May 28, 2011

Prepare for the best meetings ever

Written by Jennifer Garvey BergerJennifer Garvey Berger

In my last blog, I set you the task to go and observe your meetings and the mindset that underlies them. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll probably have found that not only are you spending too much time in meetings that aren’t particularly productive, but that you’re probably assuming they’re not going to be very good even before you walk into the door. And you’re generally right.

The truth is, most meetings go wrong before they’ve even begun, and so some of what makes them go right actually begins well before you walk into the conference room in the first place. Agenda-setting and the before-meeting prework is not glamorous business, but doing it well makes the meeting space infinitely more productive. This is basic stuff but rarely done: We all collect ideas for a meeting, but often those ideas just go on a long list, sometimes separated by the unhelpful designations of new business, old business, etc. We rarely know what the purpose of the agenda item is: is it an informational item for one person to inform the others? Is it a discussion item that some person or group wants to gain advice or perspectives about before making a decision themselves? Is it a matter that this whole collective needs to decide on? Thinking about the purpose for each potential agenda item is a the first step toward creating meetings with purpose.

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Tag every possible agenda item with its designation and allocate time accordingly. For all of those marked “informational,” make the time zero minutes. This seems like a radical idea, but I’ll argue that informational items should almost always be handled outside of meetings. Here’s why. When someone brings an “informational” item to a meeting, there is a period of message-out talking (by the person with the information) and then a period of questions (to the person with the information). The person asking the question is generally interested in the answer, but the others in the room often aren’t. Worse, many of the questions aren’t actually questions at all, but wishes or critiques about the informational item that people don’t voice honestly because the time is past for making real changes (or else it wouldn’t have this tag).

Sharing information is better done through other, non-meeting channels like circulating papers or talking one-on-one with affected people. Many senior teams use (waste) their collective time on informational agendas because the person who would have to type up the information doesn’t have time to do that, and the others don’t read memos from one another anyway. Commit as a group to do that prework, write the information down, ask questions off-line. This creates better relationships, and if you’re creating a culture of curious questioning, the whole enterprise will be self-reinforcing.

Action points:

• If you want to make your meetings more useful, pay close attention to the creation of the agenda
• Tag each potential item with its purpose: information-sharing, decision-making, discussion, etc.
• Once everything is tagged, take the informational items off the agenda because information-sharing is mostly a waste of time in meetings
• Instead, find ways to share information outside of meetings: commit to writing down the vital information for one another, and commit to actually reading what your colleagues write
• This leaves time on the agenda for the items that actually require meeting time in the first place

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