How to get the most out of your meetings

Blog
August 2018 by Carrie Birmingham

A recent Harvard Business Review report found that executives spend an average of nearly 23 hours a week in meetings, which means they spend over half of their working lives in them.  So we shouldn’t be surprised that when asked about their experience, senior leaders describe feeling “overwhelmed by their meetings”.  Given this, how do we ensure meetings enable meaningful conversations rather than a distraction from ’real work’?

What’s the purpose?

Many meetings are trying to achieve a multitude of purposes, and so leave us feeling frustrated. Most teams I have worked in, try to use one meeting to discuss everything from the Christmas party, to tactical pricing decisions to brand positioning. There is a huge difference in the speed, depth and exploration needed for each of these topics.  So we actually make it harder (and slower) to get things done, when we arrange one big meeting with everything stuffed into it,

Lencioni argues that if we are clear about purpose, we can arrange meetings that allow us to work together with maximum efficiency.  His framework below helps distinguish purpose:

Meeting type:

Time required:

Purpose & format:

Daily check in 5 minutes Share daily schedules & activities
Weekly Tactical 45-90 minutes Review weekly activities & metrics, and resolve tactical obstacles & issues
Monthly strategic 2-4 hours Discuss, analyse, brainstorm, & decide upon critical issues affecting long-term success
Quarterly Off-site review 1-2 days Review strategy, industry trends, competitive landscape, key personnel, team development

Uncertainty and disruption

The US election and Brexit have given us an uncertain future. The emergence of Uber and Google disrupting sectors shows that timelines are contracted. In this environment, defining strategy for any business is tough.  

The command and control method of leadership cannot prosper in this context, and needs to be replaced by a more dynamic, sophisticated and conversational style. Only by doing this can large or growing companies function in an agile way (like a startup). Our conversations in meetings need to embrace the unknown and keep people on track without being fixated about the end point. To do this they need to be comfortable with ‘not-knowing’ and openly talking about the where you are, with a willingness to move together, adapting and thriving as the future unfolds.  

Positive disagreement 

In her TED talk, Margaret Heffernan quotes research that 85% of executives are afraid to raise issues or concerns at work. This matches my experience of dull meetings where people are going through the motions and holding their tongues.  When I have asked why they don’t say what they really think, they usually say “I don’t want to offend or upset the person”, which has an underlying assumption that disagreeing with a person is personal.  

Heffernan argues that to change this, we have to see constructive conflict as a natural part of the thinking process. We  can’t achieve a depth of understanding without debate and challenge. It’s about people’s ideas and thoughts not their personality!  

Only through disagreement can we robustly understand the ideas we are presenting and understand their flaws. Therefore we need to encourage positive disagreement about decisions, issues, and thinking not people.

Reflect, learn and change

Effective meetings rarely happen by osmosis, and yet it is rare that people who meet regularly take the time to reflect on whether they are having a productive conversation. In practical terms, this can simply mean spending the last five minutes of the meeting answering the questions “How did we do today?” This invites observations and insights. While it feels strange and there may be a stunned silence the first time you do this, my experience is this habit can have a fundamental difference to the quality of the conversation in your meetings and can reduce the time you spend in them!

In conclusion

In uncertain times, we need to find ways of having meaningful conversation. The way meetings happen in your organisation may actually be getting in the way of this. Take a moment to review your approach and ask these questions:

  • Do your meetings have a clear purpose that helps people to think together?
  • Do you encourage others to talk about what they don’t know or is ambiguous?
  • Do you encourage positive disagreement about decisions, issues, and thinking?
  • Do you invite others to review how the meeting has helped them move forward?