4 Steps to Avoid 'Death by Meeting'
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If you’ve ever sat in a meeting wishing you were anywhere else in the world, then this article is for you. Countless hours are spent every day, every week, in meetings. Discussions, decisions and companionship are provided (along with tea and cookies if you are so lucky).
Yet, despite all the time we spend this way, it would seem that the skills to run a truly effective meeting are sorely lacking and have completely escaped us. "Death by meeting" is the result, and an all-too-common one.
Death by meeting: the symptoms
This week I personally suffered this fate. Maybe you recognize the following symptoms?
Shiny object syndrome -- The participants went off on tangents like a pack of hungry squirrels looking for their lost nuts. (I know; I nearly lost mine!) Over there, up there, down there: The conversation scampered in all directions, but not the one where it should have gone: the meeting's stated purpose and the decision at hand.
The limelight star -- One person present inhaled at the start of the meeting and, I’m sure, didn’t pause for breath for the rest of the agenda. Instead, he dominated the conversation, stifled debate and input from others and finished the meeting with “Oh, we seem to have run out of time; let’s pick this up next time.” Which leads to the next symptom of death by meeting:
Ground Hog Day -- This occurs when participants get stuck in an endless loop of the same discussion over and over. New data is requested; yet another PowerPoint is requested. And that report from three years ago is suddenly recalled, found and dusted off. Meanwhile, the team is mired in an endless spiral of conversation that doesn’t move things forward.
Stuck in the weeds -- In the particular meeting I attended, the senior executives argued over whether to launch their new product in "red" or "blue." This took precedence over discussing the impending product launch by their competitor. Okay, I am simplifying what happened here, but there was no doubt that these participants were focused on issues well below their pay grade instead of those only they could resolve.
The reality TV nightmare -- Not only did this meeting start late, but the first 20 minutes were given to discussing the latest reality TV hit show. I could sense the tension from those who hadn't watched the show, and their internal screams: “Reality TV? I came here for reality TV? I have emails, things to do, people!” Interestingly, no one voiced anything to that effect during the meeting. It was only as we walked away, down the corridor, that those people vented their frustration at the time wasted.
Simple steps to avoid death by meeting
If you're attending meetings best described as the stuff of nightmares, only to realize later that you can’t put your finger on what was actually achieved, you need to take action now! Poor meetings are the vampires of time that can suck the living daylights out of you.
The good news is that things can change. Here are four steps to avoid death by meeting:
1. Start the way you intend to go on.
Too often, we close the door and dive into discussion and debate without clarifying why the meeting is happening in the first place. I make a point of asking clients at the start of our meetings, “We have an hour together; I want to be respectful of your time. What do you want to get out of our time together?” or, "You asked that we focus on a,b and c in order to decide x, y and z. Has anything changed that would impact these priorities?”
The takeaway: Set expectations up-front to make sure everyone is headed in the same direction from the outset.
2. Recognize that it’s the small talk that leads to the big talk.
Realize that your team members aren’t robots, that meetings are often an opportunity for people to reconnect and catch up before they are ready to get to business at hand. Building-in time for small talk allows everyone to relax before getting down to business.
At SkyeTeam we start each staff meeting with what we call “Ripples and Joys,” (a habit I adopted from City Year Denver.) “Ripples and Joys” is an important part of building a sense of team, camaraderie and connection. So, in the first ten minutes of the meeting, we report on:
- Ripples -- the success and impact we’ve had at work and in our work with clients
- Joys -- the things that have made us happy, whether personal or professional.
This section invariably contains much laughter and frivolity and is hugely instrumental in nurturing the Ally Relationships we have within the team.
At client meetings I may not be as overt as asking for “Ripples and Joys,” but I will ask what’s been happening for attendees since we last met. I'll inquire about vacations or personal milestones. Remember, business is personal and relationships do matter.
The takeaway: Think about how you can connect with others at a personal level, not just a transactional one. Allow time for small talk.
3. Choose a weed monitor/squirrel hunter.
Whether your meetings are derailed by the shiny object syndrome, or you get stuck in the weeds, the only person who can save you is you! That's why, when I'm facilitating team events, I make sure that our agendas include business items as well as elements relevant to the team. That way, we weave in learning with business needs, giving team members an opportunity to practice and apply the skills they are learning.
What often happens, when a team gets stuck in the weeds or off track, is that team members start making eye contact with me: raising an eyebrow, in effect begging me to, “Get us out of here -- we are stuck!” It always strikes me that it's me, the guest facilitator, who is asked to save the day.
At that point, I'll say, “It seems like we have moved focus; do we need to follow this thought or should we get back to the decision at hand?”
Make it an informed and explicit decision as to where you want to focus your time, rather than an implicit one. Help everyone stay engaged throughout the process.
The takeaway: How can you keep your discussions on point? Who will be the squirrel hunter in your next meeting?
4. Finish by affirming how you mean to go on.
If starting your meetings with clear expectations is important, so too is finishing them with clear commitments and next steps.
All too often, we are over-scheduled, with triple-booked meeting requests and back-to-back meetings. Which means that we short-change the end of the current meeting as we start to focus on the next one. Or we ask ourselves whether we have time for a bathroom break or lunch, or how we will reply to the 50 emails that came in during this meeting.
Instead of a clear, controlled finish, we'll find that these meetings come to an abrupt end, as the participants escape the room without a second thought for the decisions that have been made, and what actions have yet to be taken.
Don't let this happen. Introduce the discipline of a simple what, who, when template, to capture decisions and next steps. Make sure that in the last few minutes of each meeting these next steps are reviewed out loud so everyone can hear and confirm what has been agreed to and what their individual accountabilities are.
The takeaway: What approach will you adopt to drive accountability and follow-through?
It's up to you
Running an effective meeting doesn’t need to be a bureaucratic nightmare or require a deep understanding of Robert's Rules of Order. It’s common sense, and it starts with the facilitator setting a clear, pre-meeting purpose. Running an effective meeting then continues during the meeting, as the facilitator remains vigilant about preventing distractions. It happens at the meeting's end, and immediately thereafter, with a clear accountability for actions and next steps.
If you adopt these four steps, and empower meeting participants to do the same, you too can avoid inflicting, or, worse, experiencing, death by meeting.