The following is a guest piece by Jack Zenger and Joesph Folkman.
It is estimated that 15% to 28% of every manager’s workweek is spent in meetings. One of the most frequent written complaints people make about their bosses is the quality of their meetings.
Complaints range from meetings with no agenda, lack of clear purpose for each agenda topic, no advance information nor background materials, lack of making a decision, absence of any follow-through and the plodding, snail’s pace of the meeting.
A leader with accelerated speed and pace greatly increases the likelihood of a productive meeting. Our research on productivity improvement shows high correlation of improved productivity with the efficiency and effectiveness of meetings.
How to Accelerate Meetings
Time spent in preparing an agenda produces huge payoffs. We’ve seen some leaders who have the same fixed agenda month after month. Team members settle in for the same topics being discussed over and over.
Other leaders solicit agenda items from everyone. They circulate draft agendas and seek comments on whether these are the really important issues the group needs to address. This sends the signal that the leader cares about the content. Put the most important agenda items first so that if time runs short, you will have covered the important topics.
2. Clarity of purpose for each topic
Some agenda items may be for information. Hopefully those will be minimal because a meeting is not the most efficient way to simply convey knowledge. Is the item there to collect opinions? If it requires a decision, then label it such. Nothing makes participants feel better than to see every meeting produce a group of clear decisions.
3. Suggested times for each topic
It helps to set a general expectation, but the danger is that if you set a time it will nearly always take that much or longer to complete. We think it best for the leader to have an estimated time and to keep the pace brisk.
4. Leader manages the process
Every meeting has two things happening simultaneously. There’s the content of the meeting, the information, the debate, the hammering out of different points of view.
Secondly, there is the process of the meeting. Are we on topic? Have we heard from all the people who possess important information? Have all sides of the issue been heard? Is the meeting moving at a good pace or are team members looking at their phones—or out the window? The leader needs to manage both content and process.
A helpful technique is for the leader to periodically summarize where the group is on a topic, (or ask one of the participants to do it) and then determining if everyone is in agreement with that summary.
5. Use idea building methods
Various techniques ranging from traditional brainstorming to asking each participant for the strategy they would use if they chose to be a new competitor in your industry can be helpful in opening the valve on new ideas.
6. Clarify decision-making
It helps if everyone knows for each item how a decision will be made. Sometimes the leader is seeking opinions but will personally make the decision. Sometimes it warrants a democratic vote. It helps when people understand the ground rules.
7. Contain conflicts
One purpose of a meeting is to bring differing viewpoints to bear on topics of importance. In that process, however, conflicts can emerge. Left unmanaged the meeting can move from being largely substantive to becoming emotional and personal.
Effective leaders encourage ideas to be presented without the labels of “Bill’s idea” or “Mary’s plan.” The effective leader encourages everyone to practice inquiry and to minimize advocacy.
Probing for the assumptions that undergird a person’s point of view usually helps to resolve conflicting viewpoints. Conflicts that are personal and emotional suck up valuable time that can better be spent on substantive discussion.
8. Maintain energy
Nowhere is the presence of absence of energy more visible and palpable than in the meetings that a leader conducts. The objective is to have extremely effective meetings in which decisions are made.
Given that typical managers are spending roughly 15% of their time in meetings, the effective management of meetings is obviously a powerful way to have greater overall speed.
9. Keep Action Minutes
Avoid minutes that include things like “Bill said………….” or, “the new facility was discussed.”
Instead, record decisions that were made and specific actions that need to be taken. These notes should obviously indicate who needs to take the action, and when it was targeted for completion. Circulate minutes quickly after the meeting is completed while the meeting is fresh on everyone’s mind. Ask participants to send any corrections to the person who created the minutes.
10. Meeting evaluations
At the end of every meeting ask the group what could have been done to have the meeting be more productive and efficient. If the question is genuinely asked, not for the purposes of getting compliments or praise, but obviously seeking ways to improve, people are more likely to speak up and offer concrete suggestions.
Managing Culture Via Meetings
Meetings are an expression of the culture and they also help create the culture. We surveyed 1000 participants from several organizations, seeking for the elements that made their meetings succeed or fail. We factor analyzed their responses. They observed:
1. Pick up the pace
Meetings are a microcosm of the way the company functions. When planning is not done, then work moves along much slower. The best teams keep busywork to a minimum. The number one factor for the leader is to keep focused on the process of the team meeting and maintain a quick pace.
2. Monitor meeting behavior
Have you ever been in a meeting where the behavior of one or two people makes it impossible to have a productive meeting? Bad behavior by one team member can encourage and reinforce bad behavior by others.
Team leaders need to take the responsibility of providing feedback to team members on behaviors that make meeting more successful and behaviors that hurt. It can be difficult to give individual feedback in middle of a meeting. If someone acts up, take a break and talk to that person privately.
3. Insure Involvement
Intuitively, most people believe that the best way to have a shorter meeting is to reduce involvement, based on the assumption that it takes more time. One of the cultural characteristics about Japanese companies is that decisions in that culture often take much more time.
A Japanese client of our firm recently took 7 months to make a decision that Western organizations would typically make in one week. Facilitating the process was agonizing, but when complete everyone was committed to the decision and the rollout went quickly and flawlessly.
4. Make Decisions
A key to productive meeting is that decisions get made. No meeting is productive when people leave a meeting where a necessary decision is not made or partially dangling.
One helpful step in getting decisions made is to clarify who in the room is responsible for implementing this decision. One frequently mentioned litmus test of a good meeting was simply how many concrete decisions were made.
5. Limit the attendees
Every additional person adds cost and complexity. In large meetings, people are more easily bored. They are less likely to make important contributions. Airtime in every conversation is compressed. Could every attendee provide a convincing reply if asked, “Why are you here?”
6. Positive Atmosphere
Have you ever been part of a team where being there was a privilege and you enjoyed nearly every minute? A team that had fun. We think another rather accurate litmus test for effective team teams and team meetings is the presence of periodic bursts of laughter. Productive meetings occur in teams with esprit de corps.
Think of the impact in your organization if every meeting were 15 minutes shorter and was run more efficiently. Having the ability to move meetings along quickly, controlling side conversations, taking issues that need more discussion off-line and getting important decisions made will have a profound impact.
When you are in charge of a meeting think of this in the same way as if you were driving down the freeway. To be safe you need to pay attention, you need to adjust quickly to changing circumstances and you need to get to your destination on time.
Some leaders approach chairing meetings as if they were in a limousine, sitting back and letting someone else do the driving. You are the driver. If you increase the pace of meeting your team will sincerely appreciate your efforts and recognize your accomplishments.
This blog is adapted from Chapter 7 of “Speed: How Leaders Accelerate Successful Execution” by John Zenger and Joseph Folkman.
John H. “Jack” Zenger is a bestselling author, speaker, and a national columnist for Forbes and Harvard Business Review. He is also the Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Zenger Folkman, a professional services firm providing consulting and leadership development programs for organizational effectiveness initiatives.
Joesph Folkman is co-founder and President of Zenger Folkman. Joe’s research has been published in several publications including The Harvard Business Review, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal’s National Business Employment Weekly, Training and Development Magazine, and Talent Quarterly.
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