Managers do things right, while leaders do the right thing(s).” -- Warren Bennis, scholar and organizational expert
Most advice on meetings focuses on the “how.” But the effort to improve meetings must start with the “what.” No matter how efficiently you meet about the wrong things, they are still the wrong things to meet about.
I have sat in hundreds of bad meetings: no goals, no agenda, no preparation, no documents, no schedule, no minutes, no action items, no follow-up, and so on. We all hate these meetings. We all want to improve them. That’s why Influencers’ posts on meeting management are some of the most popular.
But they do not address what I consider the major problem: Most meeting time is wasted because people aim at the wrong target.
In this post, I will suggest a way to cut your meeting time. Not by meeting about the same things faster, but by meeting about fewer things. This recommendation has reduced meeting time by 90% in one of my clients.
This does not mean that you can do the work in 10% of the time. You have to devote significant out-of-meeting effort to resolve the issues, but working more efficiently, enjoying a happier mood, and achieving better results.
What’s The Secret?
The only goal for a meeting is “to decide and commit.” No other objective is worth meeting for.
No meetings to “discuss.” No meetings to “update.” No meetings to “review.” No meetings to “inform.” No meetings to “report.” No meetings to “present.” No meetings to “check.” No meetings to “dialogue.” No meetings to “evaluate.” No meetings to “connect.” No meetings to “think.” No meetings to “consider.” No meetings to “educate.” No meetings to anything but “decide and commit.”
Of course, in order to decide and commit it is necessary to share information, monitor progress, provide updates, review materials, discuss ideas, analyze options, and evaluate costs and benefits. These are very reasonable ways to spend the time of a meeting.
But those are intermediate goals; the final goal is to perform. And to perform effectively a team needs to decide intelligently, commit resolutely, and execute impeccably. A good meeting focuses on the first two, in order to accomplish the third.
Swing Through The Ball
If you learned tennis or golf you must have heard your instructor say, “swing through the ball.” If you swing at the ball you will cut your swing short and will hit with significantly less power. Of course you will hit the ball as you swing through it, but the right aim is to finish the swing, not to hit the ball.
In the same spirit, “Meet to decide and commit.” If you meet to discuss, you will cut your effort short and will work with significantly less power. Of course, you will discuss in order to decide and commit, but the right aim is to do, not to talk.
Yet many teams practice “voodoo management.” They believe that talking about an issue is enough to (magically) solve it. They take pride of “working” on something while they only express opinions about what “ought to be done.” But as I wrote here, there is no action without commitment. Not surprisingly, everybody feels frustrated because the issue remains unsolved “after all the time we spent talking about it.”
The Value of Information
Imagine you are locked up in a cell, incommunicado, for the next 24 hours. I offer to tell you the winning number of the lottery that will be picked this very evening. The will-be-winning ticket, worth $100,000,000, is still available. How much should you pay for the information?
This information is worthless to you because you cannot act on it.
Information is valuable insofar as it may allow you to produce better results that you would have gotten without it. Unless the information may lead you to act differently than you would have acted had you not known it, its value is zero.
Since you can neither buy, nor ask someone else to buy the lottery ticket, the winning number is worthless to you.
The same thing happens with a meeting. Unless the meeting may lead people to act in a different way they would have acted had they not had the meeting, its value is zero—no matter how efficiently it is run.
An Expensive Proposition
Meeting requires that all participants be in the same (virtual) place at the same time. This is an expensive proposition. There is only one practical reason to justify it: the interactive design and evaluation of alternative strategies, and the collective decision and commitment to pursue the strategy that the team believes is most conducive to its mission.
(There are social and emotional reasons to get together, but regular meetings pursue tasks, rather than relationship goals.)
There are many ways for a team to stay up to date on the status of initiatives, receive progress reports, share information, request clarifications, ask questions, express concerns, raise objections, make suggestions, and propose options without having to meet. Email and shared documents seem almost prehistoric in comparison to the many e-tools available today, but even they work quite well.
The single thing that can only be done interactively is to assess the global impact of alternative courses of action on the team’s mission. This exercise requires pooling each member’s information about her area of responsibility and her knowledge about the opportunities and threats that it will trigger in her local environment.
For example, a global leadership team from one of the top three IT companies in the world, whom I have been helping for several years, have stopped meeting (by video-conference) four hours a week to "monitor progress" of their different projects. They now use shared documents where each project owner writes a review with three points: (a) what have we done last week, (b) what are we planning to do next week, (c) any issues I need help to resolve. Only when (c) requires the whole team's interaction there is a team meeting. Otherwise, there are sub-team meetings on the side to deal with the specifics.
Only people relevant to the matter are invited to this side conversations. Nobody sits idle during the discussion, and everybody present has a valuable role to play in deciding and committing to solve the problem.
The team now meets every four months in person, to explore new strategies and connect at a human level. Everybody loves these meetings, which take about 10% of the time the weekly updates used to take.
The Acid Test
Pick a red marker and search your agenda for terms such as “discuss,” “update,” “review,” and other non-decisive verbs. Cross them out and see what is left.
Then put any remaining item through the following three-question test:
- “What will we do differently if we succeed in this meeting?”
- “Why do we need to meet to accomplish this?”
- “How will this help us further the goal of the team?”
I bet that 90% of your meeting time goes away.
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Readers: Please look at your last two or three meeting agendas and see how many items do not pass the acid test. Let us know what you find with a comment below.
Fred Kofman, PhD. in Economics, is Professor of Leadership and Coaching at the Conscious Business Center of the University Francisco Marroquín anda faculty member of Lean In. He is the author ofConscious Business, How to Build Value Through Values (also available as an audio program.)