Bad meetings are like bad sex. You start off with high hopes of a mutual coming together and leave feeling deflated and dissatisfied.
Everyone hates bad meetings. Bad meetings are soul-destroying. They sap your will to live.
If it’s not that annoying know-it-all, who talks over everyone and makes the same point over and over again, it’s the irritating manager with the 63 slide bullet-point-laden PowerPoint that never ends.
Meetings should be inspiring. They should be the height of human communication – the place where important people meet to discuss and decide on important things. But more often than not, our meetings are dysfunctional, depressing and simply not fit for purpose. You may recognise some or all of these typical meeting troubles:
- they go on too long
- nothing ever gets decided
- a few people do all the talking, whilst others never get to speak at all
- the discussion goes off on tangents and then gets lost there
- they over run
- people spend the whole time checking facebook on their phones
- we have the same discussions over and over again at the next meeting
I’m sure you can think of others.
And yet we persist.
But there is another way!
There is a way to hold meetings that are eagerly anticipated, focused, punctual, short, and full of meaningful discussions resulting in smart decisions that actually get acted on.
No, this is not some other world on a different galaxy. It’s called the Joyful Meeting Formula and here is the blueprint.
(I’m sure there are people you know that need this article. Please do share it with others).
The Joyful Meeting Formula Blueprint
The difference between an ordinary meeting and a Joyful one, is that with a Joyful Meeting everyone understands that it is the outcome, not the meeting itself that matters.
At a Joyful Meeting everyone is engaged in a search for the best answer, the right decision, and the most impactful action. And the joy comes from that great feeling you get when you realise that everyone’s pulling in the same direction.
THINGS TO DO BEFORE THE MEETING:
Ask yourself: “Do we even need a meeting?”
There’s nothing worse than a pointless meeting.
So, make sure you never hold the meeting unless it absolutely positively needs to be held. Can you complete this sentence with something compelling?
“We need this meeting because…”
If not, send some emails and make some phone calls, but do not waste everyone’s time with a meeting.
Roles & Responsibilities
The more people that feel responsible for the success of the meeting, the greater the chances of achieving it.
People should be allocated specific roles with clear responsibilities so the meeting stays on track. Every meeting should have the following roles:
- The Chair – responsible for managing and keeping the meeting on track. The chair’s job is to make sure everyone’s voice is heard, and that discussions are focused on reaching the best answers and decisions. The chair decides on action points (who is doing what, and by when).
- The Time Keeper – responsible for keeping track of time
- The Parking Lot Monitor – (this idea comes courtesy of an excellent meeting I attended in Indianapolis, run by Al Sullivan, Organisational Development Consultant, who introduced me to the concept of the Parking Lot). The Parking Lot represents all the discussion points that arise during a meeting, which aren’t directly relevant to the agenda points. It happens all the time – the meeting drifts off into tangents and then stays there at the cost of the rest of the meeting. The Parking Lot Monitor is responsible for speaking up when the meeting is drifting off into a tangent and putting that issue into ‘the Parking Lot’ to be discussed at another time.
- The Minute Taker – responsible for taking notes of the attendees, discussion, decisions, action points.
- The Reminder – takes note of all action points and reminds people about them during the period after the meeting.
- The Referee – responsible for administering fines for everything and anything from lateness, rudeness, swearing, to going on too long, raising irrelevancies, and any other abuses – try putting fines towards the next round of drinks and people will happily pay over their money. The Referee also decides on the Player of the Meeting (the person, who makes the most positive contribution to the meeting).
If you can think of others, add them. Try to rotate these roles (including the chair) across different meetings so that everyone gets a sense of ownership and responsibility.
An agenda is critical to a productive meeting, but the traditional agenda is typically a stale and uninspiring list of topics to be covered. You know:
- Minutes of last minute
- Q3 Financial Report; Marketing Update
- New Board Strategy; AOB.
What a waste! If this was the first thing you received about the meeting, would you be inspired to attend? Of course not. And things will just go down hill from there.
Instead, entice people attending with a much more intriguing (dare I say “sexy”) agenda that puts them in the right frame of mind.
You should send out an agenda before hand and include the following information:
- Purpose of this meeting: This is more than just individual goals. This is the higher level objective of the meeting e.g. ‘to determine the future direction of the company’; ‘to remind ourselves of our core mission’; to get to the bottom of our product problem’
- Timings: set out the amount of time to be allocated to each agenda item. Use odd timings and descriptions to make them more intriguing e.g. 10:00am – Introductions (who we all are); 10:07am – Minutes of last meeting (what we did last time); 10:19am – Q3 Financial Report (Show me the money!); 10:31am – Break (music track chosen by Andy); 10:36am – Marketing Update (this better be good); 10:46am – Board Strategy (the head honcho speaks); 10: 54am – AOB (better be quick!).
- By the way, if you finish the meeting 5 minutes early, people will love you for it and remember that for next time.
- Roles (and who they are assigned to): e.g. Chair (Eva). Time Keeper (Tunde). Parking Lot Officer (Tasha). Referee (Mike). Minute Taker (Sarah) 3 and any other roles
- Fine Levy e.g. £2 (penalty for lateness; swearing; rudeness; speaking for too long; and any other abuses)
- Prize for “Player of the Meeting” (for best contribution to the meeting) e.g. cinema tickets for two
Pre-meeting Information & Action
Just because a meeting is needed, doesn’t mean that everything has to actually be presented and decided at the meeting.
Consider how much of the information or even actions can be dealt with before the meeting itself.
If a big decision on strategy is going to be needed at the meeting, share the notes, data, charts, information, PowerPoint slides, and talking points beforehand and ask people to come armed with their proposals. Run a poll on certain points to get people’s views beforehand.
It will allow you to get straight to the issues.
Who is coming?
Meetings are important, but only to those that need to be there.
So for every meeting, consider the attendee list and make sure they need to be there. Be sure that you can complete this sentence with a decent reason:
“The meeting cannot happen without them because…”
Does your meeting actually have to be held in the board room?
Could it be held somewhere different? Outside? In a coffee shop? Could it be done whilst watching a sports game?
A different setting can change the tone and expectations, so consider whether this would help.
The Rules of Engagement
When attendees don’t have a common or shared view of how meetings should be conducted, things quickly degenerate.
You need rules of engagement to establish an environment that is conducive to productive discussions.
People like to act in a way that is consistent with their public statements. It’s called cognitive dissonance (the instinct to eliminate inconsistencies between what you do and what you say or who you believe yourself to be). So, if they tell you they care about the environment, and you then ask them for some help putting the bottles into the recycling bin at the end of the meeting, they are much more likely to help you.
Establishing rules of engagement draws on that same cognitive dissonance.
Don’t assume that everyone instinctively has the same approach. There could be minute differences, which will get amplified in the heat of a meeting.
So, whether before or at the meeting, you must get agreement from everyone on how the meeting should be run. What are the rules or principles on which the meeting should be based?
Do you have to put up your hand to speak? Is there a time limit on how long anyone can speak? Are decisions made by vote, by the chair, on a majority or unanimous basis?
It really doesn’t matter what those principles are, as long as they are shared.
Put those rules up on the wall or somewhere very visible. Go further, and get each person to physically sign the same copy of those rules. This public declaration of commitment to those rules, will trigger that cognitive dissonance and help the chair maintain control by calling out those that break them.
How you set the room up matters. There’s nothing staler than white walls, and a boardroom desk.
Consider whether the room can be set up to be more dynamic and engaging.
One thing that drives people nuts, is a sense of lack of progress and direction in the meeting. So, put up a Progress Bar that gets coloured in/ticked off as you make progress through the meeting agenda. This is a great one to put up on the walls.
Can the room be divided into sections with people having to move to a different part of the room to discuss the different agenda items? Can the walls be used to hang up notes, pictures, quotes or at least the rules of engagement) to reinforce the points?
What about music? Playing music as people come into the room is a great way of subconsciously bringing them into a different mental space.
Likewise, scents and smells can have a similar effect and can be achieved by something as simple as an infuser or even a plug in deodoriser.
The point is to actively think about your room set up and to tailor it to the specific needs of the meeting.
Have a read of Robert Cialdini’s “Pre-suasion, which is excellent on how to set things up even beforehand, to make it more likely that good decisions are made.
Phones are a huge distraction for meetings.
They go off because people forget to put them on silence; someone always claims they have to check for an important email; others scroll through their Instagram feeds; I’ve been known to fight some Clash of Clans battles on my iPhone during a mind-numbingly dull meeting or two.
Get everyone to check their phones in at the start of the meeting.
Warning: this will be deeply unpopular, so build a break into the meeting during which phones can be checked.
The absence of phones will help with focus, but also encourage conciseness because people will be itching to get back to their phones.
The Characters (and how to deal with them)
There are always different characters in a meeting (and the chair should understand that). Here are some classic archetypes to look out for.
- The Dominator – they like the sound of their own voice, and seeks to monopolise the debate. They can be creative and bring out good points, or they can be destructive and prevent others contributing. Be sure that Dominators sign up to the Rules of Engagement and the chair should actively encourage them to share the platform so that others can be heard from. The Referee should be ready to levy fines for going on too long.
- The Devil’s advocate – this person is a contrarian. They thrive on conflict. They take positions opposite to everyone else, not necessarily because that is what they believe, but because that is their natural instinct. They should not be shut down. Healthy disagreement and managed conflict is a good thing and the Devil’s Advocate is great for this. But, whilst the Devil’s Advocate will often argue against people, when it comes to a vote they will often go with the majority anyway. The chair should be willing to let the Devil’s Advocate voice their opposition but also require him or her to openly state their vote once a decision has to be made.
- The Divergent – they go off on tangents and often stay there. The Parking Lot Monitor should be alive to these Divergents and identify tangents early so the issues they raise can be put into the Parking Lot without taking the meeting off track.
- The Shy Thinker – they are slow to speak because they revel in considering things deeply. Often non-confrontational, they will often let The Dominator do all the talking even at the expense of voicing their own opinions. The chair should encourage these Thinkers to contribute because they will often give points of views that others miss. The chair should also give them roles or responsibilities that require their active participation.
- The Followers – they don’t initiate points or contribute creative alternative views and tend to go with the majority view. These members are important because consensus after meaningful discussion is ultimately the aim of every meeting. The chair should recognise and appreciate their contribution as a crucial part of the meeting and praise their commitment to the good of the company/organisation – lest they feel forgotten.
- The Joker – they find humour whenever it is there to be had. This can be useful at many points, but can also feed The Divergent’s tangents, so beware. Don’t over-stifle The Joker as they can become disruptive if controlled too tightly. But the chair should keep The Joker’s antics confined to appropriate times e.g. at the start, near the break and towards the end.
Variety – Sound. Sight. Movement
Meetings get very static, very quickly for many reasons – a big one of which is often the lack of variety.
We each have certain natural preferences when it comes to absorbing information. Some of us are aural (we like to listen); some of us are visual (we take things in that we see); many of us respond to kinaesthetics (action/movement).
You should try to incorporate all three of these elements into the meeting.
The listening part is quite easy – since people will speak so people will have to listen.
Visuals could be covered by PowerPoints (but consider the rules of PowerPoint Presentations) or videos or images, or simply sticking notes etc on the walls.
Kinaesthetics can be achieved by simply building movement into the meeting e.g. stand up and move to a different part of the room to vote on something; change places for each agenda item.
I’ve even experienced a meeting, where everyone had to stand, except for the person speaking – it actually encouraged the person speaking to be concise and to the point knowing that there was a room full of people glaring down at them if they went on too long.
Keep up the variety and you’ll maintain the interest.
The Ice Breaker
Getting attendees to open up and bond is important to facilitate productive meetings.
Don’t start your meeting cold. Use an ice-breaker that gets people to bond or open up, ready for the meeting.
Incorporating physical movement is great for ice-breakers,
The ultimate aim is to use something short but engaging, so that when the main issues of the meeting come to be addressed, people already feel involved.
There are some good ice-breakers on TheBalance website
Divide up Discussion Time
The ultimate aim of a meeting is to engage in meaningful discussions of the issues to reach a decision that is followed up by effective action.
It is important to get full involvement and buy-in to each of those elements, and you will often find that different characters have different strengths on different aspects.
So, the chair should be sure to move the discussion through each element and signal this to everyone e.g.
“So, let’s discuss the problem”
“OK. We’ve got as far as we’re going to get on the problem, let’s switch our focus to the solution. What’s our decision?”
“OK. Decision is noted down in the minutes. Final question: what’s the action point?”
This gives every opportunity for the different characters with different instincts to contribute to the meeting.
When people go on too long
Everyone hates the people that go on too long. But what to do about it?
The Oscars had that same problem. You know, with winners thanking God, their mothers, the producers, directors, fellow actors, wardrobe people, grips, their first pets, before then giving their life story.
So the organisers hit on the idea of playing them out with music. Once the award winner had exceeded a certain time, the music came on and gradually increased in volume.
Get people to agree to a ‘going on too long‘ signal and then use it during the meeting.
It can be music, as the Oscars did. Or people can raise their hand when they feel someone is going on too long and if more than 3 people raise their hands, then that person has 1 more minute before they must stop speaking.
Whatever is agreed, the Referee must enforce it.
Separate Groups & Cliques
Groups can be dangerous. Group-think can be inhibiting.
Beware of groups and cliques. Where possible, try to separate or break up cliques or groups that are too used to working with each other. Put different people and diverse opinions together to encourage broader discussions and alternative viewpoints to engage.
And those side discussions (when two or three people have a separate joke or conversation whilst the main meeting is going on) must be called out.
Again, the Referee should be empowered to call out and fine the naughty ones.
People’s powers of concentration diminish with time.
Build in breaks to your meeting to give people permission to stretch out, take a rest, and check their phones.
Refreshments are also a great way of reenergising people, so have some snacks and drinks. You’ll find the focus levels much better when you return.
But be strict about punctuality and starting up again.
Get one of the attendees to choose the track to be played during the break. The break finishes once the track is over.
If nothing gets done, nothing will change.
Every action that is identified should be recorded clearly, and for each action point, three fundamental points should be confirmed:
- What is to be done.
- Who is going to do it.
- By when is it going to be done.
If the action points agreed in the meeting are put up on the wall so they are visible, it will also encourage commitment to them.
And because there is nothing more demoralising than turning up to the next meeting to find that none of the action points have actually bee done, it is important to take active steps to make sure they are done.
- The Reminder should be tasked to follow up on those action points during period after the meeting.
- The achievement of action points should be celebrated and rewarded. Even if it’s just giving them sweets at the next meeting, have some form of acknowledgment to celebrate the completion of action points.
After the meeting
The great curse of bad meetings is that dreadful feeling that whatever happens in this one, you’ll just have to come back and go through it all again. It’s that feeling that nothing ever changes, and nothing improves.
What happens after the meeting is just as important as what happens before and during it.
So, there are three things that must happen as soon as possible after the meeting:
- Send the minutes to everyone that attended within 24 hours
- Send the list of Action Points to everyone that attended – do this separately to the meeting minutes themselves because no one ever reads minutes.
- Feedback survey – Use a convenient service like Typeform or Surveymonkey to get people’s views on the meeting. Ask them:
- On a scale of 1 – 10 how would you rate the meeting?
- What is the main reason for your score?
No one can incorporate every one of these elements into every meeting, so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t either.
Remember, a good meeting is like good sex. As long as everyone’s committed, you should all finish with a smile!
Go. Be Joyful!
p.s. how about sharing this with those naughty ones that make meetings hard.
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