Make your meeting count

Meetings. One of the most dreaded and wasteful activities in most organizations. At least, when they are not done right and don’t have the right focus. There are many types of meetings starting with presentations & training, workshops, all-hands, regular status meetings, quick stand-ups or decision making meetings. They fulfill also different purposes. Some are meant just to share information, some are meant to trigger discussion and some will provide a forum for making decisions. So what can you do to make these meetings painless, productive and really powerful? There are couple of basic rules that fit those needs most of the time.

Rules for truly productive meetings

  • Have a goal – and communicate it clearly in the invitation. You may be really explicit like “The goal of this meeting so to decide what we have for lunch today.” Having a goal keeps you focused and sets the expectations of the audience. It will also enable you to show at the end of the meeting that “it was successful because you reached the goal and decided that today we get chicken” and thus participants will feel good about the time spent.
  • Invite the right participants – and no one else. It is important to ensure that people on the meeting have a vested interest in the topics. What is the point of inviting Petr if we all know he doesn’t eat lunch?
  • Have an agenda – and send it out together with the key information in advance. It will allow everyone (including you) to prepare. It will also allow the participants to raise their hand in case of missing topics. “Attached to the invitation is a menu from our favorite restaurant, please read it before the meeting so you are prepared for the discussions.”
  • Time constrain the meeting – begin and end on time. Be mindful of everyone’s time. If meetings drag for longer than planned you will lose focus of attendees as they will be thinking about their next thing. “The meeting will be held on Tuesday at 10:00 and will finish 10:25.” It might be a good idea to allow people time to move from one meeting to another and thus don’t schedule for 1 hour or 30 minutes but rather for 45 or 25 minutes.
  • Prepare – do as much work ahead of the meeting as possible. Prepare the structure, the important questions, you may even draft an outline of the meeting notes and fill in the blanks during the meeting. Share any documents or powerpoint slides before the meeting so people can study them in advance and prepare their questions.
  • Focus – don’t get the meeting derailed by adding too many topics or getting into too much detail. If there is something to be discussed between limited number of participants then take it offline. “Guys I understand that some of you want to grab a beer after the lunch, please take it offline after the meeting.” And end every item with summary of the outcome to make sure everyone is clear on what was agreed.
  • Keep list of Action Items – and identify who is the owner of each of them. Meeting without a list of decisions made or things to do will feel like waste of time. Even in meetings that are purely informational you can provide participants with a task (for example to distribute the information to their teams) so they don’t forget the meeting ever happened when leaving the room.
  • Follow-up – send notes outlining any important decisions made and list of action items as a reminder for participants on what needs to be done. “Team, as we agreed we meet today at 11:00 in the restaurant and will get a chicken with rice.” You may want to get feedback from participants on how to improve future meetings.

Obviously not every meeting needs to follow this outline but the standard ones focused on sharing important information and making decisions should. For those coming from software development world you may want to consider adapting a concept from SCRUM called daily stand-up meeting also to activities not directly related to writing software. In this meeting the participants meet for no more than fifteen minutes to discuss briefly the work done, the work ahead, and the obstacles to remove. Participants do it while standing to force everyone to be brief in his or her input. It is very organized and focused event. When done regularly and the right way it brings enormous value to the team without wasting too much time.

Twitter type summary: “Meeting without goal, agenda, good preparation, focus, list of action items and follow-up is called coffee break.”

How do you run your meetings? Or did you found a way to get rid of them altogether?

What’s your point?

Have it ever happened to you that you wanted to report to your boss a great achievement or wanted to present a great idea on a meeting with five other people and you somehow couldn’t get the point across? And the more you tried the more you got into the details that were hard to follow? You tried even harder and after ten minutes long speech you could see that everyone is either bored or confused and your idea didn’t generate the enthusiastic response you expected?

What went wrong? Most likely you tried too hard. You wanted to present too much too fast and by doing it you overloaded your audience with facts, numbers and details they didn’t care about. You drowned the key points under an ocean of irrelevant information. And by irrelevant I mean irrelevant to that particular audience.

Let me give you an example. You are a project manager running software development project. Every week you meet with all the important stakeholders to give a status report. During the week you found out that the project will need two more weeks to complete and as a mitigation strategy you decided to shorten a testing period by a week. You are on a meeting giving your update and you start describing in detail what went wrong, why the problem occurred and the delay could be two weeks but you decided to cut some work to make it a week, you described all the options and why you picked the one in particular. After talking for fifteen minutes you finish your report and one of the stakeholders asks: “So, what does it all mean for the project?” This renders you speechless. You just explained everything, what can you say more?

And then another of the participants says: “Due to underestimating a particular feature we have introduced two weeks delay into the project. As mitigation we will be shortening the test period while keeping the quality. We will still have a week delay from the original plan, something our customers are fine with.” In thirty seconds he described something what took you fifteen minutes and the message was understood by everyone around the table. All the other information you provided were simply not relevant to this audience and were causing more harm than good.

So what can you do to break this habit of over-explaining?

  • Be prepared – have your facts together just in case someone asks, but don’t unnecessarily present all the details when no one cares
  • Keep it simple – understand what is the key message you want to give your audience and put it into couple of bullet points, or simple sentences
  • Don’t answer questions before they are asked – don’t try to guess what questions the audience might have and don’t try to answer them all at the beginning. Just wait for people to ask what really interests them.
  • Don’t justify your decision if no one is questioning them – why to spend five minutes talking about why you decided something if the other people in the room really don’t care and are curious just about the results?
  • Get confidence – how? Well, once again, be prepared. Remember the 6P rule: Perfect Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance

The best test of how good you are at getting your point across is one of the most unpopular conversations you as a manager can have – letting someone go. Over the years I’ve been managing people I had a number of conversations like this and also saw numerous people giving this unpopular message to underperforming team members. The worst one I saw took about twenty minutes and after the meeting the person being fired asked: “OK, so what can I do to improve?” He simply didn’t understand he was just fired!

And even though this is obviously a very stressful and emotional situation for both parties if you follow the rules, keep the message simple, to the point, no long explanations or justifications of the decision and you tell it with empathy and confidence you get the job done and prevent any misunderstandings.

What is your favorite situation when you got yourself into a bad spot by explaining your point in a roundabout way so no one got the message? How did you salvage it?

Asking the right question, the wrong way and at the wrong time

It happens to everyone from time to time that we ask questions we wish we haven’t or make a statement we later realize wasn’t the smartest thing to say. We regret it and we even go and apologize. We know deep inside that it simply wasn’t the right time or place to ask the question. So why are we doing this? What does it bring? What does it take away? And what can we do about it?

To take a rather simplistic view, the answer can be pretty simple in most of the cases. It is us trying to feel important, trying to contribute without having an actual useful content to convey, us being obsessed with a particular topic, us trying to show off. It is a human nature and in fact, asking questions is a very desirable behavior and as the saying goes there are no stupid questions. However, there is such a thing as asking the right question, but the wrong way and at the wrong time.

Just imagine this situation. You are a new manager on a meeting with your direct superior talking about budget needs for the next year. You don’t really understand how the process works, what is the required input, how the decision will be done. It is a totally appropriate to ask any sorts of questions to understand both the big picture and the details. Your boss is here to provide that level of detail needed for you to do a good job and he is here to explain how things work.

And now imagine asking the same sort of questions in totally different setting. You are on a meeting with several other managers and you are listening to the CEO talking about a strategy for the next five years. The budgeting topic is still on top of your mind and it is really important to you to understand it, so you ask the CEO, “and what about budget for this year?” See the difference? The CEO may answer your question in some general terms without really providing a detail answer as that is not the focus of the meeting. But even if he does, you have shown that you don’t pay attention and you may not even belong to that room. We are talking strategy here and you are asking about some tactical aspect. And if the CEO is not careful enough he may get into the details thus derailing the meeting. That way you got your answer, but you have missed an opportunity to discuss the strategy and see the big picture. And what is worse you robbed others of the opportunity too.

So how do you ensure you are asking the right questions at the right time?

  • Always focus on topic being discussed and don’t try to broaden it too much as it will dilute the original message
  • Always consider whether the question and the answer will bring something to the rest of the audience, if not, take it offline
  • Always consider whether you are asking the right person who is best suited to provide you the answer

And if you are not sure whether it is the right time to ask just say something like “Can we talk offline after the meeting? I have couple more questions about budgeting that may not be relevant to others.” That way you show that you understand the reason for the meeting, you value everyone’s time and you want to understand impact on topics important to you. It may very well happen that several participants will say “Hey, I would be interested in that too.” and it will be added to the meeting as a legitimate topic.

This being said, please, always ask as many questions as possible as that is the best way to learn 🙂