Stop Wasting Time

How to make the most of meetings

Katie Wright

Meetings. In business it seems most communication takes place via emails or meetings. A meeting that is well planned and well facilitated can be highly productive—and meetings that aren’t can be incredibly painful. In the words of Dave Barry, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’” My view of meetings isn’t quite as dire as Barry’s; however, there are planning, facilitation and participation techniques that help make meetings more productive.

Leading the Meeting: Planning

The first step to an effective meeting is to have a clear purpose. A great way to find the purpose of your meeting is to finish this sentence: “This meeting will be successful if …” Think about the purpose of the meeting in terms of what you want to walk away from the meeting with. Is it a decision? Is it approval? Is it a clear list of action steps toward a task or goal? If the purpose is to provide information, consider if there is another approach you can take to sharing information. Information often can be shared in writing in advance of a meeting, and then the meeting time can be used to discuss the information provided.

Once you’re clear on the purpose of the meeting, think through what is needed in order to accomplish that purpose:

  • Who needs to be there?
  • What type or size of room do you need?
  • What equipment is needed?
  • What information do participants need in order to make the most of your meeting time?

See Figure 1 for more considerations based on the type of meeting.

Figure 1: Meeting Considerations Vary Based on the Type of Meeting

In Person Phone Video
Is a projector needed? Does the room have a polycom? Best with a small number of participants, or if participants can gather in a few rooms. Otherwise there are too many little video boxes to really see faces.
Is a flip chart stand and paper needed? Does the polycom work? Make sure everyone has the appropriate bandwidth for video; test it prior to the meeting.
Is a whiteboard needed? Have you distributed materials electronically prior to the meeting? If anyone is participating from outside of your company’s network, you may not be able to share content. Check with IT or test it prior to the meeting.
Do you have the appropriate markers? (Please don’t write on the whiteboard with permanent marker!) Be sure materials have page numbers that you can easily reference to make sure everyone is looking at the right page. Provide a conference number as a backup in case of a bad connection or low-quality video.
Will you bring handouts with you? Do you want to use screen-sharing software like Skype? Check for glare and adequate lighting.

Common pitfalls when planning meetings include the “shotgun” approach to meeting participants—where the meeting organizer invites everyone who they think might have an interest in the topic in hopes of having the right people there. Or maybe the organizer invites all five people from one particular team, hoping that at least one of them will attend. A better approach is to ask if the person can’t attend that they ask someone from their team to attend in their place.

Another common pitfall is not inviting the key decision-makers or inviting the key decision-maker and then still holding the meeting if the decision-maker declines the invitation. Be thoughtful about who really needs to be in attendance at the meeting, and hold the meeting at a time when the key people can attend. If a key decision-maker isn’t in attendance, decide as a group if you can make enough progress so that it’s worthwhile to have the meeting. More often than not, it’s best to reschedule the meeting for a time when key decision-makers can be present.

All meetings should have an agenda and materials (if applicable) sent prior to the meeting. Materials should be sent at least 24 hours prior to the meeting, and in many cases, 48 hours is preferred. Stakeholders are more likely to attend the meeting if they know the purpose and agenda.

Also consider if it would be beneficial to assign someone other than you to take notes during the meeting. Often it’s difficult to both facilitate a discussion and take notes. Asking someone to take notes for you involves another person in the meeting in addition to freeing yourself up to focus on facilitating the discussion.

Facilitation

As the facilitator, you set the stage and tone of the meeting, so kick it off with a positive tone. Welcome everyone, share what you hope to achieve, how you plan to achieve it and express confidence in the group’s ability to achieve the purpose.

Cover the most important information first. What happens when you cover the easy stuff first? There is a risk of not getting to the core purpose of the discussion. Ideally, you cover the entire agenda, but if by chance you can’t, at least you covered the important items.

One of the most challenging aspects of leading a meeting is handling off-topic conversations. Let the purpose and agenda drive your meeting. If the conversation goes off-track, you can say: “That’s good discussion. Let’s talk about that at the end of the meeting if we have time.” Write down the topic so you don’t forget to return to it.

If you notice you are running out of time and won’t get through the agenda, consider giving the group a choice. Ask: “We can focus on X or Y in our remaining time. Which would you prefer?” This allows you, as a team, to step back and make a conscious decision about how and where to spend your time.

Another common pitfall of meetings is that a handful of people dominate the conversation. As the facilitator, you want to engage everyone. Here are some engagement techniques to try:

  • Facilitate a round-robin during the meeting. Go around the room and give everyone a chance to voice an opinion.
  • Ask meeting participants to write their thoughts on a sticky note and place the sticky note on a flip chart or whiteboard at the front of the room that the facilitator then reads to the group.
  • Write options on a flip chart or whiteboard and ask participants to come to the board and cast a vote by placing a checkmark next to the option they prefer.
  • Invite contrary opinions by asking, “Does anyone think differently?” Or, “Does anyone have a different opinion?”

After the meeting, send an email summarizing the meeting discussion and outcomes. Clearly note who is responsible for each action item and a date by which the action item is due. The last step is to follow-up on the action items as they become due.

Participating in the Meeting

One of the most common reasons to hold a meeting is to make a decision. When people are brought together to make a decision, different opinions come to light. This diversity of thought is a good thing! So how do we voice our opinion professionally, and in some cases, disagree, without being disagreeable? One of the most effective techniques to use when driving toward a decision comes from Peter Senge, a lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management. He says leadership requires a balance of advocacy and inquiry.1

Those who are most skillful in bringing a group to a decision balance both advocacy and inquiry. A common misnomer is that “telling is selling,” when in actuality the most effective way to get your point across is to balance telling (advocacy) and asking questions (inquiry).

Let’s look at advocacy first. Advocacy is expressing your view or making a statement about your conclusion. It can be stating your opinion, sharing what assumptions or data led you to that conclusion, sharing your reasoning or rationale, and giving examples of what you propose. Figure 2 provides examples of what to say when using high-quality advocacy.

Figure 2: High-quality Advocacy: Expressing a View or Making a Statement About Your Conclusions

Inquiry is asking others to make their thinking explicit. It’s asking questions to learn what data led them to their conclusion, what assumptions they are making, what previous experience leads them to their conclusion and asking for examples to make sure you have an accurate understanding of what the other person is proposing. Figure 3 provides examples of what to say when using high-quality inquiry.

Figure 3: High-quality Inquiry: Exploring Through Questions

figure 3

Let’s look at advocacy and inquiry in practice. Two hypothetical scenarios depict a business meeting where leaders are discussing what system enhancements will be included in the next release. The first scenario uses low-quality advocacy and inquiry, and the second uses high-quality advocacy and inquiry.

Scenario 1

Leader 1: “The enhancement needs to be implemented by Dec. 1.”
IT: “OK, here are the changes to the system scheduled to go in by then.”
Leader 2: “We need to have the auto-enroll functionality in by that date, too. It’s not on the list.”
IT: “We can’t do it by then.”
Leader 2: “We need it to go in by the end of the year.”
IT: “We can’t do all of the current system enhancements and the auto-enroll enhancement by Dec. 1. It’s just not possible.”
Leader 1: “It’s more important for the currently scheduled enhancements to go in by Dec. 1 than to add this auto-enroll enhancement and possibly delay the launch.”
Leader 2: “I disagree.”
IT: “I don’t think this is going to work. You’re asking for a miracle.”

Scenario 2

Leader 1: “We really need to meet the Dec. 1 deadline for these enhancements.”
IT: “Help me understand what’s driving the importance of meeting this deadline, from your perspective.”
Leader 1: “Senior leadership is watching this project closely, and it’s important to be able to report that we met our project deadline.”
IT: “OK, that makes sense. Let me show you the list of enhancements that are scheduled to be implemented by Dec. 1.”
Leader 2: “How did you decide what functionality would go in by Dec. 1? What was your rationale?”
IT: “We prioritized the enhancements by both ease and impact. We started with those that were both easy to implement and had the most impact, and then decided to look at those enhancements that would have the most impact on the business.”
Leader 2: “I’d like to discuss what it would take for the auto-enroll functionality to also be included in the Dec. 1 release. Let me explain why it’s important. There’s a new client coming online in January. If this functionality is in place, it will make issuing policies much faster, therefore allowing us to meet our service-level agreements without mandatory overtime. As you know, mandatory overtime costs the company a huge amount of money. When you look at impact to the company, I think this functionality can have a huge impact.”
Leader 1: “Let’s go back and revisit the list of enhancements scheduled for the Dec. 1 release and see if it’s feasible for the auto-enroll enhancement to go in and still meet the Dec. 1 deadline.”

You can see that using advocacy and inquiry led to a much more productive conversation and ultimately a better outcome for the company. Advocacy and inquiry are also good techniques to remember when conversations get heated.

Conclusion

Meetings can carry an extremely high price tag for an organization. According to Inc.com, more than $37 billion per year is spent on unproductive meetings. There are 25 million meetings each day, and executives consider 67 percent of them to be unproductive. With all the time spent in meetings, it’s worth the investment in improving meeting effectiveness. Proper planning, effective facilitation, engaging participants and practicing high-quality advocacy and inquiry can make meetings a worthwhile use of time.

Katie Wright is a learning strategist at Voya Financial in Des Moines, Iowa.

References:

  1. 1. Senge, Peter, Charlotte Roberts, Richard B. Ross, Bryan Smith, and Art Kelner. 1994. The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday.