Toshihiro Oimatsu

Smart people endure boring meetings. Why?

We’d all love to ban boring meetings. Too many organisations keep sit-down hour-long meetings at the heart of how they do business: it’s the key channel for knowing what goes on. And yet, what most of us know from our own experience, most sit-down hour-long meetings don’t have much heart.

I have recently worked with executive teams where there is a distinct lack of appetite for meetings. Everyone agrees that team meetings are pretty boring, and some feel they are a complete waste of time. Team meetings lack compelling agendas and the most important and difficult issues that the organization faces are not on the table to be addressed.

The teams are characterized by a low level of trust, and, consistent with Lencioni’s team model, this means that the foundation for effectively discussing the tougher, meaningful issues is absent. In two teams, this means that they engage in polite but tangential discussion giving the appearance of harmony, while in the others, the behaviour is more destructive, with time-wasting petty bickering and lack of agreement frequent.

Here are my five ways to make meetings more dynamic and interesting, and get work done.

1. Prepare Well

Be well prepared – Sound obvious, but ….. with many competing commitments, it’s easy to just turn up for meetings. However, as much time needs to be spent preparing for and taking action after meetings, so make sure you do the prep. If you’re just turning up, there’s something wrong going on.

  • What’s the meeting’s purpose, is there a compelling agenda that is worth the time of all the talent in the room?
  • Is there an alternate way that issues could be resolved? Use that instead.
  • What’s the agenda? Let people know what and how they are expected to contribute during the meeting. What does everyone need to know in advance in order to sensibly contribute during the meeting?
  • Who’s required for the meeting? Is it critical that everyone is here? Can everyone make a full and frank contribution to the items on the agenda?

2. Fit to Purpose

Having set the meeting agenda and prepared advance papers, what kind of meeting is required? And how long will it take? Ken Norton’s recent blog “Meeting that don’t suck” is a great resource. Ken headed up Google Calendar, so he probably knows a thing or too about meetings.

Meetings should take only as long as they need, try walking meeting instead of sitting meetings when only two or three people are involved, and choose the location to fit the topic.

3. Manage the Conversation

Once the right people are in the room, how do you manage divergent perspectives, styles and needs to achieve a valuable outcome? Here are some conversational tactics that might help:

  • Take the role of chair seriously, even if it’s shared across all group members. Keep the conversation focused, open up to options, and work to resolution.
  • Ensure turn taking, that is, everyone gets the opportunity to contribute their ideas and perspectives. It’s a key part of collective intelligence, and might happen naturally, but then again, might need some help.
  • Encourage empathy and the ability of team members to tune in to others’ perspectives and pay respectful attention. Eye contact is good.
  • Cultivate a culture where difficult conversations aren’t so hard – that’s the title of a great, short blog by Jim Whitehurst, that emphasizes showing appreciation, opening up and being inclusive as key to designing such a culture. Make sure there’s the right culture to allow you to have the tougher conversations and get to the heart of challenges.
  • Call-out dominance and power-plays that serve narrow interests.

4. Self-manage

Manage your own engagement wisely:

  • Rely on your executive presence – come in to meetings expecting to contribute value.
  • Stay mindful – project a relaxed, calm demeanour; keep your conversation focused and to the point.
  • Be sincere, the heart of trust.

5. Act!

No point having the meeting if things don’t get done, right?

  • Make sure that actions are recorded.
  • Make commitments transparent.
  • Agree on how actions will be communicated to others and who takes that responsibility.
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