Meetings might well be the single biggest time-sink in any medium to large size organisation, with the possible exception of email.
There have been times in my career – especially in times of crisis/semi-crisis or when deadlines are looming – that I have literally reached a Friday afternoon and realised that I feel like I have done nothing all week except go from meeting to meeting. It doesn’t feel productive, it doesn’t feel engaging, it certainly doesn’t feel inspiring or exciting.
And if this is how I feel, as a fairly extroverted people leader, I hate to think how people in analytical roles that require deep work must feel.
But this is precisely what makes the ubiquitous meeting the perfect opportunity to practice your deliberate leadership.
So put your leadership money where you management mouth is!
As a leader you are in a unique position to influence meetings for the better. In this post, I’ll show you how.
Mindful Meetings Tip #1: Think deeply about why…
Before you even open that calendar, stop and ask what is the purpose of this meeting. Write it down and be very specific about it. Not just a subject, or a theme, or an overall project name – but very specifically: what is the exact explicit purpose of the meeting?
A typical meeting might be: “To Agree Project Deliverables”.
A mindful meeting would be: “To share draft project deliverables with relevant contributors and influencers, provide them with the opportunity to raise concerns or possible obstacles, to collaborate on finding solutions to those issues, and to incorporate these into the final project deliverables, because without their endorsement of and support for the proposed approach, the project will not be able to succeed.”
This first tip is important for two reasons:
- It provides you with lots of useful insights to assist you to make the meeting more effective, for everyone attending (see Tips #2 – #10) and
- If you can’t do this – you don’t need a meeting. Everyone wins!
Mindful Meetings Tip #2: Who cares?…
You’ve figured out you need a meeting, so who needs to be there?
There are two main reasons to invite someone to a meeting – both equally important:
- Those who will make a valuable contribution to the purpose of the meeting
- Those who could derail your project/task/objective if you don’t invite them
If you only invite those who meet the first criteria, you will have a very effective meeting with great contributions, but is easily derailed by someone who is annoyed they weren’t invited.
If you only invite those who could derail your project due to non-attendance, you’ll obtain nothing of value and they will probably derail your project anyway, because you wasted their time by inviting them to a pointless meeting!
Mindful Meetings Tip #3: Choose when wisely…
Now that you know you need a meeting, and you have an invite list, pay attention to when you have the meeting. Too often, the ‘next available free’ tool on Outlook (or equivalent) is the key driver of when a meeting will occur. This is not a good basis to choose a time for an important meeting!
‘When’ matters in three different ways.
- Think about when in the overall project timeframe the meeting is needed
- Think about what time of day and what day of the week you should have the meeting
- Think about how long it needs to be to achieve the objectives
In our example above, if you are genuine about wanting input and engagement, leaving the meeting until the day before the plan goes to the Board is not going to create the right conditions for a successful meeting. You will be stressed about which suggestions/issues create the most work, you will be worried about whether you can make all the changes in time, and perhaps worst of all, your meeting attendees will feel like you didn’t really want their input.
Time of day matters. Most people aren’t great at creating new ideas and innovations late in the afternoon. Different days of the week have different energy and focus too.
Duration matters. Too long and you waste people’s time – meetings don’t tend to finish early. Too short and you don’t get the job done. Don’t be driven by your Calendar’s preferences for time allocation – if it needs to start at 10.07 and finish at 10.53 – do that!
So schedule thoughtfully. If you need to ask people to move something around so that everyone can attend, you’ll get a much better outcome than if you hold the meeting late on the Friday afternoon before the project is due and everyone just wants to get away for the weekend!
Mindful Meetings Tip #4: Be deliberate about where…
Often overlooked, where you hold the meeting is important too. Like the timing, this should not be driven solely by availability. Think about what size room you need, what tools you need, whether there is distracting background noise, temperature control, lighting. If the stakes are high enough, all of these things can make a difference.
Also, be mindful of power plays – holding the meeting in your fancy office can be daunting for more junior team members – aim for more neutral territory.
Going ‘offsite’ can be a good circuit breaker if you need new ideas.
Mindful Meetings Tip #5: What will you deliver?…
Before you schedule the meeting you need to be crystal clear about what the end result is. What does success look like? Is it an approved project plan? Is it a set of next steps with clear accountabilities and deadlines? Is it a negotiated agreement?
What do you actually walk away with? What do the participants walk away with? What value do attendees obtain that will serve them in their day to day work?
You should also consider what, if any, pre-work your meeting participants need to do in order to arrive prepared and ready to contribute right from the start. Make sure you tell them this!
Mindful Meetings Tip #6: How will you manage the meeting?…
Once you have your why, who, when where and what, you need to figure out how you will facilitate the meeting to ensure you all get what you want and everyone feels it was productive and worthwhile.
Facilitation – especially of large groups – is a highly specialised task. But even for small groups, you need to have a deliberate plan for how to get the best out of the time you have together.
Think carefully about what facilitation tools will be most useful in achieving your why and your what. Think about which tools will work best given who is attending. How can you exploit the where and the when of the meeting to your advantage. If you’re worried you don’t have a ‘facilitation tool kit’ don’t worry, Google is your friend! SeedsforChange.org have this handy reference list on their site. As you read through, knowing who’s attending, and what the purpose of the meeting is, you’ll quickly get a sense of which tools will work, and which ones will fall flat!
Mindful Meetings Tip #7: Set the scene…
Given you went to all that work preparing – share it!
Be as clear as you can be about:
- Why you set up the meeting
- Why this group was invited
- Who was invited but couldn’t attend, and how their input will still be included
- Why you chose now to have this meeting
- What the end product of the meeting will be
- How you plan to get to that end product through this meeting
This is also the right time to establish ground rules and parameters for discussion and potential disagreement.
Make sure everyone understands before you move on. Write the meeting’s purpose somewhere prominent so everyone can see it throughout the meeting.
Mindful Meetings Tip #8: Mindfully manage…
Once the meeting is underway, be very aware of your role. This is, in part, derived from the preparatory work you did.
Pay attention to explicit and implicit signals about how productive the participants are finding the meeting, and if necessary ‘insert yourself’. For example:
- If one person is dominating the conversation, invite someone else to contribute
- If that person continues to dominate the conversation, suggest that they have really valuable insights, and you don’t want to miss them – but so do others, so it’s important to allow others to contribute too
- Be mindful that some people will be uncomfortable speaking up – so create exercises that enable written input as well
- Be thoughtful about ‘politics’. Who is an influencer that others will be trying to impress? Is that colouring their input and contribution? Who is an outsider that others don’t know well and might not naturally include? Who’s new and might not speak up? Are gender, ethnic or other biases influencing contribution and participation?
- Mind the time
- Keep one eye on the deliverable and the other on the purpose – sometimes you’ll realise part-way through the meeting that to achieve your purpose you have to sacrifice your deliverable…
Mindful Meetings Tip #9: Summarise what’s next…
No-one likes a meeting where you can’t tell if you succeeded. So make it explicit.
With enough time to spare, call the meeting to order and summarise what has occurred, identify actions, allocate responsibilities, set deadlines, and let everyone know that you value their attendance and contribution.
Mindful Meetings Tip #10: Follow up…
So easily overlooked, but possibly the most important single point of difference between a mind-blowingly effective meeting, and a mind-numbingly ineffective one…
Follow up with all participants afterwards, reminding them of what was discussed and agreed, what the next steps were, and who is responsible for each action, with a specific deadline. Even if it’s you!
And thank them again. Meetings aren’t always equally valuable for everyone – they gave you their attention and ideas – it’s the least you can do!