There are lots of things written about meetings – particularly about how bad they can be! But great things happen when people meet, and there have been some meetings that have changed our lives:
- In 1898 when Thomas Eddison met Henry Ford and encouraged him to continue his work as an engineer.
- In 1967 when Bill Gates and Paul Allen met and then went on to found Microsoft.
- In 1943 when Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met in Tehran to decide military strategy.
Can you think of a meeting that you have experienced where you came away thinking, “that was good!” or “we achieved a lot”?
What was different about those meetings? What makes a meeting a positive experience for you?
I suspect that the positive meetings that come to mind may well have three things in common:
- Real clarity of purpose for the meeting.
- The right people were there to do the work.
- Attention was given to how work is done – the human aspect.
Taking each of these in a bit more detail.
Clarity of purpose
If everyone involved in a meeting knows why the meeting is happening and what the expected outcomes are then a really good foundation is laid for a good meeting:
- It allows people to prepare and think through the topic(s) and challenges in advance.
- It helps to maintain focus in the meeting.
- It ensures that you know who needs to be there.
The right people to do the work
Successful meetings happen when work really gets done in them and not in the squeezed time between or after meetings.
A great way to think about having the right people in the room comes courtesy of Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff in their book Don’t just do something, stand there!. They use the acronym ARE IN to examine whether the right people are involved.
So to ensure that the work needed can be done the meeting needs people with:
- Authority to act
- Resources – contacts, time, money
- Expertise in the issues
- Information about the topic/issue that no one else has
- Need to be involved as they will be affected by the outcome and will have views on the consequences
An example to illustrate how effective having the right people in the room can be is IKEA. The retailer successfully decentralised a global system for product design, manufacture and distribution in just three days. This meeting involved 53 people from 10 countries and included customers and suppliers as well as the internal teams from IKEA. (Weisbord & Janoff, Don’t just do something, stand there!)
The focus also needs to be on the work within the meeting and by this I mean actively doing things that lead to an outcome, not just sharing information updates. This can be a very inefficient use of valuable face-to-face time when there are other more time effective ways to keep everyone updated.
This leads us to how the work gets done.
Attention to how work is done
Each person in a meeting is unique and paying attention to this really helps to deliver a good meeting and strong outcomes.
It involves thinking through how to:
- Keep people focussed on the work
- Build trust so people feel able to contribute their best thinking
- Manage information effectively
- Handle decision making and also the physical aspects such as breaks
The more people that are involved in a meeting, the greater the number of perspectives there are. Harnessing this diversity of perspective is where real breakthroughs can come. Often this can involve sticking with it when it feels pretty uncomfortable. This discomfort will be different for different people. For example if you tend to be future focussed in your thinking you may feel frustrated when others in the meeting talk more about the past. Or if you are more task oriented you will perhaps be bemused by those who are focussed on how any change may affect people. The thing to remember is that all perspectives have value so take a deep breath and hang in there, it is worth it!
When people share lots of ideas and perspectives it can feel as though it will never make any sense and there is then a huge temptation to leap to action and decisions. This is where people tend to have a need to move to comfort and display symptoms of AAS (Ambiguity Aversion Syndrome) or UID (Uncertainty Intolerance Disorder)
However staying with the ‘groan zone’ for long enough can result in some amazing new thinking that leads to a much better outcome. The real breakthrough thinking, new ideas and solutions come in the space that sits between chaos and order.
So maybe the next time you are thinking about meetings move the focus to what works. After all, we can all do our bit to make a change for the better.