Our 5-item checklist for stellar meetings
What do Star Wars and meetings have in common?
Not much, honestly.
Except for a handy acronym we came up with to help you evaluate the maturity of your meeting workflows. It goes like this:
As part of our market research, we did about a hundred interviews with people who experience what they often refer to as “meeting hell”. We did our best to catalogue their numerous pains and began to notice they mostly fit into one of the above categories. Let’s break them down:
This one is about your time. Are your meetings booked back to back with no time in between? Worse yet, are they overlapping? Are you trying to look like you’re paying attention to Tina’s video call while you’ve got Mike from sales in your left earbud and Jim from accounting in your right?
If you chase two rabbits, you will catch neither
Without a few minutes to digest the last meeting and prepare for the next one, your contributions to both will suffer. By scheduling your meetings for 25 minutes instead of 30, or 55 minutes instead of an hour, you do a great service to your participants. If you think you can’t possibly get everything done in 5 minutes less than the usual time, remember Parkinson’s Law.
All of this falls apart if, after the agreed upon duration elapses, the discussion charges on without acknowledgement. If your meeting must go into OT — it happens — you gain an opportunity to demonstrate respect by simply asking if your attendees are able to keep going, and being transparent about how much more of their time you expect you will need.
If time really is money, allowing your meetings to run beyond the agreed upon duration without asking permission is like demanding more cash from a customer after the agreed upon price has been paid — unimaginable, right?
Just as our titular, gilded, semi-sentient android might ask “what is my purpose?”, so will your attendees. It is shocking how many send buttons get clicked on meetings lacking a clear, attainable purpose. Communicate purpose in straightforward language before the meeting begins (ie: “The purpose of this meeting is to _______”) and end with an assessment as to whether or not it was met.
All discussion should be in service to the established purpose, at least indirectly. Deviations must be deliberate and justifiable, usually pointing to either unacknowledged higher priorities, or poor meeting facilitation.
Some types of meetings dance the border dividing waste and value. In particular, those with information transfer as their sole purpose hold a fragile claim to real value. Avoiding waste in knowledge transfer sessions (status meetings especially) requires that only those who absolutely must attend get invited. Ideally, the subject matter should remain relevant to every attendee throughout the entire duration. Every other would-be-attendee should consume the most important information from a summarized document. Even better, the meeting can sometimes be avoided entirely by asynchronously building and distributing the summary document.
Plan (or agenda)
If the purpose is your destination, the agenda is your route. Without one you may eventually arrive, but almost certainly slower than necessary. There are many routes to the same destination, but only one is the quickest.
You knew it was coming, here it is:
Failure to plan is a plan to fail
Steven Rogelberg, Professor of organizational science from University of North Carolina, puts it best when he says the meeting facilitator is a steward of others’ time. If it seems unimaginable to put the time into creating a decent agenda for every meeting, imagine putting an hour aside for someone else’s meeting only to be dragged into a mismanaged train-wreck. Don’t be that facilitator, write your agendas. A few bullet points go a long way.
The cost of a meeting is the combined salary of everyone in the room over the period the meeting takes place. It’s a hefty price tag, and it buys either progress or pain.
Every one of your attendees must have an important role in your meeting. How important? More important than what they would otherwise be doing. Moreover, they should be absolutely indispensable to the subject at hand, meaning their absence would be felt as a direct impact to the meeting’s success. If you could accomplish the same thing with fewer people, you should.
In his hilarious and informative Ted Talk, David Grady describes “Mindless Accept Syndrome” — a debilitating and costly affliction from which millions suffer. His recommended course of treatment? As an invitee, if you don’t know why you were invited, don’t default to the accept button. Instead, kindly reach out and ask for clarification on what you are expected to bring to the discussion. I would take it even a step further and suggest that if, during a meeting, you begin to wonder why am I here right now? I have more important things to do… you should leave.
Unfortunately, office politics have a way of creeping into meeting workflows, and people often get invited (or not invited) to meetings for reasons far outside the scope of the meeting itself. Crucial to meeting success is separating politics from productivity, understanding your team, and generating records that efficiently summarize the meeting for anyone that didn’t attend.
Tibetan Buddhists are a people of many beautiful traditions, among which is the sand mandala. The practice demands several weeks of intense planning and concentration as monks design and construct a large, intricately patterned mandala made entirely of colourful sand. Upon its completion, their work becomes symbolic to the transient nature of all things as they calmly proceed to utterly destroy it.
If you don’t record your meeting outcomes, you perpetuate a similar tradition each time you hold a meeting. The Tibetan Buddhists may hold your practice in high regard, but I expect your team does not.
The calendar, purpose, plan, and people qualities can provide an indication of how productive a meeting is likely to be. Absence or inadequacy in any of them will likely lead to waste. On the other hand, the quality of a meeting’s outcomes can provide an indication of how valuable the meeting actually was. If outcomes are absent or inadequate, the meeting is devalued as a whole, as the information created or exchanged therein cannot impact the organization in any meaningful way. Additionally, meetings with poor outcomes tend to lead to more meetings, compounding the effect.
Sometimes meeting outcomes are immaterial in nature — important examples include reinforcing the team’s alignment, vision, and engagement level — but intangible outcomes must compliment, not replace, their documented, actionable counterparts.
If it doesn’t get written down, it won’t get done.
C3PO is the distillation of meeting-related gripes we documented from our many interviews with middle and senior managers. Any and all pains they expressed could be directly related back to an absence or inadequacy in at least one C3PO quality. I hope it will serve you as an effective basis for evaluating and improving your meeting practice.
Ultimately, it is the facilitator’s responsibility to ensure their meetings are well-executed from invites to outcomes. Why then do meetings so often lack C3PO qualities? The answer, as we understand it, has two components:
- Current tools make it easier to generate wasteful meetings than great ones
- Most meeting facilitators think they are doing a good job, and there are no feedback channels to suggest otherwise
Take it upon yourself to criticize your own meeting workflows, and open yourself to feedback from your team. The ultimate indicator for successful change to meeting practice is to hold fewer meetings while maintaining productivity. Done properly, I believe most organizations could hold drastically fewer meetings and improve productivity as a direct benefit. The mere act of criticizing your productivity metrics and how they are influenced by the time you spend in meetings holds immediate value.
Key to this is understanding that meetings alone are not work. The value of your meetings must be considered in terms of value to the customer, and it can be uncomfortable. The customer does not benefit from your weekly, three-hour, cross-departmental status meetings. The customer benefits not from any meeting alone, but from their collective impact on the organization’s ability to move fast, maintain alignment, and deliver value.