing for it, understanding what the purpose is, being clear of what success looks like, we run the risk that they end up eating up our time more than they help us progress.
Most meetings, unfortunately, are boring, dull and unproductive. And bad meeting lead to bad decisions! They are a recipe for mediocrity.
In a global survey run by Microsoft with 40K people about productivity , 69% of respondents felt that meetings were not productive; meetings are the single most significant cause of workplace time-drain!
So how do we avoid falling into this trap of mediocrity and change the perspective of so many professionals, peers and subordinate, offering a different approach to running meetings?
The first thing that we need to do is to challenge the conventional wisdom of how meetings should be run; take a contrarian view over it and approach it with an inquisitive and open mind.
Why are Meetings Boring, And What to Do About It.
How often have you felt energised after a meeting in the past month? How often did you feel like the whole discussion was bland and that most of the content could have just been delivered over an email?
Now I would like you to think about those boring meetings a bit deeper and think about:
- Who was leading the meeting? What is her/his style?
- How much did you believe you could influence the outcome of the discussion?
- What was a stake in the meeting – for the team and for you personally?
- How often did anybody intervene and speak up?
- Did you prepare for the meeting? was there a pre-read or other way to prepare for the meeting?
You can do this exercise in your mind or take note on a piece of paper. But do it! it is really helpful.
Now I would like you to think about another meeting; one where the script was different: it was not boring nor dull; and, instead, there was passion and debate, and you really felt you were making progress as a team on your topic.
Think about those same questions that I have listed above for this other more engaging meeting.
What can you observe? What sticks out?
The culture of the company has a really big influence on how meetings are run within the corporation and we are not going to try to change the entire company here – unless you are the CEO, of course. But we can and should focus on our sphere of influence, the extent to which we can make a difference and where we know that we can make an impact: That is at least the meetings where we participate at and the ones we run ourselves.
Let me tell you my personal story…
I noticed a huge transformation in my behaviour when attending meetings; and the main reason was a change of leader: I went from being silent and unengaged, ‘not bothering about expressing my POV and my opinion’, to speaking up, weighing in on a discussion, allowing for a debate to happen.
In my case, it was the fact that I felt there was a genuine interest from the leader to wanting all opinions to be put on the table; it became for me a safe place to speak up; I felt the leader was listening, encouraging everyone to contribute and that the discussion would then lead to an informed decision based on all the voices in the room.
The take away for me is that there are two fundamental elements that will make a meeting engaging and passionate, instead of boring and dull:
- A great leader should ensure that the room is a psychologically safe space to allow for the flow of conversations and ideas. The individuals in the group need to feel they are respected and accepted.
- Every participant at the meeting has the responsibility to contribute actively. Everyone brings a unique perspective to the table, and some of the best ideas come from thinking together and elaborating the thoughts further. Every single person in the meeting has something to add to the conversation, and in order for meetings to be as successful as possible there needs to be participation at all levels across the board.
To increase the dynamic of the meeting, the leader has to search for any important issue where the team members don’t agree with one another, and let the different opinions come to the surface. The leader will have to make the participants confront the issue and talk about a difference in perspective that they most commonly would have avoided altogether.
I know this sounds quite counterintuitive, since we are so trained and used to avoid conflicts openly, but the reality is that it is the drama, the passion and the struggle that makes things interesting; else we are just left with flatness. And because the decision that comes out of the meeting will impact our work in the short and long term, being fully in and engaged, speaking up our opinions, listening to others’ point of view and debate openly, is our chance to influence the outcome and contribute to the final decision.
To make the discomfort of speaking up, facing different opinions and not be afraid of disagreeing, the leader can encourage it by thanking the individuals when they make a remark that is quite brave. And confirm to the attendees that from now on there will be more discussion and debate and that this is a healthy behaviour in the meetings.
Everyone in the room everyone has to learn to put aside their fear of personal rejection and focus instead on voicing barely an intellectual disagreement.
To grow, you have to go through and embrace discomfort.
This is true for teams as much as for individuals. And practicing it in a psychologically safe environment will allow better decisions to be made, better – more engaging – meetings to be held.
Let’s talk for a second about back-to-back meetings that most of us have their calendar filled with: one crucial factor for the success of the meeting is PREPARATION. You have to be able to come prepared to the meeting if you want to make the best use of the time in the meeting. And you want to make sure everyone in the room has a comparable level of understanding and knowledge about the subject matter.
But if you are rushing from one meeting to the next, where do you find the mental space to focus on your next meeting? So I have started adopting 2 separate strategies to overcome this:
- Request the meeting organiser to push the meeting start by 15 min so you have time for a short break between meetings, close one topic mentally and prepare for the next one. Be prepared that this is a bit shift in mindset for many so it explain and insist – over time it will work.
- Table-read. This is my favourite and I am borrowing it from Amazon. You might know that at Amazon PowerPoint is not well seen at all. Project leaders work with white papers, following pre-existing templates. The project-specific paper is given to everyone at the beginning of the meeting and everyone goes through the paper silently; then the team discusses the relevant issues in the project. Table-read rather than Pre-read. Isn’t it genius?
I am sure I don’t need to convince you of how important it is to be prepared for the meeting; else, the strongest opinions are going to prevail, over a thorough analysis and understanding of the relevant elements.
A senior leader in an organisation I used to work for used to say:
“Opinions are like diamonds: the more you have of them, the less valuable they become.”
That company is incredibly disciplined on basing decision on data rather than individual opinions and I am totally with them that you can form better opinion with data, rather than just following your gut feeling!
DON’T AGREE TO DISAGREE
Now, what happens if the team cannot get to an agreement? Are you going to continue debating until you drop from exhaustion? This is a fundamental point. I have personally experienced meetings where time pressure and lack of leadership results in the outcome being the minimum common denominator, i.e. a mediocre solution that does not make anybody happy, but where everyone feels they are bringing a small victory home. This is wrong.
The role of the leader is to listen to everyones opinion, let the debate happen and then take the best decision for the business and for the people – which will most likely NOT please everyone. And everyone needs to accept and live with whatever decision has been finally made.
I really believe this last point is crucial for the healthiness of a business and the sense of belonging people have in the organisation they work for and the respect they will nurture for their leader.
Why Are Meetings Ineffective, And What To Do About It
If you have fixed the level of passion and engagement in your meetings, you have already moved quite a bit forward. Congratulations!
We are not done yet, though. Passion by itself is not going to do the trick, unfortunately.
In a study on several manufacturing organisations shows that dysfunctional meeting behaviour – including going off topic, complaining, and criticising – were correlated with lower levels of market share, innovation, and employment stability.
So if the meeting is led by passion only, criticism, complains and going off topic are serious risks and we want to avoid that.
We have to add something less exciting but as important: Purpose and Structure
It is imperative that each meeting you know what is expected as outcome, what success would look like. And different meetings will need to be addressed differently.
For instance, standing meetings, or quick ‘check-ins’ as they are called, don’t need an agenda and their purpose is mainly confirm alignment on priorities and tasks, and quick resolution of any existing impediment to longer term agreed plans.
On the other hand, project specific meetings will require a clear understanding of what is the purpose of the meeting, and I like to approach the preparation of these meetings highlighting 3 key questions that need to be answered/resolved during the meeting. Those 3 questions can guide the discussion and will serve as compass to ensure the meeting does not go off on unexpected tangents.
Leadership here is crucial. Again.
Meetings should also stick to agreed timing: start on time and finish latest on time (if the meeting finishes earlier even better!). This is important because it shows respect between team members on each others’ time.
It can be difficult to predict how long a discussion will take on a specific subject and this is why the more analysis and preparation you do, the more you will be clear on how much time you will need.
In my early days, I used to think that if you were using a presentation then you could expect to spend in average 3 min per slide. If you are using a white paper instead of a PowerPoint deck then the timing will depend on the number of chapters you have and the complexity of each subject.
Whatever time you allocate for the discussion, just try not to go over time but stay away from trying to just fill the time that you have allocated for the sake of it: the faster you can get to the resolution of the topic and move on, the better!
Make it personal
Increasing engagement and effectiveness of your meetings is a long run. And it will depend on adapting to your team’s needs. Listen to the individuals and gather continuously feedback. You will be successful if all the team members feel the ownership and their part of responsibility for the success of the meeting and ultimately of the company. So the best way is to listen to their opinions.
Individual surveys, feedback and input will give you an understanding on where everyone stands, and help you decide if and when to slow down or accelerate, depending on the readiness of the team.
You should then allocate specific timings to discuss together, based on the individual feedbacks, what is working and what isn’t. If you do it in a non-judgemental and open-minded manner you will ensure progress and maturity.
Keep monitoring and improving: check-ins on the progress and satisfaction of the team at regular intervals will help keep the momentum and avoid falling back on old habits!
So here you have it: my take on transforming meetings from dull and unnecessary, to engaging, relevant and effective!
If you want to start implementing some of my tools, click the window below and download my free checklist for your next meeting.
Until the next time.
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