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Teams that Rock Hold Meetings that Work

(posted: September 24th, 2018)

Meetings! They're the bane of our existence. They get in the way of getting "real" work done. They go on too long. There are too many of them. Sometimes they work, but more often than not meetings are ineffective and seem like a waste of time.

But meetings don't have to strike fear into the hearts of employees everywhere. In fact, great teams embrace meetings and turn them into time well-spent, and you can too.

Here I'll share some tips and techniques I've gathered from years of working with teams of all sizes that you can use to make your meetings productive and worthwhile, and contribute to the success of your organization.

Most of these are tactics you can implement now to see results fairly quickly. A few are strategies that will take some time and commitment, but the end results are worth it.

High-Performing Teams

Teams that are highly functional use meetings to increase their collaboration and productivity. These teams have developed their skills in trust, conflict, commitment, accountability and results, so they are able to be frank and open in their meetings, and they understand how to work with each other to get things done. One of my favorite tools for helping teams improve their health and effectiveness is the DiSC-based 5 Behaviors of a Cohesive Team program, as it gives the team a framework for their efforts.

So, what if your team is working on these issues, but is not quite where it needs to be in order to have meetings that work? That's where the following tips and suggestions can help. Choose the ones that make sense for your team structure or that fit with your culture, or experiment with one or two at a time.

Tips for Meetings That Don't Suck

Before the Meeting

  • Stop and think. Don't assume that you must have a meeting! Before you schedule one, ask, "Does this really require a meeting?" Information that simply needs to get to peple can often be sent out via email or the team Slack channel, or other internal distribution method.
  • Ask for input. OK, you've decided that you do need to meet. Before you create the agenda, ask the attendees what they need to discuss. If you know you'll need to keep some people reigned in, ask them to list their topics in order of importance, and let everyone know that not every topic can be wedged into one meeting.
  • GAP Agenda. When you send out the regular meeting agenda, also include a GAP (Goal, Agenda, and Preparation) agenda. What is the overall Goal for the meeting? If you have trouble defining that, reconsider holding the meeting (see: "Stop and think", above). Agenda, you've got that covered, and finally, what Preparation will help make the meeting successful? Do attendees need to review anything ahead of time? Do they need to bring information or statistics? Preparation by all attendees will help streamline the meeting.
  • Different goals, different meetings. In Lencioni's book, Death by Meeting, he suggests holding different meetings for different types of information. Examples include: lightning round, weekly tactical, monthly strategic, and quarterly offsite.
  • Use a Meeting Leader. To help keep the meeting on track and off tangents, assign a leader. Make it clear to all that this person will be actively keeping the meeting headed in the right direction. In the beginning you'll want someone who is able to be tactful, yet persistent, who can stop the blowhard or the rambler before they get too far and ensure that the quieter members get the floor too. Let them know what you expect of them, and don't assign the role to the most domineering team member.

During the Meeting

  • Open with Some Ground Rules. Don't lay out too many, and keep them fairly broad. As you start to implement your new tactics, the first "rule" may be to let everyone know that there will be a meeting leader from now on, and today it's Emily. As the leader of the team, you should let people know that you want full participation and everyone's input on each topic, and that you expect them to pay attention (see the next tip). This would be the time to ask for devices to be put away.
  • Pay Attention. Seems obvious, right? But often people are distracted. Make a conscious choice to pay attention to each person, allowing them to complete their thoughts. Between you setting an example, and the Meeting Leader keeping people in line, you should find that others start to pay attention more genuinely. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, this can shorten meetings, because people actually feel that they've been heard a lot faster when everyone is paying attention.
  • Your biggest challenge? A technique I like to use in shorter, time-limited meetings is to ask everyone at the start, before getting to the agenda items, "Right now, what is your number one priority?" Or, alternatively, "What is your biggest challenge?" This really focuses people for the meeting.
  • Practice connection. Meetings can give teams a ready-made opportunity to learn more about each other, which helps them build trust on the way to becoming a truly great team. A version of this is called "Connection before Content" in which the leader poses a question at the start of the meeting designed to get people being open and vulnerable. For example, "What are your doubts about something you're working on?" For teams who don't know each other well, and are still building trust, other questions to use might be more personal, like, "What was your first job? What was your worst job?"
  • ELMO. This is a tactic I use in meetings, workshops, and retreats, because it allows people to feel they have some control. ELMO stands for Enough, Let's Move On, and in my sessions anyone can invoke ELMO.
  • End with a wrap up. Take the last five or ten minutes of the meeting and recap. What was decided, what actions will be taken, who has responsibility for what, any next steps, and what everyone will pass on to their direct reports. This way, team members leave the meeting on the same page.

After the Meeting

  • Address any problem people. Since this is new to everyone, you may find that there are still people who try to dominate your meetings. Pull them aside right after the meeting and let them know. Or, those who were still reticent and unwilling to share their ideas or opinions, let them know that you will be inviting them into the conversation next time.
  • Send a recap. Write up a brief recap, or have the Meeting Leader do it. In addition, I like to make sure the team documents the commitments that each agreed to, who is accountable for each item, and the date that they will have it completed. This is a great way to get people to hold themselves accountable, and you don't have to guess, or play cop to make sure tasks get done.

You'll never eliminate meeting grumbling entirely, but you can reduce it, using some combination of the tactics above. And for teams that are willing to do the work to become truly great, I recommend the Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team. This will not only help you rock your meetings, but your results, too!

Challenge Yourself
  • Which of these techniques are you excited to try?
  • Have you tried tactics to improve your meetings that have failed? Why do you think they didn't work?
  • What other techniques have you found that work well to make your meetings effective?

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