When everything’s said and done, there’s usually more said than done.
As most anyone involved in business, academe, politics, religion, or any number of other endeavors can attest, that truism applies especially to meetings.
Meetings can be a mind-numbing squandering of time, money, patience, and other finite resources. But they needn’t and shouldn’t be. In his new book Meetings Matter, Paul Axtell shows how thoughtful, respectful, and focused conversation is the key to effective meetings. What’s more, he provides lots of specific strategies and tactics. Adopt the practices suggested here and the meetings you attend will never be fruitless again. The bonus? You and your colleagues will be more engaged than ever in producing great results.”
Test drive some of his ideas yourself. Use them faithfully, and you can transform your meetings into smooth-running, collaborative sessions that produce the high impact results you really want.
Rodger Dean Duncan: Most people seem to have a negative mindset about meetings. What impact does this perspective have on meeting effectiveness? Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Paul Axtell: Absolutely, we get what we expect. Too many organizations contain a host of complaints about meetings that lead to reduced expectations and then reduced accomplishment. Bright, talented people have slipped into a “going through the motions” or “doing enough to get by” mindset about meetings. This is actually good news for those who acknowledge it and get to work on changing it. Even if an organization is being successful without the full leverage of powerful, effective meetings, turning that around provides a huge upside—and a competitive edge because almost every organization is in the same rut.
Duncan: Because effective conversation is the “operating system” of a productive meeting, what advice can you offer for making sure the conversations produce good results?
Axtell: An effective conversation has four elements: clarity, candor, commitment, and completion. Each is important in its own way, but when they are all present, it allows for the back and forth conversation necessary for everyone to walk away with the same, clear understanding.
Let’s look at each individually:
• Clarity means everyone understands what is being said in the same way.
• Candor means everyone says what they think and is authentic, honest, and straightforward.
• Commitment means you all agree on who will take what actions in what time frame after the conversation.
• Completion means everything that needs to be said or asked has been expressed before moving on to the next topic.
In addition, it’s imperative at the start of the meeting to be clear about the outcomes for each topic on the agenda and to have set aside enough time to reach those outcomes. If you can do this, and stay on track, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much you accomplish—and in record time.
Duncan: What are some proven ways to ensure that participants have an appropriate voice in a meeting?
Axtell: Again, it’s incredibly important to be as clear and direct as possible. In the setup to the meeting, remind participants that your intention is to have a back-and-forth discussion and that you expect their participation.
Let participants know what kind of input you are requesting for each topic and set aside enough time so that no one feels rushed by the agenda.
I also recommend you call on people “strategically and gently” to get the participation levels desired. Maintain your awareness for people who have not yet spoken and invite them to join the conversation. People have valuable input, if you give them a chance to voice it.
Duncan: You say that an important key to good meetings is to talk about the right things and talk about fewer things. Give us an example of how that filter can be used to create a good meeting.
Axtell: When it comes to meetings, it’s so easy to get pulled into short-term problem solving or low-level distractions rather than spending the time to go deeper into topics that have long-term leverage. You slip into a pattern of going lightly over ten to twelve agenda items rather than doing meaningful work on a few.
It doesn’t help to work on improving your meetings if you are talking about the wrong things.
Here are a few examples of what I believe do merit time on the agenda:
Discussing progress on the team’s most critical goals and initiatives should be first choice, especially if progress is in jeopardy.
Providing input to the manager or colleagues who have a significant issue and have asked for suggestions is another area where the experience of the group can add value to individual members, particularly those soliciting ideas.
Taking on strategic topics such as talent reviews, organizational restructuring, or hiring decisions keeps the organization positioned for the future.
Don’t just meet because you’re a group and you’ve “always had a weekly staff meeting.” Ask this question: In your regular meetings, are you honoring the time of group members by discussing things that matter?
Duncan: What opportunities do good meetings offer for enhancing engagement throughout an entire organization?
Axtell: On a big picture level, it’s impossible to have an effective organization when you don’t have employee engagement and alignment. We’ve seen survey after survey validating this point.
In my opinion, this is because most employees don’t feel as though they have a relationship or connection with their supervisor or the organization itself. Or they don’t feel they have much of a say in how things work.
The good news? Each and every meeting is an opportunity to change this. Every time you ask for input. Every time you listen attentively. Every time you work with someone’s idea or question, you change this sense of being on the outside—of not being valued or engaged. Every hallway conversation, regular meeting, or quarterly Q&A session is a chance to reset this vital piece of the organizational culture.