We spend 1/3 of our working week in meetings and at least 50% of that time is wasted. That’s about a day a week per employee. Multiply that by the number of employees in your business and you can calculate the cost just in terms of salary. And that doesn’t include the lost opportunity cost. In the second part of her series on meetings, Blaire Palmer suggests alternatives to the standard meeting format.
I’m often asked to help organisations design their offsite meetings. I’m presented with an agenda with timings, guest speakers, topic titles and breaks. One or two of the time slots have not been labelled or maybe contain the label “interactive” and I’m asked what they could do in those slots that’s a bit different?
I don’t want this to be you.
At this point it’s very difficult to breath life in to such an event. My job as facilitator or MC or moderator is inevitably going to involve introducing people, thanking people and trying to keep the energy up during what is going to be a gruelling day.
The problem is the thinking that leads to such agendas. And this flawed thinking is inherent in how we think about all meetings, not just the big ones that happen offsite in lovely country hotels.
1. What is the meeting for? What’s the objective?
The authority to “call a meeting” goes along with certain jobs. It’s a sign of status that you have the authority to get people away from their desks to come to a setting of your choosing to work together on a topic or problem. But calling the meeting isn’t step one.
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Step one is to decide what the objective of the meeting is.
Most objectives are not best achieved by a meeting. Some are best achieved by going to the pub. If the objective is “getting people together” this is better done with a glass of something in your hand, not staring at 250 PowerPoint slides. Equally, if the objective is to communicate key messages a meeting might not be the perfect solution.
Sitting still while someone reads out numbers, lists and facts is not the best way to communicate. Of course, if you can tell a story or illustrate the information in an engaging way or if people are desperate to know the information that you have it’s a different situation.
But typically when the objective is “to communicate” a document, video, infographic or informal chat is better than a formal meeting. When you’ve got brains and hearts in the room it makes sense to use those brains and hearts, not just the ears.
Good meeting objectives are normally emotion related. The objective may be to energise, to catalyse, to inspire, even to alarm. Think about the emotional responses you want to create. If you can’t think of one seriously question whether you really need a meeting.
2. Who is in the audience and what do they want?
Every individual who comes to your meeting is busy. They’ve all got emails waiting. They’ve all got other activities they could be participating in. They’re not thrilled about losing more time to more meetings that make no difference to them.
When I run a workshop for a team I interview every team member to understand what they need to get from the investment of time. This hugely influences the content and style of the day. It also means that everyone turns up tuned in.
Investing a day or more interviewing everyone who is coming to your meeting may seem like overkill. But how important is it that they contribute? How important is it that you know what they need from you? How important is it that they have clear objectives? If it isn’t important maybe the meeting isn’t important. Take it out of the diary.
You’ll never design a meeting that makes everyone happy. That’s not your job. Consensus is an illusion.
If you’re not willing to invest the time finding out what they want, why should they invest the time finding out what you want?
3. What do you want from the meeting?
It’s amazing to me how infrequently people have asked themselves this question even though they’ve called the meeting.
It’s almost always unclear, even to the people who have topics on the table, what anyone wants from the meeting.
Very rarely have they considered why they are bringing that topic to the meeting, what they want from their colleagues around the table and what the ideal outcome for them and their topic would be.
And they prepare for the meeting with this lack of clarity. This is why they bore people with their PowerPoint slides and why they don’t get participation when they ask questions and why people interrupt or disengage.
They’ve never asked the question – what do I want or need from this meeting?
The best meetings are those where the intention is clear. If you want people to leave the meeting understanding what difference their contribution has made so far so they can prioritise their next steps when they leave then you’ll prepare for the meeting with this in mind.
This is rather different from knowing vaguely that you want to keep people abreast.
And if you clearly articulate in advance that this is your purpose you’ll find the other attendees turn up in this frame of mind. And, having set it up this way, you’d better clearly articulate what difference their contribution has made and provide them with the information they need to prioritise when they leave or they will ask you a whole lot of uncomfortable questions.
If you want people to contribute their ideas because you’re struggling to find a way to progress on your own that’s rather different from flicking through your slides and then asking people for their feedback.
Set it up right, get clear on why you’ve called them together, give them everything they might need in order to help you, be clear about why they would want to help you, and then turn up ready to listen and be asked tough questions.
4. What are your key messages?
People can only remember about 3 facts or key messages. I know you’ve got more. But wanting people to be different than they are is madness. It’s far better to decide what 3 messages you want them to remember than hit them with 32 key messages and hope that something sticks.
The problems you have with meetings aren’t exclusive to meetings. They are just magnified by meetings.
Ironically meetings try to do too much and end up achieving far less than they could. When I see an agenda with 15 slots, each with a different speaker on a different topic I wonder how the audience is going to know what to take away with them. In fact, they turn up knowing they won’t remember most of it so they don’t engage even at the start.
Clients often tell me that it’s hard to get participation in meetings, that people don’t ask questions, that they resist taking part in activities that put the responsibility for generating ideas on to them and that my ideas might work in other companies but won’t work with the dinosaurs they have in the room.
Obviously, I’ve met difficult people. I’ve met people who have a negative frame of mind. I’ve met people who don’t want to play. But more often I meet people who are either keen to do something different or who are angry or frustrated and that’s why they won’t get involved.
The ones who are keen to do something different find boring meetings excruciating. They would embrace your crazy ideas even if they fell a bit flat because they would appreciate the effort.
Those who are angry or frustrated simply get angrier and more frustrated when you make them sit through 9 hours of charts and spreadsheets.
By the time you ask them if they have any questions they can’t answer. They’re comatose. But they are feeling self-righteous. They felt too good for this meeting before and you’ve just proved them right.
As I said in the first part of this series, the problems you have with meetings aren’t exclusive to meetings. They are just magnified by meetings.
If you’ve got angry, frustrated dinosaurs in your organisation then you’ll have angry, frustrated dinosaurs in your meeting. Most of the time you may get to ignore it but as meetings magnify your culture you get to see the dinos upfront and personal in these situations.
Your responsibility is to address this problem directly not collude with it. No single energiser or participative activity in between speeches is going to change that. You’ve got a much bigger problem than that.
At the same time, you certainly won’t change it by targeting everything you do in your meetings towards the most resistant, most disengaged people in the room. As meetings magnify the culture, run the meeting for the culture you want not the culture you have. Create a gap between the expectations of your dinosaurs and your expectations.
Having thought about the meeting objectives, found out what your attendees want and become clear on what you want, you’re ready to show them clearly what your company is, what it stands for, what behaviours and attitudes are required.
Then watch them have a tantrum. And, just like you did with your toddlers, don’t back down. If you do you’re doomed.
You’ll never design a meeting that makes everyone happy. That’s not your job. Consensus is an illusion. But you can design meetings where real work gets done.
If you don’t try to do too much, if you don’t try to solve all problems at once, if you don’t avoid the big issues or collude with the lowest common denominators in your business, you might actually find that meetings are the most powerful format for making a difference. Meetings might just work.
About Blaire Palmer
Blaire Palmer is CEO of That People Thing, a consultancy dedicated to inspiring leaders in fast-paced, ambitious businesses to drive change in their organisations in partnership with their people. Blaire has been described as a "secret weapon", a "business muse" and "that lady who does the leadership and team stuff". She is a regular guest expert on BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine show and has appeared on BBC Breakfast News and BBC Working Lunch.