Planting the Seeds for Meaningful Meetings

Published May 2013

“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be "meetings.”

    - Dave Barry

What to do about meetings? Employees protest about too many meetings. Yet the almost universal complaint of “lousy communication around here” trumps it. What’s a manager to do?

The problem isn’t too many meetings, but too many lousy meetings. And believe me, there are a lot of truly awful meetings occurring!

So what’s the secret to productive meetings? The first – but often overlooked – step is to clearly define the meeting’s purpose. There’s a huge difference between a status update meeting where information is merely shared and a brainstorming or decision meeting where ideas and agreements are created. They should be conducted very differently.

Let’s start with a status meeting. This should be a regular crisp, stand-up meeting located in front of the team’s visual scoreboard. A standing agenda item is essential with typical topics consisting of:

  • Yesterday’s shipment number (or significant accomplishments for an office team)
  • Summary of new orders received and backlog (or measure of incoming work)
  • New or unexpected barriers that may impact the day and the current plan for dealing with them
  • Appropriate recognition for individuals including notable accomplishments, employment anniversaries, or birthdays

Short questions are allowed to ensure information is fully understood. In depth discussion regarding issues, however, should be taken offline and involve only impacted participants, preferably immediately after the stand-up.

That’s it. My first experience with a daily stand-up meeting was observing Hach’s dozen or so managers relate in 10-15 minutes the status of their 300-employee organization. The meeting reminded me of a well-run track meet with each participant prepared and sharing just the necessary facts. Needless to say, the meeting started on time. I left thinking “these folks know their business!”

Decision-making or brainstorming meetings add layers of complexity. Because the goal is to actually produce or harvest an idea or decision, I like to use an analogy familiar to Iowans … farming or gardening.

The meeting facilitator (and yes – there MUST be a clear leader) is the farmer/gardener. Their planning and execution skills are vital to the yield.

Field or plot preparation is critical to the planter; meeting preparation is vital to the facilitator. There are many questions, starting with what do I want to accomplish with this meeting (crop)? Be specific in listing desired outputs.

Who should participate? Participants are the “seeds” that will produce ideas and decisions. Just as hybrid seeds display positive traits from a variety of parents, diverse thinkers will likely enhance the quality of ideas generated.

Be careful not to overplant. When inviting participants, less is more. In general, boss and subordinate should not be involved in the same meeting. The need to involve both may be an indication of an over-controlling supervisor or an incompetent employee.

Successful crops are grown in fertile soil during warm weather months. Where and when should the meeting be held? Does this meeting need to be held off-site to avoid interruptions? When will participants most likely be focused and productive?

Envision the successful meeting. Document and share the agenda and the required preparation of participants. Identify potential risks to success and take actions to minimize them before the meeting.

Running a successful meeting is akin to protecting growing crops. Tangent discussions are the weeds of meetings. Aggressive comments by members that turn off others are insects. Both can destroy yield if not promptly identified and addressed.

Preparation can head off these issues by spending a little time up front clarifying ground rules. A simple, hand-held “DETOUR” placard placed on the table can be a useful tool for any member to identify when the conversation is straying.

Bring the meeting to a fruitful conclusion. It seems so obvious, yet many meetings end with the crops still in the field. Be deliberate.

  • What did we decide? Write it down!
  • Who is doing what and when? (Again, write it down!)
  • Is everyone committed to the decision? Ask participants one at a time.

Finally, protect your crop by distributing documentation of your agreement. You and your team have spent way too much time to lose your efforts to the mold of lousy memories.

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