Creating Meetings With Meaning

American managers spend anywhere from 35% to 50% of their time in meetings. Considering that executives believe 67% of meetings to be unproductive failures, this is a significant time commitment.

Whether it’s distraction, disorganization, multi-tasking, or general disengagement making these meetings feel like wasted time, what it comes down to is that we consistently engage in behavior that negatively impacts our performance at work.

Leaders like Basecamp founder Jason Fried argue for eliminating as many meetings as possible as the solution. His approach is one of utilitarianism; if the decision can be made or the collaboration can take place without a meeting, it should.

As someone who had 137 sales meetings in her first month launching her business and averages around 60 hours spent in meetings per month (according to my lovely time-tracking tool ZEI,) I can relate uniquely to Fried’s message.

Meetings are a time-suck, and I value time more than almost anything else.

Yet, I also recognize the fundamentally human need for meetings.

As Susan Cain points out in Quiet –a decidedly anti-meeting book all on its own — even if creativity is better reached through independent projects and the wisdom of crowds is better harnessed through electronic communication, meetings have their place.

“Face-to-face contact is important because it builds trust.”

Our productivity and performance at work are inherently tied to our commitment and emotional attachments to one another, and meetings, especially purposeful ones, help us connect more deeply as individuals.

So, while I am striving in my own work to host fewer meetings, I am not saying goodbye altogether.

I’m suggesting that with enough thought and planning, we can create meetings with meaning that build trust and achieve the objectives we set for ourselves.

I speak from experience — I’m proud to say that of my nearly 63 hours spent in meetings this past month, I only consider four wasted compared to nearly thirty within the first month of founding my business. It all comes down to a simple framework I’ve adopted and refined throughout my career.

Rules to Live By

“Gatherings crackle and flourish when real thought goes into them, when (often invisible) structure is baked into them, and when a host has the curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try,” writes Priya Parker in The Art of Gathering.

The simple, but transformational message underlying her book is this: all gatherings, including meetings, need to have a clear purpose, pre-designed structure, and carefully selected audience to succeed.

Building on this model further, I believe that the secret to good meetings lies in shaping the experience according to these guiding principles.

  1. Purpose: Every meeting must one distinct purpose that’s made clear to all participants before, during, and after the fact. More than one purpose, and the event is a distracted hodgepodge that leaves too much room for distraction. The “why” of the meeting itself matters more than any single participant’s agenda.
  2. Leadership: There is always a “boss” when it comes to meetings. The people at the meeting should not collectively run it. Instead, a pre-selected organizer should plan the content, context, cadence, and conditions ahead of time. That person’s job is to keep everything streamlined towards the meeting’s singular purpose.
  3. Audience: Who belongs in the room? The answer is rarely every employee all the time. Consider your goal and who needs to participate for it to be achieved. If that means leaving people out, then do it. You’re giving them time back in their days they will put to much better use.
  4. Generosity: No matter the gathering structure, everyone should feel completely and totally taken care of — water and refreshments should be accessible. Participants and organizers alike should be generous with information, too. After all, meetings are meant to build trust and disseminate knowledge. Too much confidentiality will defeat virtually any meeting’s purpose.
  5. Direction: Conversations will meander without direction. Come prepared with questions and information to share in advance. Set the meeting up with a clear “purpose-benefit-check,” which signals the purpose of the meeting, the benefit for everyone participating, and a final confirmation that everyone is aligned.

With the exception of leadership and generosity, these principles should be enacted before the meeting. Yet, I know from my own experiences that the best-laid plans often go awry. That’s why I spend time thinking about the meeting itself as broken into an opening, middle, and closing.

Opening the Meeting

No matter the meeting subject, the most important rule is to set a single, higher purpose that’s shared with the group.

The “why” of the meeting should be framed in the opening. This means no matter how much you want to tell people where the nearest restrooms are or take attendance, you most resist the urge to start with housekeeping.

As Parker notes:

“Your opening needs to be a kind of pleasant shock therapy. It should grab people. And in grabbing them, it should both awe the guests and honor them. It must plant in them the paradoxical feeling of being totally welcomed and deeply grateful to be there.”

You can achieve this by taking your purpose-benefit-check a step further and clearly answering these questions for the full group.

  • Why are we gathered?
  • What is our shared purpose?
  • What ties us all together in this space?

This not only keeps everyone accountable to a plan and structure, but also acts as the “pleasant shock therapy” which Parker describes. We’re not used to this level of transparency in meetings nor are we expecting to be told what ties us together.

Keeping the Middle Vulnerable

Meetings are about trust, and to build trust, we must start from a place of vulnerability. This may sound strange — what does an update on this quarter’s numbers have to do with vulnerability?

With a clear why, you can invite people to surface ideas in a penalty-free environment where everyone’s opinions are considered when they have the floor, even if their suggestions aren’t adopted. Similarly, this can be a time to discuss challenges, uncertainties, or even uncomfortable questions.

Some of my favorite questions for keeping the middle focused on the why, but also creating the conditions for heightened vulnerability are:

What are the most pressing questions you think this group needs to address?

What aren’t you talking about as a group that you believe you should be?

Why is this our shared purpose today?

The goal is not to create contrarianism, but to avoid the risky combination of agreeableness and apathy that often plagues meetings.

This is also a time for meeting organizers to admit mistakes, fears, and even moments of pride. Sharing such sentiments within this middle section becomes essential to sustaining an atmosphere of vulnerability.

Environment plays a major role in achieving this. One of the most important elements to remember in hosting a successful meeting is to contain the space. Contained spaces allow people to relax because there are boundaries and fewer distractions.

In glass conference rooms, for example, add flip chart pages to the glass panels to contain the space. Use tables to create designated space where groups of 6 or 8–12 naturally congregate. In larger spaces, use signage, white boards, fabric, or even configuration to create a room within a room.

Closing the Meeting

In beginnings, we strive to create a sense of shared purpose, momentum, and anticipation. But in endings, we are looking to achieve poignancy above all else.

Poignancy is about combining happiness and sadness, nostalgia and hope. This is what people most remember and affects them the most deeply. It’s also the emotion most deeply associated with meaning.

Again, you might ask what poignancy has to do with your next hiring meeting. In many cases, it’s simply the sadness that the meeting will end. When we have a really meaningful meeting, we don’t want to move on and spend our day somewhere else.

Haven’t you ever had a coffee chat that you wanted to last forever? I certainly have. As it starts to wind down, I feel grateful and stimulated, but not without a tinge of loss.

The mere act of acknowledging how much you learned together in a meeting can create poignancy. The happiness comes from shared achievement and bonding, but the sadness is rooted in the sense that the time firing on all cylinders together is ending.

This is one of the reasons we must strive for strict timelines on meetings. If they drag just minutes over time, the magic of poignancy is lost because everyone badly wants to leave already.

Every strong closing has two phases:

  • Looking Inward: This involves a moment to understand, remember, acknowledge, and reflect on what just transpired in a way that allows the group to bond one last time.
  • Turning Outward: This entails preparing to part from one another and go back into the world, outside of this carefully designed environment. For my meetings, I always ask “What did we learn?” and then draw on the group to keep the momentum going by committing to enacting that lesson in their lives today, tomorrow, and the next day.

When done well, these two phases are a surefire way of achieving poignancy.

Parting Words

At 3M, the massive multinational company best known for its dominance in the world of adhesives, the company abides by a simple motto: “Innovation from Interaction.”

When we interact with one another, we create endless opportunities to form new ideas, processes, methods, and products. This is the power of a good meeting.

We are so starved for good meetings, however, that we’ve come to think of the institution as more of an obligatory workplace chore than an entry point into collaborative creation. But that can change.

The first step is starting your next meeting with one specific purpose and making sure those around you understand it, too.

And just like that, you’ll begin consistently creating meetings with meaning.

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