Avoiding Death By Meeting

The focus on this kind of meeting plan is on having better meetings; meetings where you actually answer the questions you need to answer and solve the problems you need to solve free from distractions and tangents.

Now that election season is here, my 40 minute commutes to and from work have an added challenge: Finding something to listen to that isn’t going to interrupt programming for non-stop political ads. For the record, I do vote. But I do my own research on the candidates and issues before casting a ballot; ads are completely useless for getting down to the truth of any candidate or position. Now that it will be non-stop political ads from now until November, I’ve upped my audiobook intake. I’ve just finished an audiobook that I really loved and that I think could help a lot of businesses and managers deal with meetings that suck.

Death By MeetingDeath By Meeting: A Leadership Fable About Solving the Most Painful Problems in Business by Patrick Lencioni attempts to tackle on the most persistent complaints in the world of business. We have all been in meetings that seem to only function as time wasters. Meetings you drag yourself to, sit in for an hour or more and walk about thinking, “I could have been so much more productive if I hadn’t gone to that meeting”. Or worse, the meetings where the topic up for discussion only becomes more obscure the longer the meeting goes on. These meetings are not only frustrating and demoralizing for staff, they are a resource suck. Think about it: How much time and money are wasted on meetings that go nowhere? Lencioni argues that this is one of the largest threats to innovation and to business in general, but it is seldom addressed because it is silent: people don’t think about how much these terrible meetings are costing them.

The lesson are conveyed through the story of Casey McDaniel, CEO of Yip Video Games, which was recently acquired by a larger company. This acquisition changes many things at Yip, including adding oversight to Casey’s performance by someone who would be more than happy to take over Yip when Casey fails. Facing mounting challenges, Casey brings in a new assistant, Will Petersen. The son of a family friend, Petersen is the first to bring out in the open how much time is wasted at their weekly meetings, and how these wasted meetings are affecting everything from innovation to productivity to staff morale and corporate culture at Yip. Will decides it’s his job to try and make the meetings better, and save Casey’s job from the machinations of an ambitious VP from their new parent company.

At first, Will attempts to address the meetings problem though many methods that are commonly taught in many MBA programs. They try putting a strict time limit on the meetings, but that does not improve their quality. Then they try to add more drama to the meetings by making Casey challenge his managers on their stances and highlight areas of disagreement so that clear and final decisions can be made. This offers some improvement, but nothing on the order of what is needed to impress the ambitious VP. Then, Will hits upon a winning formula that at first seems counter-intuitive: More meetings. But these more frequent meetings have strict boundaries and functions.

  1. Daily Check-In
    These are strictly limited to five to ten minutes in length, depending on the number of attendees. Also important: No one is allowed to sit down and get comfortable…these meetings are to be held standing up so that there is no temptation to linger. In these meetings, each attendee is given 1 minute to tell everyone else what they are working on that day and answer questions from others. The function of this meeting is to keep everyone informed about what is going on in the company, and cut down on wasted e-mails, the time spent composing them and confusion about who is doing what.
  2. Weekly Tactical
    These meetings can run anywhere from an hour to two hours, but they are limited to dealing strictly with tactical issues that need to be addressed to move the company towards its strategic goals. In these meetings, it is important to keep the topic list limited to two or three topics, although the topics discussed can (and should) change from week to week. The meeting facilitator must also be prepared to challenge attendees, highlighting areas of disagreement in order to both ensure active participation and to make sure that decisions reached are fully understood by everyone.
  3. Monthly Strategic (or Ad Hoc Strategic)
    These meetings can last several hours to even an entire day or evening if required, and are also limited to one subject, or two related subjects. These are for the strategic goal setting and to discuss more complex questions along the lines of “Should our advertising drive our change in direction, or should our change in direction drive our advertising?” These meetings can be monthly, but for smaller companies they can be called on an as-needed (Ad Hoc) basis. Topics for these meetings will generally rise out of the Weekly Tacticals.
  4. Quarterly Offsite Reviews 
    Lasting at least a day, if not a weekend, the Quarterly Offsite Reviews allow attendees to get away from the office and take in the bigger picture of the company as a whole, as well as the marketplace it operates in. These meetings aren’t about goofy trust exercises or other team-building silliness; they are about getting to know your colleagues, letting important insights naturally rise to the surface and gaining perspective on the external challenges the business faces.

The focus on this kind of meeting plan is on having better meetings; meetings where you actually answer the questions you need to answer and solve the problems you need to solve free from distractions and tangents. As Lencioni points out, this can have a positive impact on company culture, as companies where executives seem directionless and clueless often coincide with employees who are anxious, burned out, frustrated and less engaged than they otherwise would be.

It’s a great book that any manager or meeting facilitator ignores at their peril!

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