All of us have attended meetings in which the agenda seemed endless to the point of becoming pointless. And some of us have conducted meetings during which participants looked listlessly at their phones. Sadly, meetings have become both boon and bane in the workplace.
Death by Meetings is the title of the book written by Patrick Leoncioni in 2004 that “tells the story of a talented and fairly successful CEO who also runs terribly ineffective meetings, negatively impacting the business’ performance and result.” The author writes that “bad meetings, and what they indicate and provoke in an organization, generate real human suffering in the form of anger, lethargy, and cynicism.” In fact, seldom do people say, “Wow! That was an awesome meeting!”
How can we have “awesome” meetings?
Leoncioni states that “drama” and “context” area are needed to avoid boring and ineffective meetings, and emphasizes the role of both the moderator and the participants by saying “bad meetings start with the attitudes and approaches of the people who lead and take part in them.”
To be productive, meetings must have “drama” — not the telenovela kind, but “constructive conflict” to make discussions more interesting and lively. The author further states that constructive conflict allows varying perspectives to be presented and addressed by the body. The moderator must never avoid such tension because of time pressure or strict adherence to the agenda. Leoncioni says, “The only thing more painful than confronting an uncomfortable topic is pretending it doesn’t exist.”
Leoncioni also states that the lack of contextual structure reduces clarity, resulting in a hodgepodge of ideas wherein “little is decided because participants have a hard time figuring out whether they’re supposed to be debating, voting, brainstorming, weighing in, or just listening.”
To avoid lack of context, Leoncioni recommends that teams have four distinct meetings: Daily Check-in, Weekly Tactical, Monthly Strategic, and Quarterly Off-Site Review. These meetings have different time requirements, purposes and formats, and keys to success.
Daily check-ins should be done in five to ten minutes, and are best for sharing daily schedules and activities; there is no need to sit down in such meetings.
Weekly tactical meetings run from 45 to 90 minutes, and are meant for reviewing and resolving operational issues.
Monthly strategic meetings, which can last from two to four hours, cover critical issues. However, there is a need to engage in constructive conflict and limit the items on the agenda.
Quarterly off-site reviews can last for one or two days, and must focus on looking into the future, reviewing strategies, and building the team.
A more recent study by Maya Bernstein and Rae Ringal applies “design thinking” in meetings. Design thinking, popularized by David Kelly of Stanford University, puts the “user” at the center of the experience. Empathy among those who are present in the meeting can be developed by answering the following questions: 1) Who will be in the room, and what are their needs? 2) Who won’t be in the room but will nevertheless be affected by the meeting, and what are their needs? 3) In what broader culture and environment are you operating, and what are some of the overarching challenges and opportunities?”
These questions must surface every time a meeting is conducted even with the same set of people. Participants must seek out individuals who will be affected by the policies or strategies that will be discussed in meetings. Design thinking prescribes talking face to face in meetings with affected parties, who, by bringing these issues to the table, become more invested, interested, and invaluable.
There is also a need to “set a frame” for a meeting so that clear outcomes are laid out, and a meeting is not held “simply to hold time” with the result that “people meet simply because they feel they must.”
Lastly, creatively designing a meeting entails answering the question, “What is the quickest, safest, most effective way to get to our destination?” Thus, the design and execution of meetings are similar to what Waze does; however, our meetings should have various detours such that we do not always take the fastest route, but the most scenic route. Meetings should have positive outcomes; applying fun and unexpected ways (such as using film, images, or music to spark ideas) to achieve them can change death by meetings to “life in meetings.”
Brian C. Gozun is Dean of the Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University.