Six steps to a successful meeting

boringWe’ve all been there, clustered around a table, listening to someone read from a PowerPoint presentation and wondering why we’re there when we have a million more pressing things to do.

Conducted in the right way meetings are vital to any successful business, but all too often they’re ill-thought out, badly run and a massive time sump.

Advance briefing documents often go unread, key people arrive late and the attention of those who are there is distracted by constant smartphone and tablet browsing.

The bigger the company, the more dysfunctional it becomes. It’s not uncommon for senior leaders to spend their days in continuous, back-to-back meetings with little or no time to reflect on issues, and no chance to engage in strategic and creative thinking.

It shouldn’t be like this. We’re all too busy to have our time wasted attending nebulous gatherings with fruitless outcomes. So how do you go about running a successful meeting?

1 Decide on the purpose of the meeting and don’t drift: The first question to be answered is: Does a meeting need to be held at all? And the second is: What are you trying to achieve? If it’s meant purely for sharing information, can it be communicated another way – by phone, by email, or face to face? If you decide to go ahead, then set an agenda in advance and stick to it.

2 Limit the duration and keep to the timings This is a tricky one since timing depends on the nature of the meeting: Do you need to reach a decision on a thorny issue? Are you looking to generate new ideas? Do you need to allocate tasks and deadlines to progress projects? The longer the meeting goes on, the more concentration levels and engagement will flag. Don’t go beyond an hour, allocate times to specific items and make sure you start and finish on time.

3 Decide who really, really needs to be there This is one of the hardest things to get right amid the sensitivities of office politics where meetings define groups and also carry hierarchical baggage. Leave people out and you run the risk of them feeling excluded or marginalized; Bring them in on issues that are tangential and unnecessary and they’ll see it as a huge waste of time. Keeping the headcount small makes it easier to control, but a larger group can bring wider perspectives and greater diversity. Only bring in the people who can actively contribute to the issues at hand; the remainder can be informed or given feedback by other means.

4 Go dark and turn off tech It’s not often that you’ll want to find a basement room with no signal but it’s probably the only way to stop people fidgeting with smartphones, phablets and tablets. If you want attendees to give their full attention then you’re going to have to insist. Good luck with that!

5 Lead the agenda but don’t dominate As the person who called the meeting and framed its purpose, your role is to elicit the thoughts and ideas from those around you and keep things businesslike. Don’t stifle discussion just because you disagree – it’s important for people to feel that they can speak up. Do keep the focus on issues, not personality clashes, and rein in domineering individuals to give more reticent members a chance to have their say. If conversations head off topic then acknowledge them as valid but not for the framework of the current gathering.

6 Keep a record of what was agreed and any action points Ideally, discussions lead to outcomes and it’s up to you to allocate follow-up tasks for individuals to complete. Sometimes people come away from meetings with differing views of what was said and a quick summary with a list of action points can clear the fog: X to do Y by such and such a date, is unequivocal. A brief overview is also useful to circulate to those who were unable to attend or as wider background material for those with a more peripheral interest.

At Amazon, Jeff Bezos has built the company’s meetings culture around a briefing memo and 30 minutes of silent reading.

The rationale is that communicating thoughts in full sentences and paragraphs requires presenters to think more deeply and “forces a deeper clarity” than simply running through a slide deck.

The 30-minute read-through ensures that everyone in attendance is fully conversant with what will be discussed in the meeting.

Brad Stone, author of the excellent book about the company – The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos And The Age of Amazon – also references Bezos’ two pizza rule that the meeting should be small enough in size that the attendees can be fed from two pizzas.

Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, strives for candor in his meetings believing it to be a vital tool in rooting out mediocrity and achieving excellence.

Saying it is easy, achieving it is another thing. As he points out: “Societal conditioning discourages telling the truth to those perceived to be in higher positions.”

Other factors for not speaking out include not wanting to appear stupid, not wanting to embarrass yourself and not wanting to appear to have all the answers.

“The more people there are in the room, the more pressure there is to perform well. Strong and confident people can intimidate their colleagues, subconsciously signaling they aren’t interested in negative feedback or criticism that challenges their thinking.”

Catmull states that “without the critical ingredient that is candor, there can be no trust. And without trust, creative collaboration is not possible.”

Instilling this ethic into your company and its culture is a much bigger topic and one that is discussed at length in his book Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way of True Inspiration

What’s the meetings culture like where you work? What are your best and worst company meeting experiences? What recommendations would you make for them to be a success?


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