Beyond Content: Meetings have meaning that reflects the quality of the organisation

19th March 2015

 Meeting Magic has been facilitating meetings for large organisations for 14 years. During this time, I’ve had numerous conversations with clients and participants about the meetings in their organisations. These usually result in the person ranting about how much they dislike the meeting culture in their business. I’ve worked with so many different people from different sectors that I’ve concluded that there is a universal business issue: meetings often don’t mean enough for businesses to invest in them.

The problem: a lack of meaningful meetings

I come from an engineering background. If meetings were sens as processes (like production lines), most of them would be shut down because of the high levels of rework and waste involved. The raw materials used in the most meetings (people, information, process design) are usually poorly prepared, because there is little clarity about the required outcomes. The Oxford Dictionary definition of a meeting is “an assembly of people for a particular purpose” – but purpose is one of the common items missing from a meeting.

Big organisations invest tens of thousands of pounds on initiatives designed to improve internal communication or employee engagement when they haven’t even fixed the foundations of communication and engagement: their meeting culture! Two reasons why I believe meetings are so important is business are that:

  • Big businesses need meetings. In a large business, it’s rare that work can be done by someone in isolation. We need people to work together, to collaborate, to integrate their work and to learn together. This works both from a ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approach. If a big strategic change is required across a business (e.g. a merger, acquisition, culture change or change of strategy), this will usually occur by getting groups of people together in meetings. If an individual has an idea or a problem that they want to solve, they usually need to meet with people to make things happen. Meetings are how things get done in large organisations.
  • Meetings are where most employees experience ‘the business’. Most large organisations have espoused values, principles or statements about the way they want things to be. Meetings play an important part in the employees’ experience of their workplace and of the actual values of the business. There is often a disparity between the real and stated values of a business. Aligning the way in which meetings are run with the values of the business makes much more impact upon people that a communication about the values, because meetins enable people to see and feel ‘living and breathing’ values.

So, if the current problem is that people working in large organisations spend too much time in unproductive meetings, what’s the opportunity?

The opportunity: bringing meaning back to meetings

Meetings can provide very positive experiences, in which individuals are seen and heard and the group collectively produces profound results. Even in huge global organisations, I’ve seen leaders create micro-climates in which their meetings are significantly different from those experienced elsewhere within the organisation. When this happens, I see the people in the division taking pride in the meeting culture they’ve created – and the culture lives on, even after the leader has left.

So, rather than espousing the values and ways of working that a leader wants to see in their organisation, it’s much more powerful if that culture is demonstrated in meetings. Meetings hold hidden meanings: people can intuitively reach certain conclusions based on the way in which a meeting is held:

  • The level of preparation for a meeting signifies how much value is placed on the participants’ time together.
  • The level of involvement in the planning of a meeting sets the tone for the level of involvement that the meeting leader wants from the group.
  • How people are treated in the meeting will establish the levels of trust and respect that are engendered.
  • The way in which the meeting is conducted will set the tone for levels of honesty and openness in how decisions are made and in how conflict is handled.

I’ve had the luxury of supporting colleagues in several meetings recently. I’ve found that when I have less of a front-line role, I can see much more of the underlying patterns that are occurring in the group during the meeting. It fascinates me how often the patterns of behaviour that are being discussed are also being acted out, albeit unconsciously. I think that this is a symptom of most meeting preparation being focused on the content rather than the process and the people.

I look forward to the meetings we have as a team in Meeting Magic. Every time, interesting topics and ideas arise that I wouldn’t have thought of previously. We work through tough business issues and conflicts of opinion in a way that leaves people feeling whole. A joke online this week said: “My biggest issue with meetings is that, despite their name, they are rarely about me!” I’m not saying that our meetings are ‘perfect’ but by paying attention to the people and the process, I find that they content usually takes care of itself!

If I had a magic wand, I would give every business manager some facilitation training, to make the world of business meetings a better place. In the absence of magical powers, I try to be ‘the change I want to see in others’ (Gandhi) and to make the meetings I am part of mean more for the people involved in them.

If you want more discussion on how to embed good meeting practices into your meeting culture give us a all at +44 (0)20 1628 471 114 or send us the contact form. We’ll reply as quickly as we can.