June 21, 2011

Select your meeting guest list carefully

Written by Jennifer Garvey BergerJennifer Garvey Berger

Imagine, for a moment, a world where going to a meeting seemed like the finest use of your time at work. Imagine the frisson of excitement when a meeting was scheduled, the eagerness with which you’d click on the attached agenda. Imagine knowing for sure that your time in this meeting would create new ideas, new work streams, new understandings. The meeting would make your job easier and better—and it would increase your skills and make you a better thinker and leader. Got the picture? That’s what we’re headed toward.

In my first two blogs on this topic, I urged you to prepare for the meeting in a whole new way: think hard about the agenda, move the informational items off, pare down your tasks to careful thinking spaces. Here’s one last preparation piece that: invite the right people.

A vital question that’s rarely asked is: What is the group of people who would be most useful thinking partners about this issue? Is it the whole team or a subset? All of the research on team effectiveness shows that a key to effectiveness is to have a team which forms intentionally and works together for some purpose. But most of the senior teams I work with meet more out of habit than intention. When you’re picking the agenda for a meeting, you want to pick things about which everyone in the room might have a useful perspective. You want to pick things from which everyone in the room might potentially learn. You want to pick things about which you might disagree. Now you’ve got the ingredients for a helpful meeting.

This sounds obvious. Of course you’d only want the people who would add value to the meeting, or whom the meeting would add value to (or preferably both). So why is it you invite everyone? The whole team, the whole staff, the whole anything. Leaders tell me it’s because it’s an important time for team building, that they don’t want anyone to feel left out. But their people describe those meetings as a waste of time—what would be team building about that? Why would people feel left out if they didn’t attend something with no value? Most meeting cancellations are heralded with delight rather than unhappiness.

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This means you have two options as you’re considering the mix between your agenda and your team. You can either delete from the agenda everything that doesn’t have whole team implications (where every single team member would be invested in the topic and able to add to the discussion) or you can delete people from the meeting and hone the attendants down to those who are most importantly implicated.

This leads to anxious throat clearing in some circles. “If I don’t invite Jason, he’ll think he’s not a valued member of the team,” some leaders tell me. This is all about the expectations you’ve set up for your meetings. If everyone knows that at each meeting, only the key players for that day’s topic are invited, they will see the logic and appreciate the time savings. If you find that you are never inviting Jason, that you never have in your head the idea that he’ll add to the team’s thinking about any important issue, that is a thing you and Jason need to have a talk about pretty urgently anyway.

This is a radical suggestion, perhaps, and it’ll take some discussion before you put it into place. But teams who take this idea seriously find a strange thing happens. They find space back in their schedule on those days when the meeting topics focus elsewhere. They find that they actually do click on the attached agenda with a kind of excitement. And perhaps most importantly, they show up at meetings knowing that they will contribute something important—and that the meeting will contribute something important to them.

ACTION PLAN

• Set expectations that meetings will be helpful to all those who attend—and that you so value the time of your colleagues that you’ll only invite those to whom you can make that promise.
• Save building team spirit and other such ideas for more helpful times and use meetings to get work done. You’ll find that team spirit is more eroded than built during tedious meetings.
• Either plan the agenda with only those things that the whole team needs to deal with or invite only those who would contribute

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