By Theodore Kinni
Theodore Kinni has written, ghosted, or edited more than 20 business books. He was book review editor for strategy+business for 7 years.
Fed up with his team’s lack of productivity, the manager calls everyone together yet again. Iron-fisted, he declares, “We’re are going to continue having these meetings, every day, until I find out why no work is getting done.”
I know it’s not a howler of a joke, but then it’s hard to squeeze a laugh out of as pervasive a bane of organizational life as meetings. Think about how much of their time managers spend in meetings (25-50 percent, per Brian Tracy). Then, tally up the labor costs—to say nothing of the impact on productivity and the opportunity costs. It’s no laughing matter.
So what’s to be done about meetings? I went looking for suggestions in Safari and found a slew of ideas. Here are three of the most intriguing:
1. Eliminate mandatory attendance. No, that’s not another joke. Eric Lindblad, a GM in Boeing’s 747 program, who is featured in Dick and Emily Axelrod’s pithy handbook Let’s Stop Meeting Like This made attendance at his meetings voluntary. If people found his meetings a waste of time, or if they had something more important to do, Lindblad told them not to bother coming.
The Axelrods call voluntary attendance “the ultimate feedback.” It surely is: If you call a meeting and nobody shows up, you’ve got to question whether or not the meeting is necessary. Then, if you still believe the meeting is necessary, you’ve got to figure out how to make it compelling for everyone you want to attend.
Toward that end, the Axelrods offer up a six-step meeting process that they call the “meeting canoe.” The best part is the last step, which requires that every meeting end by reviewing the decisions made, identifying next steps, and assessing the quality of meeting. That’s so much better than the far-too-common meeting close, in which time runs out in the middle of discussing some item on—or worse, not on—the agenda, and then so do all the participants.
2. Make your meetings virtuous. Karl Danskin and Lenny Lind, authors of Virtuous Meetings, help companies and other organizations run big, collaborative meetings in which hundreds of people get together to develop new visions, missions, and strategies. They say that meetings become virtuous when they achieve two goals: first, they intentionally do good for participants, leaders, and the entire organization; and second, they support and stimulate the creation of a virtuous cycle—in other words, a cycle that enhances trust and engagement with each new meeting.
To make a meeting virtuous, every participant needs to be an active contributor—thinking about what he or she is hearing and adding ideas to the mix. But how do you transform the more reticent among us into active contributors? The answer, say the authors, is “participant-centered design,” As its name suggests, participant-centered design is meant to combat passivity by shifting the meeting’s focus from whoever is standing at the front of the room to the rest of the people in the room. One way to achieve this shift is by banning one-way reports and slideshow presentations from your meetings. After all, who needs to sit in a meeting to get information that is more effectively delivered via email? Instead, build opportunities for participants to respond into each item on the meeting agenda. This will stimulate conversation and collaboration, as well as making it a lot tougher for the guy at the far corner of the table to slip in a quick game of Candy Crush.
3. Forget consensus, go for conflict. Think about your favorite movie—The Godfather, Jaws, The Matrix or whatever. What makes it so engaging? Conflict—the struggles that drive the story. That’s the same thing that makes meetings compelling and productive, according to consultant Patrick Lencioni.
In his short management tale, Death by Meeting, Lencioni argues that meetings are boring and ineffective because leaders devote their energies to seeking consensus and getting everybody out of the room on time. Instead, he says, you should “look for legitimate reasons to provoke and uncover relevant, constructive ideological conflict.” That’s what gets people engaged and leads to passionate discussion and, ultimately, to better decisions. So stop avoiding conflict and start embracing it.
Lencioni also suggests that an organization’s meetings are a direct reflection of its culture and its performance. If he’s right, it might be worth taking a hard look around the table at your next meeting. What do you see?
Queue these up: