Better Meetings for Your Organization

By John Hunter, author of Management Matters: Building Enterprise Capability.

Meetings are often frustrating for those spending time sitting through them. The solutions proposed for this issue often seem not very well thought out to me. The various traits (frequency, length, detailed agendas or not etc.) of meetings are useful or harmful depending on the circumstances.

This is similar to Deming’s ideas on management, I don’t believe their is a recipe to follow. There are principles that are universal. But what specific form they take depends greatly on the specific circumstances and systems in place.

If meetings in your organization are frustrating and not effective then taking steps to improve the situation is likely wise. There are principles I believe will help:

Have a written objective

Having a written objective for a meeting forces you to think about it and if you discover there isn’t one then you don’t need to have the meetings. I believe informational meetings are often far too frequent (but it depends on the organization whether they are or not) but I don’t object to a meeting with the purpose of informing (and hopefully listening to feedback) about status. But this can easily be a source of waste, and I would encourage you to be very careful to pay close attention to whether the attendees feel they are valuable.

The objective also lets people know what the purpose of the meeting is. I think most often the attendees don’t understand at all, or understand very little, what the person that calls the meeting expects.

Document decisions and actions to be taken

There is nothing mysterious about documenting decisions. But it is often neglected. The amount of waste created by failing to have a shared understanding of what decisions have been made and what actions people are expected to take is enormous. As I said in Better Meetings:

Document decisions on a flip chart that everyone can see in the meeting and then email everyone the decisions. This is a huge help in my experience. People often just want to get the meeting over with, so everyone just ignores that no decision has actually been made and just hopes the meeting ends. For those things you have decided it is worth meeting on, it is worth making sure everyone understands the decision the same way. How often do you waste time in between meetings and in future meetings as people present alternative versions of what was actually decided?

Prepare people in advance

Send an agenda in advance (including the objective for the meeting). This puts me in the camp of those that believe an agenda is good. I don’t mind a flexible agenda (if that produces good results for the team, or even no agenda with the same caveat). But I see significant value in letting people know the agenda in advance. Let them think about the issues. Let them explore some specific details (which they can do if they know the details on the meeting in advance).

If you are trying to sneak past some approval without letting people think about it and come up with good reasons to block it then not giving people notice is useful. But that hardly seems like the type of management culture we should be attempting to create.

It is especially important to send out material in advance that can’t be understood at a glance. And even without an agenda this is often useful. And “send out” can take many forms today (posting information on an intranet, comments on some shared resources, updating a wiki, sending an email…).

Another reason people seem to like to avoid letting people know what will be discussed is they find when they do this, people don’t show up. I think they are taking the wrong lesson from that. If your meetings are not valuable, change them so they are, don’t try to hide information so people can’t tell in advance if they will be valuable or not. I realize this is far from the only reason to not prepare people in advance, the most common reason for not doing so it just not having the time (or not wanting to take the time).

Solicit Feedback

One of the nice steps in many agile software development efforts is the inclusion of retrospectives to iteratively think about the process of work and make changes. Do the same things with meetings. Talk to people about what is working and what isn’t. Make changes based on what you learn and re-access.

You do have to think about what is wise. If your organization is like many, if people are given a chance they just want meetings cancelled or the freedom to not attend. This may be sensible. It may also just be a sign that meetings in your organization are painful to participants but are still needed to produce results (given the rest of your management system). If so, you might have to focus first on improving meetings (and while reducing meeting load, if sensible, not outright cancelling them right away).

If you make meetings have an objective you may quickly see their frequency decrease as there isn’t any sensible objective to state. If there is a great deal of desire to eliminate or reduce meetings I would strongly suggest making that known and encouraging those calling meetings to take that into account. And if this doesn’t improve over time really addressing this issue.

There are many reasons meetings are an important area to consider. Two big reasons are the high cost they have in eating up staff time. Add up the hourly cost of those sitting in the meeting and you will often find yourself shocked at how much you “spend” without thinking about it. While if someone wants to spend an equal amount to attend a conference the process to spend that money is much more complicated. Yes, “spending” money (based on the salaries or those in the meeting) isn’t the same as increased spending but the concept can help people think about what meetings cost.

Even more meetings can be one of the big de-motivators that then create all sorts of effort by management to re-motivate people. It is much better to eliminate sources of de-motivation than to try and motivate people that you de-motivated.

At the same time the right meetings are very useful. So just eliminating as many meetings as possible isn’t a great aim in my opinion. You need to figure out how to make meetings play the most effective role they can within your organization.

Give People Large Blocks of Time to Focus

If you have lots of meetings make sure those that need large blocks of time to focus get it. Let them block our full and/or half days to work on such projects before meetings are scheduled.

Another risk to watch out for is losing focus on the gemba. Decisions should be made close to the gemba. Meeting at the gemba is much better than meeting in a conference room. The very nature of meeting in a conference rooms often pushes us away from the gemba.

Think of the process being explored. What is the gemba for that process? Can the meeting be held there? This idea isn’t always relevant but it is relevant much more often than it is considered. So just thinking about this idea will likely be a positive step in the right direction.

Related: All That People Need to Know is Why Their Work is Important (and why their time in a meeting is needed and not a waste of time)Jason Fried: Why work doesn’t happen at workEmployee Involvement at Western MountaineeringWhat Motivates Programmers? (2008)

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