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Using meetings to be more effective

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ZendaMany of us struggle with and even dread meetings. Amazon lists almost 70,000 books on how to have more effective business meetings.  There are innumerable approaches to having or hosting good meetings.  There are consultants and coaches to assist with meetings.  What’s going on?

Be sure to check out the poll results at the end of this post on “the line outside your manager’s door” where we had a very high level of participation.  Also take this week’s poll here (https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/NKK2TCZ)

Software was supposed to make meetings better, but that just seemed to make meetings more frustrating as the first 15 minutes of every meeting involve connecting, echoing, or adjusting camera angles.  Who wants to make something more efficient that you don’t even want to do in the first place!

Based on the survey from a previous post, readers of this blog spend approximately 3 hours per day in meetings!

The type of meetings that can benefit the most from taking a step back are those internal meetings that are about informing or seeking approval.  We’re in a new era where information is flowing all around us and not only are things changing rapidly, but we all can see and understand the changes happening because of the information around us.

We are seeking to be continuously productive.  Meetings that cause us to stop everything, snapshot a state of the world and hope that snapshot is still relevant by the time the meeting process completes, or at the extreme cause us to move forward on known “bad data” all need to be a thing of the past. This need for continuous productivity will cause us to seek out a different approach to meetings (among other things).

Accountability

Meetings are fundamentally about accountability.  Managers want to have meetings so they are comfortable with what is going on and feel informed for their managers.  Teams want to have meetings to gain approval for initiatives or budgets.  There are of course many other types of meetings, but the important ones involve approval and management up the chain.

Meetings with your peers are about collaboration.  Collaboration requires a shared context and shared goals.  Meetings to get to this point are a key part of “middle integration” and are much less about accountability and much more about walking in each other’s shoes.  The most important tools in these meetings are openness and honesty, since the foundation of any collaboration requires those.  From those it is easy to build accountability.

Getting back to approval.  It is, statistically speaking, no surprise that meetings are more often than not awful.

Consider this two by two as a generalization.  In this scenario, we break up the point of a meeting between informing management and gaining approval.  One can see how things can unravel quickly.  Despite everyone being fully informed, meetings have an element of prisoner’s dilemma when it comes to accountability.

Meetings

In the best case (upper right) management got what they wanted and the team got approval.  We can assume that if the team executes then management will be supportive and accountability is clear.

Contrast this with the lower left where the meeting didn’t move things forward.  For whatever reasons, management was not informed.  This is the sort of meeting that usually starts off debating the assumptions of the work or the “non-goals” and is usually characterized by being “in the weeds”.  In this case accountability is clearly shifted, 100%, to the team and usually a scramble results to recalibrate and rework.

The other cases are the “coin toss”.  Teams can go into meetings and be fully prepared but for whatever reason (context they did not know about or inputs they weren’t aware of) and fail to move forward.  Or the team can move forward, but with a weird feeling that things aren’t right.  In these cases, accountability shifted squarely to the team and management is left wondering what went wrong.

Of course these are broad generalizations.  In the real world most meetings have some characteristics across this 2×2 because situations are more nuanced.

It is critical to know before you go into a meeting how you will recalibrate and establish accountability based on these potential outcomes.  A significant part of a meeting is knowing how to manage any of the typical outcomes

Tips

Since Amazon is filled with so many books about having effective meetings, we can all assume that problem still exists and there are no magic answers.  There are some things we can all do.

  • Context.  Do you fully understand the other party’s context, before asking something of them?  Spending time in a meeting both asking for something and learning about what the other party might be thinking is going to be a challenge.  Push yourself and the team to really know the goals and constraints before you go into the meeting.
  • Success.  Do you really know what success is supposed to look like?  Often in preparation leading up to the meeting the focus turns from the goal to the tactics, which might be ok but also might lose sight of the big picture.  Be sure that you’re defining success in a way that everyone agrees is measureable and useful in the context of the goals.
  • Details.  Are you really buttoned up on the kinds of details your manager cares about?  If you know your manager cares about the budget, or specific parts of the budget, or likes to measure things in a certain way then “ride the horse in the direction it is going” and prepare that way.  You want to try to use the meeting time for things you can’t anticipate.
  • Brevity.  Are you really being concise enough in describing what your there to decide and talk about?  By definition you and the team know way more about what is going on than folks up the chain, but you don’t have the time to transfer all that knowledge.  Be sure to focus on what matters.

These are in a sense the basic approaches to meetings.  The most important tip might be to ask yourself if the meeting can be “avoided” in the first place.  Meetings are expected to produce results.  Even meetings to prepare for meetings are expected to move things forward.  That’s reality.

Today’s environment is one where things are changing very quickly, information is flowing in real-time, and with tools from big data to smartphones, stopping the real work from happening (or keeping it from starting) can only put you further behind your competition or your own team’s goals.

The real question for your whole team is how accountability can be established so that everyone can be accountable and keep moving without having to take time out to stop.  The only thing that is certain is that if you’re not moving you can’t be going forward.

–Steven Sinofsky

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Three Questions Poll

This week’s poll can be found here.

Thanks to everyone who took the recent survey on the blog entitled “A line to see someone is not cool, but is blocking progress.”  Here are some top level points:

  • We had over 300 responses from around the world.  191 people managers and 134 non-people managers
  • On average, we all spend about three and a half hours per day in meetings of one kind or another
  • On average, about one third of our team’s work requires our approval, feedback or decision
  • Generally, we think highly of our teams! On a scale of 1(strongly disagree)  to 5(strongly agree) we said our teams:
    • Operate with rhythm/flow: 3.6
    • Have high morale:3.6
    • Work quickly:3.6
    • It was worth noting that when considering managers separately from non-managers, managers rated their teams over half a point higher on all three attributes vs. non-managers

The purpose of this survey was to evaluate the hypothesis that a line outside the manager’s door blocks team progress. To do so, we can test the effect the “line” variables have (more time in meetings, greater % requiring manager approval) on the “progress” variables (Flow, Morale and Quickness).

  • Surprisingly, the hours we spend in meetings had little impact on these positive outcomes, for both non-managers and managers, as well as the group as a whole.  It should be noted for some (i.e. sales, medicine, etc.) most of a day is consumed by meeting with others, which might disrupt results
  • Among non-managers, there was little correlation between meetings/approval process and reported flow, morale or quickness.
  • Among managers, there was a slight but statistically significantly impact of the % of their team’s work that requires their approval and their own sense of team flow, morale, quickness.

Bottom Line:  Though additional study would be required to fully understand this complex topic, there is evidence that the line at the manager’s door can decrease progress, if only as perceived by the manager.

Thanks,
Cameron

Written by Steven Sinofsky

April 29, 2013 at 6:00 am

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