Organize Effective Meetings by Asking These 2 Questions
Earlier this year, we began working with a senior management team looking to improve their individual and collective leadership effectiveness. As with all teams, we spent some time getting to know them and understanding which aspects of their leadership they were looking to improve. In one session, we asked how effective their meetings were. There was a silent pause as the leader tried to smile at us and others exchanged uncertain glances. This familiar scene told a familiar story before they went on to admit that their meetings were not very engaging, decisive or productive.
In 1976, Englishman John Cleese of Monty Python fame released a hilarious “training” video called “Meetings, Bloody Meetings.” He showed several errors that can cause meetings to be a complete waste of time. Here we are 40 years later and, in many organizations, still making the same mistakes. Why is it still so common to hear that meetings are too high in volume and too low in quality? You’d think that an age-old business problem would have been solved decades ago. We now focus on the neuroscience of leadership, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, collaboration and shared leadership, yet we still can’t run a great meeting.
The good news is that there are solutions. The fixes tend to focus on three things: context, structure and discipline. Here are two straightforward tools that can help you with each of these problem areas.
The first is Death by Meeting by Patrick Lencioni. This popular book is written as a fictional story of a management team and their messy meetings, along with a model for effective meetings. The bottom-line value that this model offers is the excellent question, “What type of meeting is this?” One common problem with meetings is that there is a mix of tactical and strategic topics to discuss. Lencioni suggests a structure of four different types of meeting with a different focus for each:
1. Daily check-in
- A five-minute scrum, standing up, with a focus on the day’s priorities. Hospital teams have been doing this for a long time.
2. Weekly tactical
- This is similar to the standard weekly meeting but with two key differences. First, the agenda is not set until after a 60-second report from everyone. Secondly, discipline is used to move strategic topics to a different meeting. The tactical meeting focuses on weekly activities and resolves operational problems. It should be no more than 90 minutes. Here’s a free Weekly Tactical Meeting Guide that you can download.
3. Monthly strategic
- A two- to four-hour session on higher-level, longer-term objectives, resolving critical issues and checking alignment with the vision and strategic plan.
4. Quarterly review
- Also a strategic focus by reviewing industry trends, competitors, talent management and how the team itself is performing.
The distinction and discipline between different types of meetings has made a huge difference with management teams we have worked with. You don’t have to follow Lencioni’s advice exactly. For example, if a daily check-in does not fit, don’t use it. However, the operational versus strategic division is a simple and extremely powerful tactic that shifts meetings from boring to useful.
Now that you’ve answered the question, “What type of meeting is this?” the second common problem arises with the question, “What is the agenda?” A lack of clarity here can create all sorts of meeting madness, including utter boredom, being unprepared, lack of focus and taking way too long. An excellent tool to solve this problem is a 2015 article by Roger Schwarz in Harvard Business Review called “How to Design an Agenda for an Effective Meeting.” The article provides a set of straightforward tips and helps you ask the right questions to design your meeting. It’s one of the best agenda design guides we’ve ever seen and includes a Meeting Agenda template and a Sample Agenda. The template is based on 10 pearls of wisdom from Schwarz. Here are our top three; however, you will probably smile and nod your head at all 10.
1. Select topics that affect the entire team
- What a great concept. And not always possible. So we’d add the option to only invite individuals who are stakeholders and can contribute to the discussion.
2. List agenda topics as questions that the team needs to answer
- This Question Thinking approach to agenda items is far more engaging and helps focus on specific issues and outcomes. The example Schwarz gives is changing an agenda topic called “Office space reallocation” to “Under what conditions, if any, should we reallocate office space?”
3. Decide whether the purpose of the topic is to share information, seek input for a decision or make a decision
- Another great concept: purpose. It answers the key question, “Why are we all discussing this and what are we trying to achieve?” Far too often meetings do not result in conclusions or decisions. And if they do, they are often not recorded and communicated. This discipline can add a lot of decisiveness and make meetings far more productive.
We would add a tip of our own to the last one: record who is going to do what (exactly) by when (specifically). These action items are then revisited at the start of the next meeting. This discipline of recording and following up creates a far stronger culture of accountability for the team.
Death by too many meetings or too many bad meetings is still too common. These simple tools can make a huge difference to any team or group. It does take leadership and discipline, which can be a challenge for busy managers, but there is good news here too. Meeting leadership can be shared. Schwarz’s article has a couple of ideas on that, too.
We saved the best for last. The final pearl is a tip that makes these improvements sustainable rather than the flavour-of-the-month fix. You need a mechanism to focus on the continued effectiveness of your meetings rather than sliding inexorably back to the boredom of bloody meetings. Schwarz calls this tip “end the meeting with a plus/delta.” This excellent five or 10-minute ending to each meeting is based on two great questions: “What did we do well?” and “What do we want to do differently for the next meeting?” We’d also suggest that you ensure everyone answers these two questions to share the leadership and commitment to ending the frustration once and for all!
This article first appeared in JWN Energy's online publication September 14, 2016.