How many times have you been to a meeting that bored you, lead nowhere or ran too long leaving you with the thought of how much you could have accomplished if only you could get those hours back? It’s common for workplace meetings to run in a variety of ineffective ways. This happens when the organizational culture allows for it and people within the organization go with the flow.
Yes, your coworkers may grumble at the water cooler how tired they are of having “meetings for the sake of meetings” or how they didn’t get to make their point because someone kept interrupting them at the meeting and there was nothing they could do about it. This is how people feel at the end of ineffective meetings – drained and frustrated, but isn’t it their inaction that’s keeping up the status quo? As soon as the next meeting invite pops up on their screens, then click the “accept” button as if on an autopilot. And then, the toxic pattern of “complaint, accept, complain some more” repeats itself.
What if it was your meeting causing all this misery? What would you do? Would you wait for a wind of change to sweep away the current norms of your organization and replace them with a new mentality one day? Or would you take matters in your own hand and take action to improve the quality of your meetings? Here are a few simple steps you can take to turn meetings from toxic to productive.
- Set a clear intention. What is the outcome you desire to achieve as a result of this meeting? Is your intention to inform others? Is it to solve a quality problem? Or to reach a consensus on an important company decision? Believe it or not, but there were times when simply going through this process and asking myself these questions, made me decide against calling a meeting and, instead, I was able to resolve the issue through other forms of communication.
- Identify the key players. Who are the stakeholders or the interested parties to the issue at hand? How will they be affected by the change you are proposing? Are all affected areas represented well? Sometimes those cause and effect relationships are not too obvious – so you have to thoroughly evaluate everyone’s need and expectations? Whose participation is necessary at the meeting? And most importantly, do you have the right expertise and the needed diversity of mindsets in the room?
- Prepare an Agenda. Create a list of key issues to discuss – with the right amount of detail on each line item. Distribute in advance, to give people enough time to familiarize themselves with the issue and to do their homework as necessary. If it’s important to you that the agenda is read before the meeting – set a reminder leading up to the meeting for the participants to read it.
- Take ownership of your meeting. Anyone can be the owner and the moderator of a meeting. For this, you don’t have to be in a managerial role. At the beginning of the meeting, remind the attendees the intended outcome and ensure full understanding. This is also a great time to set some ground rules for the course of the meeting. For example, do you want everyone to turn off their gadgets or at least to put them in the silent mode? Let them know what other expectations you may have.
- Adopt a format and stick to it. Follow the agenda and despite the occasional side discussions always bring the team back on track. Actively moderate the meeting by making sure that everyone around the table has a chance to speak. As I witness often, overbearing personalities in the room tend to take over, while the naturally quiet team members tend to keep their thoughts to themselves. There are many reasons for this behavior, including the office politics and power imbalance. In the meetings I run or moderate, I make a point to keep the discussion balanced. To engage everyone around the table I specifically prompt the quiet team members to speak by directing questions at them. Without the direct encouragement to speak up, people may feel the pressure to comply with the group’s view, instead of expressing themselves. This results in groupthink. The danger of groupthink is that it suppresses alternative ideas, and prevents the team from seeing the issue from all perspective and making the decision that is truly in the company’s best interests.
- Stay on time. To keep the meeting on track, at times you will have to steer people back to the main discussion; at times you will have to politely cut them off. Not everyone will be thrilled by the interruptions, especially if your team is not used to the culture of productive meetings. But at the end of the day, you will earn respect by using the company’s time wisely. Sometimes it’s hard to stay on time because of a particularly interesting turn the discussion takes. In rare cases, when the team is on the verge of making a major breakthrough, you can allow the momentum to take the discussion to its logical conclusion. In all other cases, I make sure that I cover everything on the agenda in the time allocated to the meetings. Any additional necessary discussions can be held afterward with a smaller group, or in a separate meeting entirely.
- Develop an action plan. As the moderator of the meeting – take notes of key points or ask someone to take notes for you. In either case, summarize the plan at the end of the meeting, and turn each point into an action item. This is the best time to assign a responsible person for each task and agree on a reasonable completion date.
- Follow through with your plan. Within the agreed upon timeframe, follow up with each teammate who had an action item assigned to them. Are they making adequate progress? Are they facing any unforeseen barriers? Do they need the team’s help? Ask your teammates for a status update prior to the next meeting. Even people with best intentions get sidetracked and pulled in many different directions – so it will help if you stay on top of things as the original owner of the issue.
The steps above are simple to implement and ready to be applied to your very next meeting. Weaving this practice into your existing organizational culture is not necessarily going to be easy though. It might even feel like an uphill battle if everyone around you is still doing things the old way. Despite the natural forces of resistance, adopting the culture of running productive meetings is still a cause worth pursuing. It will lead to many benefits such as improved efficiency, problem-solving and employee engagement. Set your personal bar high and sooner than later, your peers and superiors will see the benefits and will want to step up their game as well. Starting the change with yourself, you can set in motion a small-scale cultural revolution that can have big ripple effects on your organization.