Why is it that we go to so many meetings and yet so little seems to be accomplished?
The answer depends on whether you’re using meetings as get-togethers and encounters or as structured forums for progress and accomplishment. Both kinds of gatherings can be valuable, but you have to choose.
At a recent client team meeting, I was reminded why the choice is so crucial. We keep hoping that by bringing people together, we’ll create participation and engagement, ensure that everyone is heard and no one is excluded, and of course improve our decisions. After all, if two heads are better than one, 11 heads should be absolutely terrific!
Unfortunately, however, if deep thinking and probing discussion happen only during the meeting itself, then it usually takes several meetings — or innumerable conference calls — before a real decision is made or collective action is taken.
Brainstorming for potential solutions and innovations is still popular in many organizations. But when brainstorming is used primarily as a device for sharing opinions without a clear designation of roles, requirement for subject matter expertise, or intentional preparation for the discussion, it’s really about everyone being together and no one taking responsibility.
If everyone’s opinion carries the same weight, and a meeting is just a chance for each person to chime in and claim some air time or back up the leader, then all you get is a swirl of opinions and conjecture. (See Ophelia’s story in Three Scenarios of Employee Disengagement for another example of ineffective “sharing” in meetings.)
Some groups mask their fear of serious conflict with “I hope it gets better” happy talk, or even by noting a variety of trivial complaints instead of probing deeper issues. This happens most often when executives truly don’t know how to find the right answer or how to manage a heated group discussion.
Make Meetings Meaningful
It’s pointless to keep meeting just to chew over how badly the service team is doing, for example, without reviewing actual data, or to examine the same problems over and over, the way a child picks at a scab. This kind of “meeting” only ensures continuing damage.
A legitimate service discussion starts with identifying the leadership team’s beliefs about service and revisiting the company’s service promise. Executives may hold deeply buried assumptions about what constitutes correct behavior or an organization might be operating out of outdated cultural norms. Structured brainstorming can be a productive first step to raising people’s preferences and beliefs without having to take immediate action.
Moving forward without congruity is foolhardy. Adding another stage of review and analysis, logic and critique helps the group move beyond the haze of opinion. After recognizing the level of inherent agreement or disagreement, the group can compare views, cull the weak ones, add supporting data — and eventually, articulate what the new norm will be.
Moving from Discussion to Decision
When several valid views are backed by conflicting data from reliable sources, it takes a strong leader to navigate the discussion. Here are some ideas to guide the debate to conclusion:
- If you’re only “bringing people up to date” or “making them aware,” consider self-service or asynchronous communication, which can provide education or information with equal effectiveness and greater schedule flexibility and convenience.
- Should some decisions fall within an individual’s job responsibility and therefore not require a group process? (If you’re afraid that the individual will make the wrong decision, that’s a management problem, not a meeting topic.)
- Are all the individuals with the necessary expertise in the room? Has the right data been shared with all of the participants? If not, reschedule. Otherwise, the meeting will be inconclusive.
- Has the meeting manager set the context and explained the agenda? Do all of the participants have a clearly identified and well-understood purpose in the meeting? Oftentimes these announcements alone will help people stay on track.
- If it’s not clear which issues you’re trying to resolve, or if goals seem to be in conflict, refer back to the organization’s higher level goals or values to guide and shape the discussion.
- Put the goal on the table and array the appropriate expertise and data around it. Then identify the particular questions you’re trying to answer and the specific actions you’re willing to take to meet the goal. If the prep before the meeting is thorough and the right people are present, the discussion should be worthwhile and lead to resolution.