May 13, 2011

Make meetings matter

Written by Jennifer Garvey BergerJennifer Garvey Berger

Think back to the best meeting you ever had. This could have been a regularly scheduled thing or a one-off coffee with an interesting colleague. (Some of you may have to think way back.) What made it so good? You felt like you had something powerful to contribute? You felt like your fellow participants were also pushing their thinking around and they were adding things you’d not known about before? Maybe you left the meeting with new ideas, new possibilities for moving forward, a new sense that you were all engaged in the same project in your different ways.

Now think back to a less productive meeting. This is the kind where time creeps by, where your colleagues say either boring or obvious things (or both), where you wonder whether you can type emails under the table in front of you so that you’ll get at least something worthwhile done.

Which of those experiences is more common for you?

If you’re like most of my clients, the terrible meeting experience is common. In fact, there are a variety of calls for ending meetings altogether, for going virtual or in other ways cutting out the dead wood that they have become in order to make the way for the actual productive time in our work lives—those times when we are blissfully not in a meeting.

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I have a different take on this. I have been to enough fantastic meetings to believe that we don’t want to cut out meetings altogether—it’s too important for us to be able to think and create together to solve some of the really huge challenges of the modern work world. But we do want to cut out all (or nearly all) of those unproductive meetings. If you’ve already done this at your work, that’s fantastic! (And maybe you could send me an email to let me know how you made that possible.) If you’re still struggling with it, these next couple of articles might help.

Here’s my bottom line on this. At every regularly-held meeting, everyone in the room should learn something. At every regularly-held meeting, something new should be created—a new idea/ plan/ product/ solution. At every regularly-held meeting, most people should agree that it’s not a waste of time. If you cannot say this, your meetings need a renovation.

The first thing to change is your mindset. One of the most amazing parts of this whole meeting-issue to me is the ease with which we accept that meetings will be a waste of time. Imagine just shrugging your shoulders and knowing that mostly the money you deposited in the bank wouldn’t find its way into your account. Or that gas stations would routinely offer you pumps that spilled more gas than they managed to get into your car—while charging you for all of it. We get angry if people cheat us in some way and yet we rarely feel cheated by delivering 25 or 50 or 70 percent of our work days to useless activities.

Instead, imagine: What would it mean if you really believed that everyone else in the meeting was making sense of things in a different way? How would that change the questions you asked, the agenda you set, the expectations you had of your colleagues? Meetings are often places where culture is carried and lived out and spread, where silos could be dismantled, where new ideas could be born. For the next week, just see what would happen if you believed meetings could and should be productive and helpful spaces for your work to thrive and grow. Then, once you believe such things are possible, we can set out to create the conditions that make them happen, not just occasionally, but each time you go to a meeting.

Action plan

• Notice: how many meetings do you go to (or run yourself) that feel productive and like a fantastic use of time? How many feel like a waste? Track the proportions.
• Now ask: what’s the mindset that sits underneath the terrible meetings? What are the assumptions about what meetings should be like that seems to be feeding the unproductive meeting?
• Try on: What assumption would you have to have to believe that your meetings should, rather than being a waste of time, be some of the most helpful and productive hours in your day? What would it be like to hold that assumption?

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