I’m part of a management team of eight people for our small, growing company. We’re struggling to make sure we get the most out of our meetings. We’ve tried to make sure what we talk about are the most important issues that affect us all. We’ve gone to a format where each of us “reports out.” This has resulted in fewer surprises, but we’re still unhappy with the focus of the meetings. We’ve used the expression, “getting into rabbit holes,” to describe how we get side-tracked, off the point, etc. The major problem is we’re too narrow in our discussions. We should be talking about the big picture. We spend too much time reviewing things that could be dealt with outside the meetings. Can you offer suggestions to get us out of this rut?
In my experience, meetings management skills tend to be overlooked by many leaders, especially top leaders. The mindset sometimes is, “that’s common sense – we’ve got that stuff covered.” This can be short-sighted, for we all know how paying attention to the little things can make a big difference.
So, at the outset, I would offer the observation that this is a pretty common situation. From what the reader offers, though, it seems to me that the team is aware of the need to adopt effective meeting processes. They seem to be looking at the issue of meeting content and how best to sort through the material. While this is encouraging, it appears they have yet to arrive at the right approach.
Let me also observe that spending time getting it right is really, really important, especially in this instance. It looks like this is the top management team for this organization. These top managers are the architects of the organization. They set the direction. They clarify the strategy. They monitor the results. They make the necessary fine-tuning adjustments.
When the top management team is unclear or fuzzy regarding the major organizational concerns of purpose, partnership, and process (i.e., the Three P’s), it can send the wrong kind of ripple effect throughout the organization. Therefore, it is vital to the organization that the top managers have great clarity of understanding and a common frame of reference.
Within this column I would suggest that it is important to take the necessary time to make sure the team is maximally effective in its meetings. In my own work with executive teams, I have seen great gains made outside of the meetings because of heightened attention to what goes on inside the meetings.
By the way, although the reader doesn’t mention the length or frequency of the meetings, let’s be clear that there is a very real “opportunity cost” associated with these meetings. Let’s face it – this is valuable time. Let’s say the team meets for three hours every other week. With eight people attending, that’s 24 hours of professional time per meeting, 48 hours of professional time per month, and 576 hours of professional time per year. That’s about one-quarter of a work year in management team meetings. What’s the “bang for the buck” in all of this?
As long-standing readers know, I am a firm believer in chartering teams for projects and task forces. I am also a firm believer in chartering standing teams such as executive teams. What is the vision the team has for itself? What is its basic purpose? Within what parameters or boundaries does it operate? What work is done as a team? What work is done by individuals? And so on.
Within the context of a team charter, then, it is important to specify meetings management elements to which the team will adhere. So, my advice to the reader is to “circle the wagons” one more time and document how the team will mange its meeting time together. Here are some basis considerations to be addressed:
The most important consideration is to decide upon who the right participants are for any meeting. In the situation the reader highlights, the people attending this meeting should be the strategists of the organization. It might be necessary to stratify the team (i.e., executive team within the general management team) to accomplish this. While this will necessitate additional meetings, it will also ensure that the right people talk about the right things.
Related to the first item, it is important to decide what content to explore within a given meeting. What does the team wish to accomplish? If the idea is to explore “big picture” issues, then make sure larger concerns comprise the agenda. Further, what is expected to happen for each agenda item? For example, is the idea to inform, explore, or decide?
Getting the meeting off on the right footing is essential. Ideally, some time should be spent orienting participants. I’m a big believer in a brief “check in” in which participants share how they’re doing. Importantly, the leader needs to clarify what will be accomplished at the meeting and sort through the associated expectations of the participants.
In carrying out the meeting, what process will be used and who will occupy which roles (e.g., facilitator, timekeeper, scribe, process checker, etc.)? I like to see these roles rotate within the team so everyone develops a comfort level occupying each role. Underlying these varying roles, of course, are varying kinds of communication skills (e.g., information presenting, clarifying, listening, reinforcing, challenging, etc.). When team members occupy varying roles, they develop broader communication skills. Over time, this creates a stronger team.
Establishing ground rules
It is important to spell out the expectations that attach to participation within the team. In essence, what we are talking about here is specifying what full and active participation “looks like.” What constructive behaviors are expected? How will conflict be handled? How will the team deal with “parking lot” items that are not able to be resolved within the constraints of a given meeting? And so on.
Evaluation of meetings
Prior to adjourning, the team needs to talk about how the meeting went. Relative to the ground rules or evaluative criteria that have been established, how did the team do? Ideally, I like to see each team member share his or her impressions. “Here’s how I thought I did.” “Here’s how I thought you did.” “Here’s how I thought we did.”
The best meetings enable action. The best evidence that the meetings are working is what happens between meetings. So, it is important prior to the meetings, to confirm that people understand the items for which they are responsible and the timeline associated with the actions to be taken. Meeting documentation that is then circulated operates as a confirmatory mechanism. Finally, I like to see the team “check out.” A few minutes of light banter about what the rest of the day holds, upcoming personal or professional issues, etc., helps the team to leave the meeting on a positive note.
Have I offered common sense in this column? I suppose so. If the team practices in concert with my suggestions will its meetings management effectiveness move to a higher level? I am certain it will.