Accountability, Meetings, Team Building, Time Management

Making Meetings Meaningful – Part 1

“Meaningful meetings!? Surely that’s an oxymoron!” At least that’s how many (probably most) people see it whose jobs require them to attend meetings regularly. Why? Because meetings in most organizations are seen as boring, a waste of time and rarely get around to addressing the real issues.

The key to having meaningful meetings is to address those practices and habits that make so many meetings difficult, minimally productive and less than meaningful. In the first part of this two part article I will be drawing significantly on the insights of author and management consultant Patrick Lencioni, especially from his book, delightfully entitled, Death by Meeting. The following principles facilitate productive and meaningful meetings.

1. Structure on Purpose

There’s a prevalent tendency in many organizations to load too many issues, needs and expectations into the same meeting. Meetings that are productive and satisfying are structured around a specific purpose. Lencioni advocates four different types of meeting structures, each with its own particular purpose. It’s important that leaders guard the integrity of each and not allow issues to drift from one meeting into another that has a different purpose.

Meeting #1: The Daily Check-In
This type of meeting is designed to help team members be clear about how priorities are being actioned across the team on a daily basis. It ensures that nothing important gets overlooked and that members are not getting into one another’s way. Lencioni states this should be a short, approximately 5 minute, get together with each team member sharing their key schedule for the day. It’s best held standing up at a set time every work day even if not everyone can make every check-in. Keeping the time short prevents drifting onto matters best handled in another purpose designed meeting. It’s recognised that the daily check-in could be impractical where team members don’t share the same location or work in different time zones. (Of course on-line meetings are a possible alternative in many cases where physical presence isn’t always achievable.)  The key advantages of the daily check-in in terms of focus, team connection and time saving make it valuable wherever possible.

Meeting #2: The Weekly Tactical
Teams need to meet regularly (preferably weekly or at least fortnightly). All team members need to attend this meeting which should last between 45 to 90 minutes. Lencioni claims it should comprise three sections:

  • The Lightning Round – This is where each member in no more than 1 minute quickly reports on their 2-3 top priorities for the week. By so doing the team can readily identify gaps, redundancies or other matters requiring urgent attention.
  • Progress Review – In this section members report critical details on key metrics in order to achieve desired results. Examples could be inventory, revenue, expenses and customer satisfaction. The specifics will depend on the nature of the organization and the industry/sector.
  • Real-Time Agenda – Only after (i) and (ii) are completed is it time to establish an agenda for the remainder of the meeting. Only then can the agenda be based on what all members are working on and the team’s progress against its goals. At that point agenda items will have become evident. This means leaders must avoid the temptation to come to the tactical meeting with a predetermined agenda based on what s/he thinks is needed. Lencioni states the two over-riding goals of the tactical meeting are resolution of key issues and reinforcing clarity, thereby ensuring obstacles are identified, removed and everyone is on the same page. At the same time the leader ensures strategic matters are reserved for Meeting #3.

Meeting #3: The Monthly Strategic
While meetings 1 and 2 apply to operational level teams, the monthly strategic meeting is for executives. Lencioni explains, “It’s where executives wrestle with, analyse, debate and decide upon critical issues (but only a few) that will affect the business in fundamental ways…” without the distractions of deadlines and tactical concerns.

Lencioni recommends the monthly strategic meeting should last between 2-4 hours with at least two hours scheduled per topic. Therefore, only 1-2 topics should be addressed per meeting.

Occasionally, a critical or strategic issue will be raised in a weekly tactical that is too urgent and important to wait for the next monthly strategic. In those cases the issue should be referred to the executive team and an ad hoc strategic meeting should be called specifically to address it.

The monthly strategic is the most important meeting in an organization because it’s where executives get to focus exclusively on what’s really important. That’s why it’s essential to hold them regularly in order to address those current 1-2 critical and strategic issues and to provide advanced research and preparation to enable high quality discussion and decision making.

Meeting #4: The Quarterly Off-Site Review
These 1-2 day meetings give executives the time and freedom to review their organization in a more long term and holistic manner. They provide the opportunity to review strategic direction, executive team performance, current employees (both the top as well as problem performers), industry/sector trends, competitor developments and relevant social and technological trends. While including some time for relaxation and social activities, the focus needs to be on work.

2. Dig for Drama

When a team meets to discuss issues, concerns, challenges and priorities in their work it is natural for disagreements and tensions to arise. It’s through addressing those tensions and enabling the disagreements to be heard and explored that results are achieved. Failure to do so makes meetings boring, frustrating and issues don’t get resolved.

Therefore it’s critical that leaders bring to the surface and force teams to address those issues about which there is disagreement. Lencioni calls this “mining for conflict”. If disagreements and conflicts are not faced and handled appropriately they pollute team culture and undermine productivity. Effective leaders recognise when conflict is arising, acknowledge the discomfort it causes and encourage their teams that this is a good thing. It’s only by facing conflict respectfully, listening to and seeking to understand alternate opinions, that breakthroughs can be achieved.

3. Summarize and Communicate

About 10 minutes before the end of each meeting (i.e. meetings 2, 3 and 4) the leader should get the team to summarize the key decisions made and reach agreement on what needs to be communicated to employees, other team leaders and other relevant stakeholders. At the same time the team needs to be clear about those matters discussed that need to be kept confidential. This process helps all team members reach clarity about the outcomes from the meeting before having to put those decisions into action.

Within 24-48 hours of the meeting, leaders should communicate the appropriate decisions to their team members ideally face to face and certainly not by email! It is vital that staff hear the passion, commitment and ownership of the decision from their managers’ tone of voice and body language. If a face to face meeting with the whole team is impractical owing to location differences, video conferencing is an option.

In the second part of this series on meaningful meetings I will be sharing insights from Chris McChesney, Sean Covey and Jim Huling’s book The 4 Disciplines of Execution.

Graham Beattie

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