The Art of Meeting Effectively

Chicago is in the throws of Spring, which means longer days and warmer weather (by historical average, at least).  It also means we find ourselves getting a bit more antsy toward the end of each sunny business day.  The better weather is enticing us to get home and enjoy a sun-lit evening.  If you are experiencing this correlation between being decreasingly willing to stay in the office past 6:00pm as the average temperature and duration of evening sun light increase, have you considered how well you are doing with your daily schedule in the office?

More specifically, how efficient are you with your meeting time throughout your business day?  On average American business people spend 59% of their work days in meetings.  That works out to be about 1,180 hours a year, or just about 148 business days, which is also well more than five months of your life each year.

MeetingsInterestingly, meetings tend to be one of the most complained-about aspects of our daily business lives, but also a "fact of life" that most people have resigned themselves to just tolerate and try to muscle through.  The reality is that business meetings are vitally important to a successful enterprise, of any kind.  But, most companies do not proactively work to drive good meeting behavior and demonstrate how to efficiently use meeting time.

With a surprisingly enormous body of research available on meetings (26,000 titles on meeting management available on Amazon.com) and the ubiquitous "how to manage meetings" PowerPoint deck on most corporate intranets, how is it we are collectively so lousy at meeting effectively?  There are two important considerations.  First, meetings are an organizational experience and require all of the participants to engage in the right behaviors.  As with so many other group efforts driven by collective human behavior, we tend to slide toward the lowest common denominator.  Second, meeting management "guides" (whether something for dummies, or that official corporate meeting policy) tend not to do a great job of helping the typical meeting-goer to translate from textbook theory to "meeting hell" reality.

The first real step toward meeting more effectively is to zoom out on the subject and understand why we are in meetings in the first place.  Only then can we tinker with things like roles, behaviors, and atmospherics.  Consider this from management expert Peter Drucker:  “We meet because people holding different jobs have to cooperate to get a specific task done.  We meet because the knowledge and experience needed in a specific situation are not available in one head, but have to be pieced together out of the knowledge and experience of several people.”

In other words, companies are run by people with different expertise and viewpoints that must come together to inform, plan, coordinate, and decide.  Effective meetings enable collaborative and productive engagements that move the business forward.

Meetings should be enabling forums that help to drive the business.  That very likely does not describe the last meeting you sat in (or are sitting in right now, reading this, ahem!).  But, with an understanding of the more noble purpose and necessity for business meetings, we next need to know how then to actually set up a meeting for success.  Recently I put together an overview presentation on meeting effectively (available here).  It touched on a number of important aspects to meetings, such as understanding the stages of a business meeting, the roles involved, behaviors (good and bad), along with a few meeting management techniques.

At the core of my presentation, and meeting effectively, is the awareness that there are only four purposes for any business meeting (see slide 5).  If you understand those four purposes, and conduct or participate in your meeting according to only one purpose at a time, you will find you spend your meeting time significantly more effectively and with greater clarity on the business issue at hand.  All the other aspects of meeting management build upon driving a meeting based on a single purpose.  The four guiding purposes of a business meeting are:

Learn/Brainstorm—with the goal of evaluating

  • Exploratory
  • Fully open and collaborative
  • Learning session
  • Development of ideas or issues

Inform/Explain—with the goal of understanding

  • Primarily one-way informational
  • To present an update or result
  • Explanatory and informative
  • Focus on a specific issue or decision

Discuss/Engage—with the goal of agreeing

  • Discuss and understand viewpoints
  • Mostly known topics
  • Refinement of idea, plan, or issue
  • Defined points of discussion

Decide/Conclude—with the goal of committing

  • Specific and defined with an agenda
  • No new inputs
  • Plot course of action
  • Commitment made (Go/No-Go, Yes/No, etc.)

Purpose for MeetingsDefining these purposes is intended to provide a simple way to frame up a meeting at the outset to be productive and reach a basic objective.  Every meeting should be set up with one of the high-level purposes and driven to reach that single goal.  The purpose of the meeting must be communicated in advance to all of the participants in order to properly set expectations of and for the participants.

Use this guide to set out your meeting's high-level purpose and monitor your time in order to achieve the goal of the meeting.  Close out each meeting with a quick recap and clearly-stated next steps.  This is an effective and straight-forward starting place for more effective meetings.  It requires very little up-front behavior modification.  Once you start to see some positive results, as you reign in that 59% of your work day, your colleagues will be more apt to dive a little deeper on the other techniques for meeting effectively.

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