Death By Meeting, Nevermore!
Harry looked at his watch under the table.
Only three minutes since he last looked. Ugh.
Tom droned on. Kathy interrupted, again. Jim nodded agreement to. . .what? We started late. No one introduced Mary who joined the company only two days ago.
No agenda. Finance wasn’t there even though the meeting was supposed to be about how finance wanted to change the budget process. Unprepared, Sally had no new information and that meant no decisions could be made. This meeting was a giant waste of time!
With a flimsy process and little follow through, we would likely be covering the same ground two weeks from now.
Business meetings are notorious, and for many good reasons.
But, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Bain & Co estimates that 15% of an organization’s collective time is spent in meetings. Other sources estimate time in meetings at 25% to 30%. Bain’s research says that senior executives spend about two days a week (40%) of their time in meetings with three or more coworkers. So, as executives rise in the ranks and their time becomes more valuable, they spend more time in meetings.
Meetings represent a sizable chunk of an office worker’s time, no matter what measurements are used.
The reality is that individuals are limited in how much they can cut back on meeting attendance given the very real risk of alienating their colleagues, and especially their boss.
So, how can we improve the meetings that we do have?
At a recent gathering for organizational development professionals, I had the good fortune to hear Dick and Emily Axelrod (luminaries in the OD field) present on a system they have developed to lead meetings that are productive and participants actually find useful and want to attend.
They outlined the merits of their Meeting Canoe, a six-step process that consistently creates good outcomes.
A look at the process and we see why it works: it’s welcoming, inclusive and connecting, reality-based, rooted in the present with an aspirational eye on an ideal outcome, decisive, and has accountability built in.
As the Axelrods discussed that night and also in their book Let’s Stop Meeting Like This, they recommend the following process:
Welcome people to create an atmosphere conducive to doing the desired work. We want to create a sense of safety and, with it, openness to sharing and receiving ideas.
Connect people to each other and the task. This step has two levels. Building relationships among the participants and, second, connecting the participants to the issue at hand. Building on the safety, we want to engender trust, the most basic building block of effective teams.
Discover the way things are. We create a shared view of our current reality. This requires being open to a broad spectrum of input, including divergent views and hearing from the quiet minority. We want to enable the participants to share their own perspectives and create a common ground of understanding. Next, we help the group resist the temptation to jump to a fix.
Elicit people’s dreams. Mining the group for ideal outcomes is the yin to the current reality’s yang. This is a time to loosen our grasp on exacting practicality and have participants imagine possibilities.
Decide on next steps. Participants make their choices clear, while taking into account the way things are and the articulated ideal outcomes. Note that the process for how to arrive at decisions should be understood beforehand. It is particularly toxic for participants who thought they had a vote to be disenfranchised because it emerges they are not aligned with what the meeting leader wants.
Attend to the end. Bring the meeting to a close by reviewing decisions made, next steps, and who is going to do what by when.
I have adopted this process for meetings myself and recommended it to coaching clients. I am happy to report that it works extremely well for all types ranging from brief interactions to group meetings to longer planning sessions.