Frustrated with meetings? Maybe you are making this common mistake.

The Premeeting

The other night, my wife was getting prepared for a big meeting the other day. There were going to be some new people in attendance, and the meeting was one that had a lot of strategic decision powers investing in it. So I was asking about goals for the meeting, and we got to the point where I realized she was making a pretty fundamental mistake in her preparation. She was treating all her goals for the meeting the same way, even though there were two really big and very different groups of goals.

Main realization:

In any meeting the success or failure of the meeting can be determined by how well the meeting was run OR what the outcomes from the meeting were. Rarely do people consider both.

What do I mean by that?

I like to say that a leader sets the TONE, PACE and DIRECTION. The First part of the meeting goals relates to the last part tof that list, DIRECTION. The leader sets the direction. And by this I mean priorities and concrete strategies to achieve them.

The second part is more related to the tone and the way you as a team go about doing business, the TONE. This is much more about relationships and social norms within the team. Let’s look at the questions that you can ask about the meeting to help assess these two areas.

First: What Was decided? (Direction)

Simply put, in the meeting you can come out of it where everyone agrees on the next steps. At my office we just had a meeting where we were evaluating two options put forth by our lead vendor. We looked at costs, and timelines, and technical risk, and at the end we made a decision on lets call them option A or option B. There were some people in favor of Option A, others in favor of options B. 

If you evaluate the meeting based on outcomes, and you supported option B.. and the group went with option A, you might feel the meeting was a failure and that you lost. On the other hand, supporters of Option A might have felt like they won and it was a success.

But that is not the only important dimension of gauging how successful a meeting was.

Second: How was it decided? (Tone)

This is harder to judge, and people have lots of different “unspoken rules” about how a professional and respect meeting should be run. But the bottom line here is to look at how the meeting was run from an interpersonal and decision making process. Some things that may indicate you are having troubles in this area:

  • The conversation is dominated by a small percentage of the people, and not everyones opinion is heard. if this is happening, be sure to momentarily take a roll call and wait for answers from everyone intentionally.
  • The meeting has no goal or time limits. This is pretty common, for meetings that are regularly scheduled they often wont have an agenda. and preparing an agenda can be quite a bit of work. And even if you can you might get your estimates of what you can reasonably cover way off the mark. So start with making sure you have an agenda, and review it in the first part of the meeting to help keep you on track and focused.
  • The tone of the meeting is hurtful. This can happen if there is an accumulation of poor meetings, external stresses, or if you have some fundamentally incompatible “unspoken rules” from some of the members of the team. If you have a situation like this, work outside the meeting on the key relationships is key. Make sure you have a frank discussion about what sort of things are going to cross your personal lines of professionalism, and work to understand the others. Maybe one of you is really really put out by meetings that start late.. maybe one of you is really sensitive to loud agressive tones of voice.. maybe one of you cant stand people who have their phones out and engage in side conversation. Get to an understanding and work on the relationship and respect.
  • Decision making process is not agreed upon by everyone. This might not be critical with every meeting, but if you have wildly different styles of collecting information, informal qualitative story gathering, vs quantitative metrics and mathematical analysis on the team. And you want to go through and try and reach a consensus.. without taking these into account up front. you will have an issue when you are trying to secure buy in and action. Try to work with the first part of the agenda, and with the introduction to each topic, and focus on “how will we know which is the right answer?” And make sure that everyone understands what the goals for the evaluation criteria are. There are some excellent resources available for group multi-voting and decision process techniques available. If you shoot me a message, I can work with you to find some of the ones I particularly like. 

Bottom Line (TONE & DIRECTION):

It is possible to go into a meeting and have goals for one half of this equation and not the other. You may even win the meeting on the scale you chose to evaluate. But it is also true that you can have a poorly run meeting that hurts everyones feelings and damages the team, while still getting the “direction” part completely correct. Likewise you can have a meeting that everyone feels like they participate in, and there opinions are valued and they all agree on the right path forward.. but they have chosen a poor strategic path (sometimes this is lumped in with a phenomena called group think) 

But the best idea is to 

have a goal going into the meeting for not only what you all want to decide, but how you want to decide the issue as a team, and lay ground rules for behavior and for decision making criteria.