When I am going around the world being a meeting doctor, I will often ask bad meeting sufferers to complete the following sentences
“My meetings are…” and, “My meetings should be…”
The answers read like a textbook list of common meeting complaints (irrelevant, too long, too many, too little preparation, low value,) and an equally complete checklist of remedies. Very often participants know exactly what is wrong with their meeting and what to do about it. But meetings don’t improve. Knowledge clearly isn’t the problem.
So what’s going on?
The dangers of changing meetings
From my experience working with corporate clients, I’d say self-preservation is a key factor. People are scared they might save the meeting but lose their job.
Oh, it all seems easy enough in the safety of the training room. But in practise, out there on the front line of day-to-day business, challenging a more senior colleague to stop waffling or to turn up on time or turn off their email, can mean putting your job on the line. The corporate equivalent of telling a new partner they have bad breath or they’ve tucked their skirt into their tights.
When you mess with people’s meeting habits you are stepping into a minefield that’s got more unexploded bombs than the Hurt Locker.
Bad meetings are symptoms
I often think of meetings as the “acupressure points of business”. You press hard on the meeting and somewhere else the business yelps in pain. Meetings are seldom the problem, they are symptoms of the problem.
An indecisive meeting is usually the sign of an indecisive business. Maybe mistakes are punished, or the CEO is a control-freak. Or maybe consensus is king. I love the fact that meetings are fractals in this way. They’re such an elegant non-invasive way to assess an organisation’s general health and fitness. But once you know the system is all connected, you can understand why people are reluctant to start tinkering with a part of it.
Not ‘What’ to change but ‘How’ to change
“So, what do we do to change our meetings?” clients ask me around the world. It’s a good question but only a partial one. Knowing WHAT to do is essential. But not sufficient.
How you set about changing your meetings is equally, if not more important. This will dictate whether the culture absorbs or rejects the new rituals, also whether your campaign gains momentum or runs out of steam.
Here are some of my favourite ‘hows’.
1. Stop Talking about Meetings
Stop talking about meetings. First, the word is a real turn off. People’s eyes have rolled back in their head before you have finished your first sentence.
It’s easy to marginalise ‘meetings’ as a low value business issue, when actually they’re central.
In this post-industrial age of ours meetings are a vital part of how we build relationships, solve problems and generate value. Or they should be.
People who complain to me that ‘meetings are getting in the way of my work’ are missing the point. Meetings ARE your work and it’s time to do them better.
So, step one, stop talking about meetings and instead have a conversation about ‘how we work together’. How we meet is truly how we work.
2. Pick Your Battles
I see people leave our sessions (where we train people in the art of meetings) with piles of post its and notes. You know the ones that say, “I am really going to DO this. All of it.”
They try to change everything at once and within days they are deflated, distracted, defeated.
What I suggest instead is that people take out their diaries – go on, do it now – and circle one meeting in the next month which is a ‘high stakes’ event, that is, one where a real improvement will generate significant value and get people talking.
Concentrate on that.
And when it goes well let others ask you what you did differently. Much better if they are pulling information out of you, rather than you trying to push it into them.
3. Every meeting is Your Meeting
We all know the cautionary tale where a ten year old child is the only one brave enough to point out that the Emperor has No Clothes! Well, when it comes to meeting I want you to think you are that child.
I work at all levels of an organisation and everyone I talk to admits that meetings aren’t working. Yet, no-one does anything about it in the meetings themselves. It’s like walking round a heart attack victim on a city street. Everyone thinks it is someone else’s responsibility. It isn’t.
If you are in a meeting you are choosing to invest your time in that meeting. You may feel you are forced to be there or can’t say no. But, if you examine your inner workings you will see, you are in fact choosing to be there, choosing to spend your time there. And as an investor you have a duty to protect the value of your investment. That means speaking up if it’s being wasted. Even if it’s “an Emperor” doing the wasting.
Yes, how you ‘speak up’ is key – especially when senior folk are involved. But choose your words and your moment well and the most junior person can shift a whole organisation. I’ve seen it happen.
4. Air Cover
Sorry for the continuing military references in this blog. It’s probably because I have just seen the rather excellent military thriller Zero Dark Thirty. But also, in reality, a meeting change campaign needs to be approached a bit like a co-ordinated attack on the forces of Boredom, Waste and Outdated Convention.
Before I get involved in any program like that I make sure the leader (and extended leadership) give their team an explicit Licence to Operate. This includes providing active protection from reprimand (or worse) if someone causes upset to colleagues. It’s going to happen.
Change is upsetting. It never ceases to amaze me how hard people hold on to the mediocre (including meetings) when you threaten to improve them.
5. Give Up Sugar
Not literally, but remember the story about the father who brought his overweight son to see Ghandi hoping the Great Man would tell him to stop eating sugar. “Come back in three weeks” said Ghandi, which the father did and three weeks later Ghandi duly told the boy “stop eating sugar”. Puzzled, the father asked Ghandi why he couldn’t have said that three weeks ago. “Because three weeks ago”, answered Ghandi, “I was eating sugar too”.
Which is a roundabout way to reminding us that people follow examples not posters. They will be inspired to change by what they see us do, not by what we say.
Don’t preach about new meeting habits until you have kicked the old ones yourself.
All the Best,
PS I am acutely conscious about the length of this blog and don’t want – like a bad meeting – to go on too long, but I can’t help offering another piece of counsel for anyone who wants to shift a meeting culture.
It’s one word – mischief. Meetings are a serious problem. If you want to see just how serious, you can check here (http://www.willtherebedonuts.com/count-the-cost-of-bad-meetings).
But you aren’t going to help matters by getting serious about them. The harder you push on conventions, the harder they’ll push back. You need to be crafty, playful. My book is full of suggestions about how to do this but, perhaps a couple of examples will suffice.
- If a meeting is dull, make it purposely duller. Use more impenetrable powerpoint slides. Deliberately slow things down and allow conversations to go nowhere. Do this until the most unaware person in the meeting begs for mercy. Now you can start to make changes
- One management board I work with keeps a stock of empty water bottles to throw at anyone who is caught looking at their laptop or blackberry. It makes meetings very lively
- And finally, you can do as one client did and publicly saw up and then burn the board room table! Let people know the meeting revolution has begun…