How many meetings are you in each week? A lot? What percentage of your time does sitting in, preparing for, or following up on meetings consume? How productive is your meeting time? Is that time expended for something more valuable in return?
In many organizations meetings may seem like an acceptable alternative to getting work done. How did it ever get to that? Somewhere back in history there must have been an era when meetings had value or we would have not allocated the perishable resource of time to them.
One problem is that meetings are often held during participants’ most productive time of day. Try to find a spot with no meetings on many people’s calendar and it is early morning or the hours of six to midnight. But are those the times most of us have the creative juices flowing? Can we find the same mindshare and energy not to mention individuals we need to collaborate with?
I am not arguing that we do away with all meetings. I am going to argue that saving some of that high productivity time can improve your performance. We all need time to think and get work done!
If you are finding meetings overwhelming your schedule what can you do? Like many things it helps to take a step back and think about this. All meetings are not the same. There can be meetings that inform, meetings that define and solve and meetings that decide. It helps to think about these a little differently.
For all meetings there are some general principles that apply. One is to have an objective for the meeting supported by target outcomes defining what deliverables the meeting will create and an agenda allowing participants to navigate the time they are investing. Another principle is that meetings should be considered an investment. Outcomes should be weighed to consider the value created in investing meeting time.
Meetings that inform are presentations. In presentations information is made available but not necessarily communicated (See my blog on Communication). These gatherings can have a large attendance. Opportunities may be available for a few clarifying questions but the groupthink usually favors not asking questions. Executives might consider how many presentations they need attend. Often the presentation has five to seven key points of information interspersed with lots of detail. Asking a representative to summarize the highlights and confer with you before or afterward may be a better investment of time.
Gatherings convened to work through a problem are workshops. Workshops involve rolling up sleeves and either defining or solving a problem. These workshops benefit from right sizing group interaction. This can be accomplished by break out sessions or by just keeping the invite list small. The work product of this meeting is often carried forward as a presentation or decision meeting. Confidence in moving from decisions to action in a workshop can be hard. After working through an issue, the group may need time to consider the options and recommendations they made.
The executive’s ability to add value in workshops will be related to the role they play. Even the most approachable executive can cast a long shadow, a shadow they may not be aware of. If an executive is there for their experience or expertise the group the workshop planner should make it clear that rank is being checked at the door and participants are on equal ground in challenging each other. Even then the executive needs to be careful in how they engage, particularly if they tend to be directive. It could become easy to exert disproportionate influence on the workshop.
Key to workshop success is the problem statement. It is worth spending time before the workshop defining the problem the workshop is intended to resolve. If the problem requires more than one workshop then there should be an overview of the process and what is expected from each workshop so attendees can prepare and workshop facilitators can track progress against the outcome, making adjustments as the work progresses.
A gathering where decisions are made is a meeting, as in meeting of the minds. In these meetings the issue is identified and there is a proposal to commit resources against a defined outcome. What’s important in this setting is an understanding of explicitly capturing what the decision is, what alternatives have been considered and rejected and how risk will be managed once the decision is made. Minutes from these meetings often take the form of a charter for action.
As senior leaders you set the expectations for the organization to follow. What is your behavior teaching your team and peers about meeting value?