What Leaders Know: Focus Meetings on the Future
Why would a company that focuses on developing leaders be interested in such a mundane subject as meetings? The answer is pretty straightforward. Leaders know that meetings which do not inspire focused participation soon lead to apathy. And apathy in any form is one of the surest ways to kill a change initiative.
We all know the drudgery of poorly planned or badly managed meetings. Unfortunately for too many of us, the gap between the most awful experience we ever endured and this morning's staff (or sales, or project status, or planning) meeting is not that wide. I have seen organizations practically reinvent themselves by making a basic, yet critical change in how they handle meetings. Best of all, the secret is fairly simple. Ready?
The secret is: Focus your meetings only on the future. Period.
Radical, right? Think about it. Status meetings, sales pipeline meetings, staff meetings are almost entirely focused on the past. They are reviews of what has already happened or linear reports of activities and status from a previous reporting period. There was a time when meetings like this were necessary and appropriate. But, that time ended with the advent of digital reporting and process management systems. No matter what your area of endeavor, there are systems that can store, track and report against progress, changes and developments. A little commentary on the top and, voila! Everyone who has access or can receive and email or even written report can get caught up on what has happened (or not) before the meeting. That leaves meeting participants free to focus on the implications, course adjustments, plans and agreements needed to take the endeavor forward.
In other words, the meeting becomes a useful way to spend the time because the agenda requires interaction and discussion- even negotiation and spirited debate among the participants. Focusing meetings on the future is a powerful yet simple way to ensure that they are a worthwhile use of time. There are other practical things that companies with well developed collaborative processes do to leverage meeting time.
Put a Premium Value on Meetings
An organization that puts a premium on the use of meeting time will generally insist that a certain minimum level of rigor be applied to meetings. That means that they start and end meetings on time, publish a pre-work package and expect that everyone will read it before the meeting begins. Often, depending on the scope of the meeting, it means engaging a professional facilitator to design and facilitate the meeting. I can remember one of my early planning meetings at a Fortune 500 company. When an SVP who was one of the sponsoring committee arrived 20 minutes late, he was very surprised that the meeting had started without him and that decisions had already been made. Word got around quickly. Not only was no one late for our group meetings, but the SVP adopted a similar rigor for his own meetings and the change quickly began to expand accross the organization.
Meetings as Coaching Opportunities
One regular ritual in companies of all sizes is the sales meeting. I am not talking about the large orchestrated event, but the weekly pipeline meeting in which members of the sales organization, usually by region, get on the phone with a front line sales manager and regurgitate their pipeline status together. It is appalling to me to see this deadening waste of selling resource. And yet it is a common event even in firms with automated opportunity management and contact management systems. Want to make this meeting worthwhile? Skip the review of what is reportable off line and use the time for strategizing and coaching. Focus the discussion not on what happened last week, but on what can be done to further the opportunity this week! Talk about sales and account management issues common to the entire group and use what should have already been reported in the pipeline to base the discussions on a real opportunity instead of theoretical training. Use the minds and experience of the call participants to help solve challenges in a particular account, create a learning opportunity and work as a team to look for answers.
Any facilitator worth their colored markers and chart paper will insist on the clear definition of desired outcomes from the meeting sponsor so that the meeting design can create those outcomes. Here is one last tip for effective meetings. Think of a meeting like a change project in itself. If you cannot articulate 3 or 4 clear outcomes that have value and measurability which would be fulfilled by the meeting group- then perhaps you do not need to have the meeting.
If you need anything more to help you consider meetings as important functions of leadership, just imagine the change in productivity and focus on results that your organization would see if each and every meeting was considered by the attendees to be the highest and best use of their time.