The First Step to Effective Meetings: Do We Really Need to Meet?

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Sep 26, 2019

There was a bit of irony going on for the August (Cincinnati) HR Roundtable. The topic was the “Pros and Cons of Meetings.” Interestingly enough, we had to have a meeting to discuss this. Nonetheless, we started as we usually do with three introductory questions to get our discussions revved up. Here they are:

  1. Why do we meet so often in organizations?
  2. Why are meetings ineffective?
  3. How can we “meet” better?

It seemed that everyone had some sort of meeting horror story so getting folks to share in their small groups was easy. The hard part was pulling everyone back together to share. We finally we able to do that and this is what they cam up with !!

1. Why do we meet so often in organizations?

Because it’s what we know — This was an incredibly insightful response. Having meetings, even excessive meetings, is the norm. It’s “how” we do business. We may complain about the number and frequency of meetings, but we don’t push back. We don’t come up with other solutions. We just make sure our calendars are up to date.

We can’t escape the churn — Organizations churn every day. We continue to have meetings to discuss the churn and constant movement to nowhere. Whenever things feel stuck, we call a meeting. Then we have another meeting to discuss the progress on the items we just stated that were stuck. We don’t give people much time to work between meetings and accomplish what was discussed, so the churn continues.

We see the need to collaborate — It’s hard to get things to move organizationally on your own. You may have great intent and even a solid idea/approach. Very few of us can take those ideas and make them come to life solely on our own. Therefore, we need to have meetings to bring more voices and perspectives together. Meetings that are chances to share in this manner are wonderful.

We don’t know how to function within the constant flow of business — We all want things to slow down, stop for a moment and breathe. Work happens at a beak neck pace, and that isn’t always productive. At times, we convene just to stop and look around. This is healthy if it’s done with purpose and intent. Having meetings like this can be extremely effective with some defined expectations around frequency, format and leadership.

We feel in the dark — Like it or not, meetings are an attempt to clear up communication. That could be within a single department or in cross functional settings. There needs to be some sort of format/forum for people to come together. People want clarity around project status as well as larger updates that may cover the entire organization. We tend to think this can only occur in face-to-face meetings, but that doesn’t have to be the case. In person meetings are similar to the first point of we don’t know any different method, so we continue it.

2. Why are meetings ineffective?

People aren’t prepared — This is the downfall of the vast majority of meetings. Everyone thinks they can wing it and just show up to participate. This sets up meetings to fail more often than not. We should have stronger expectations of those attending meetings to be prepared and ready to discuss the topic or project at hand.

People couch their answers — We aren’t forthright when we’re in meetings. People couch their responses so that they’re very measured. They don’t want to tell too much because then they’re on the line to be accountable. People aren’t being dishonest. They’re just sharing partial information. To test this, watch the “meeting after the meeting.” More happens outside the actual gathering than what is shared when people are together.

No consistent structure — Too often meetings have a spotty agenda for items that people have already been working on. Only a few people attending haven’t been made aware of everything, so a meeting is called involving far too many people. Then meetings either are too short or far too long. We complain about how we don’t have enough time in our days now, but we don’t respect the time of others when meetings are assembled.

Meetings aren’t led/facilitated — Most meetings are led by the person who holds the highest position in the meeting. That doesn’t mean they should be leading the meeting, but people defer to the person who is most senior in the room. Also, the attendees are rarely clear on their role(s) in meetings. This compounds the earlier point of not being prepared. A lack of clarity leads to people just filling time with broad, sweeping comments of little substance.

Those freaking extroverts — Extroverts are extremely vocal. All…The…Time. They aren’t being rude or pushy. It’s how they think and process information and ideas. However, in a meeting context, extroverts are often expressive to the detriment of introverts who’d like to take in what’s being discussed and process things prior to responding. Most meeting formats are set up for extroverts or “forced sharing.” It’s automatically setting up an environment that is unbalanced.

There aren’t clear next steps or takeaways — Not every meeting has to have next steps or takeaways, but it helps. When a meeting ends with no next steps, people feel it’s a waste of time. If people gather, they should be a purpose. This needs to be a base expectation.

3. How can we “meet” better?

Donuts — This may seem like a frivolous response, but the environment of the meeting is important. The more inviting it can be, the more likely the meeting is to be effective. Setting the tone is easy. So items like time of day, location and food matter. Be intentional about this aspect of meetings before just adding another time to someone’s schedule.

Make someone the meeting facilitator — The meeting doesn’t have to be led by the most senior person present. However, having a clear leader who keeps the meeting on track and on topic is key. The better someone facilitates a meeting leads to more concrete items being discussed, considered and even accomplished.

Add variety to the flow of the meeting — You don’t have to jump straight to the agenda. People are coming from all different situations and work that they were in the middle of before coming to your meeting. Break the ice and ask how folks are – and then actually find out how they’re doing. Start a meeting with a story. Allow people three minutes to meditate or relax. There are many ways to start meetings differently and still have time to stay within the time parameters of your meeting.

Have the “right” people at the meeting — This means that you need to have people attend who are either affected by the meeting topic, or those that have the ability to move things along. Meeting attendance for visibility only is senseless. Respect other’s time and only have people at the meeting that need to be there because the information and/or outcomes of the meeting directly affect their daily role.

Follow-through and accountability — It’s not enough to have next steps and takeaways if you don’t have some method of making sure things were accomplished. Follow-through can be formal or informal, but it needs to occur. There are so many great ways to have follow-through and accountability via technology. Look into it and see what works best for you and your teams.

Learn from others — Steve shared two books that have been written about meetings that he recommended. There is great information in both of them and you can find them out on Amazon.

So, even though we had a meeting to talk about meetings, we had a great time. The discussion was robust and amid the laughter there were some solid takeaways on how we can meet for effectively.

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